Portrait painting step by step, glazing over grisaille

I’ve nearly finished this portrait painting. Its had 5 glazes over the initial underpainting. This picture shows the grisaille, the first glaze (which I filmed and is on youtube) and then the 5th glaze which is almost the last one. I still intend to go over the hair and background again amongst other things. The background was a dark green the glaze before this! It still shows through and gives it a nice depth. The lovely thing about working in this way is that everything can change with just one glaze. This portrait has been through many stages while painting each glaze. Sometimes I misjudged a colour or hue or the values of light and dark weren’t right. In each case I was able to correct the painting in the following glaze, either lightening or darkening.

I love painting highlights in a portrait so I guess I overdid it somewhat and the lightest light ended up too bright by the 4th glaze, but in the latest glaze which you can see here I went over the whole portrait again with a darker glaze just to soften it a little. In areas where it was too dark again I just used a dry brush to pick off the paint and continue blending. I can always keep adjusting a portrait at a late stage if the client commissioning the portrait feels there is something that needs changing.

It is surprising just how close to the original grisaille the painting is, even when its possible to see how much refining and drawing has gone into the portrait over all the glazes. Its strange to see later very finished versions of a portrait where the grisaille is like a ghost, still very present but disguised under veils and glazes of colour. The grisaille functions like an anchor that holds the structure of the portrait in place, and many many changes can occur but the painting is still held firmly together by the initial drawing. Its the main reason I started learning how to paint using the grisaille method.

I always use the same mixes when I paint portraits using the grisaille method. All my glazes start with various quantities of the same colours: Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red, Raw Umber and Sap Green (a warm Sap Green). All the later glazes are mixed with these colours but with other additions, like Ultramarine Blue to cool it down, a bit of Titanium White to make a velatura or semi opaque glaze, some Cadmium Orange.. but always hovering around the same original mix. Of course this depends on the commission and the sitter having their portrait painted.

Portrait painting commission in 3 stages by British contemporary portrait artist Matt Harvey, based in Devon, UK

Portrait painting in 3 stages: The grisaille, the 1st glaze, and the 5th glaze. The glazing process is the same each time, and the portrait just gets steadily refined as it progresses

Portrait painting from grisaille underpainting to fourth glaze

Here are a selection of photos showing the completed glazes done over the grisaille underpainting in this portrait commission.

Custom portrait commission of a girl laughing, child portrait in oil paint by portrait painter and artist Matt Harvey

The first layer, called a grisaille as its painted in grey, using Titanium White and Ivory Black

First glaze over a grisaille underpainting, oil on board by portrait painter and artist Matt Harvey

The first glaze which was painted in roughly an hour. This is the subject of a film in 4 parts, showing the 1st glaze being painted in oils

Second oil glaze on a commissioned portrait painting by British portrait painter and artist Matt Harvey

The second glaze, painted after a couple of days when the first glaze had fully dried. I use M. Graham’s Walnut Alkyd medium. The alkyd accelerates the drying, otherwise the oil takes at least a week to be dry enough to paint the next glaze.

3rd oil glaze on a grisaille portrait, from a portrait painting commission by British portrait painter Matt Harvey

The third oil glaze shows the colours getting richer. I continue to model the forms of the portrait while I paint the glazes.

Ruby 4th glaze, oil on board, custom portrait commission by portrait painter Matt Harvey,oil on board

4th glaze

Jack in Burnt Umber and Titanium White

Portrait painting commission by Matt Harvey, British portrait painter, Devon, UK

Jack, oil on canvas. Glazes over a burnt umber underpainting

When I began investigating Old Master techniques I had some brilliant instruction from James Scrase, a portrait painter who was trained by Pietro Annigoni (see his fantastic self portrait). He learned every traditional painting skill from Annigoni, including fresco painting, and he taught me to use Burnt Umber as a wash to draw the portrait first, and then build up layers of slightly opaque ‘half-pastes’ using colour and a little white. Also I was taught to add white with small amounts of blue and then glaze over it with flesh tones. This was one of my first attempts, of my cousin Jack. Of late I have been focussing on a strict grisaille underpainting but looking at this I think I prefer the slightly more fluid quality burnt umber can achieve with thinner washes.

Portrait of Bea, final glaze

Portrait of Bea. After feeling around what might work for the background I settled on this regal blue, and I gave the painting a few glazes of Michael Harding’s Ultramarine, which is both warm and sharp, and has a depth while also firmly hovering on the picture plane. Ultramarine blue was discovered around 1820. Before that the only available version of this blue was the extremely expensive Lapis Lazuli, from Afghanistan. Duccio and a whole lot of 14th century artists would have loved to use it to save some cash #oiloncanvas #oilpainting #portrait #portraitpainting #art #contemporaryart #figurativeart #bandana

Colour glazing – 3rd glaze over the underpainting

Portrait in oil paint by contemporary British portrait artist and portrait painter Matt Harvey

The third glaze has been painted with veils of oil paint over the grey or grisaille underpainting. I did some experimenting with the background here, but ended up painting it out in further glazes.

3rd glaze done. Still a few more needed #underpainting #grisaille #portrait #portraitpainting #oiloncanvas #art #painting #fineart #devon #glaze #contemporaryart #contemporaryrealism #oilpainting

Before and after glazing with grisaille underpainting, Portrait of Hideo in oil paint on canvas

Showing before and after the 1st glaze over grisaille underpainting on a custom child portrait by British portrait artist Matt Harvey

This clearly shows the before and after versions of this portrait. Painted in oils the first glaze transforms the grisaille underpainting

Before and after #rosycheeks #babyboy #stars #oilpainting #portraitart #portraitpainting #grisaille #underpainting #glazing

Portrait of a baby in Carrara marble, direct carved using hand tools

Portrait sculpture in carrara marble by british portrait artist Matt Harvey. Commissioned in 2013

Miki, Carrara marble – This was a portrait commission for a marble bust of a child. Carved over one month in hand tools, working directly from photo references

Alice’ carved in Carrara Marble. 20x25x20cm. The sculpture is created from photos – One master photo, and then others to guide the 3D form. When someone smiles the cheeks get pulled up, they then narrow the eyes, the ears get pulled a bit, the neck creases.. All these things need to be pulled together at the same time to create the piece. Working in stone always makes me think of a Nichiren Buddhist quote: ‘It is like the case of a fishing net: though the net is composed of innumerable small meshes,when one pulls on the main cord of the net, thereare no meshes that do not move. Or it is like a garment: though the garment is composed of countless tiny threads, when one pulls on a corner of the garment, there are no threads that are not drawn along.’ The 2 milk teeth were fun to carve, but I need to get some really small chisels to carve inside the mouth