Glazing a portrait from grisaille to colour

Commissioned portrait of a young cellist by matt harvey uk portrait artist and painter. painted in grisaille using raw umber and titanium white
Portrait of a young cellist. Grisaille painted in Raw Umber and Titanium White, oil on board

Detail of a portrait painting showing the first glaze over a grisaille underpainting by UK portrait artist Matt Harvey. The subtle glazes reveal the character and life of the sitter, and give great depth to this portrait commission

This was a commissioned portrait of a young girl and here are before and after images to show how I developed the underpainting. Grisaille underpainting was completed first and then I added some layers of colour glazes. With this method, rather than mixing the colours on the palette the colours are ‘mixed’ optically through progressive glazes – very thin layers – of oil paint with a little medium.

Someone asked me the other day how much medium I use when painting in oils. Firstly I should explain that I always ‘oil out’ the painting surface before each painting session. Some people call it ‘oiling in’ by the way, but essentially it just means taking a little of the medium you are using and applying it to the painting surface. You can apply it any way you want, but I prefer to brush it on (any brush will do but I use a short wide sable brush) and when the surface I am working on is covered I rub the medium off very gently so there should be a very thin layer of medium left. I use M. Graham’s Walnut Alkyd Medium because it has an alkyd resin in it so it will dry in 48 hours. You could use plain linseed oil, it just takes longer to dry. There are quick drying oil paints out there and also siccatives but they are usually made using mineral spirits which I don’t like.

You can see me demonstrate this on one of the videos I put on youtube:

Oiling out is something you just get the hang of with practice. Sometimes I have left too much medium on and sometimes it feels like there isn’t enough. I do it between every glaze, so when a glaze is dry to the touch and I am starting the next I just repeat the process. Once all this is done the paint flows on the surface more easily, but I still add some medium to the glaze as I mix it on the pallet, being careful not to add too much otherwise it gets sloppy and ugly. Having said that I can always pull it off an area of the canvas by using a dry brush. It really depends on what kind of result you are after as a painter, everyone is different and is seeking a different quality in the paint they use.

In the portrait of the girl with a cello I used Raw Umber and Titanium white to do the underpainting, which has a nice warmth to it. Looking at this painting again has inspired me to rethink how I produce portrait paintings. I have found myself pulling against the overly finished and polished style of some of my work, so I want to revisit this way of working with a Raw Umber grisaille. I’m looking for something cruder, looser and freer from the constrains of technique. Sometimes too much knowledge and technique can get in the way of painting. My goal is to be able to paint with more naivety, as well as with good technique.

Florence final, oil on canvas, Matt Harvey Art SMALL
Portrait of a young cellist,70x50cm. The palette was fairly limited after painting the grisaille. Painting the cello was surprisingly done in just a 2 glazes, I guess because glazing is very similar to the polishing or lacquered finish a stringed instrument has.

I was interested in this painting again because I have been struggling with how to complete backgrounds, and finding myself overworking them. I like the simplicity of this background, completed at the underpainting stage. Raw Umber and white has a warm neutrality which works well. I painted this without really worrying too much about it, without technique or overthinking it. I’m presently trying to return to this simpler process, where the focus is on the drawing, the underpainting.

Oil painting as alchemy – Dry brush blending in portraiture

Dry brushing and blending in oil portrait painting
Portrait of Violet detail, oil on canvas

I was able to practise my dry brush blending with this portrait of a beautiful girl called Violet. This portrait commission was a staging post for me in developing my understanding of the grisaille technique. I’m now much more comfortable marrying techniques of glazing with my earlier familiar method of building up solid planes of colour. I took a lot of care over the blending and modelling of the glazed areas, and I hope that they also have a painterly quality. My goal isn’t to create a facsimile or exact copy of the photographic reference, but using that reference as a starting point I am first and foremost concerned with creating a painting using oil paint. Oil paint has its own qualities and follows its own transformation as the painting progresses. The delight of an oil painting is how this empty picture plane can somehow come to harbour all these rich layers of paint and medium, which swim around on this surface, again somehow crystallising into a likeness of a person.

Dry brushing an oil painting gives more of a ‘soft focus’ effect, but personally I don’t want to overdo the blending as (in my work) the paint gets a sort of sickly quality, especially if done in areas with more painterly underpainting. Its like more of a stain than a glaze and glazing needs a little backbone, some substance! This painting was done a while ago when I was still in the early stages of portrait painting but looking at it again I feel that I was able to create the kind of effect I am now trying to capture and that I lost somewhere along my journey into oil painting. Parts of it I would now rework but sometimes less seemingly accomplished work has a more desirable quality. I am still trying to find the space between the finished, polished oil painting and the accidental – I read somewhere about the ‘completeness of ‘incompleteness’, sounds good but I don’t know what it means. It might mean something though.

I’m still trying to find a way of using brushwork. I love the sensation of pushing paint around with a hog brush and literally feeling the paint slip around on the picture plane. More than that, paint shudders when you turn the brush this way and that, it ripples and folds and dances on the surface. The wet brush flips and turns as it goes, collecting the paint, hoarding it, spreading and stretching it, round and round, a beautiful moment during each glaze where just wet enough, the surface has a thin layer of oil paint I push and pull around, feeling it fold and eddy under the brush like butter.

I think generally very fine blending is done with sable brushes but I only use these for extremely fine details, like the line of an eyelid, as somehow when I do it the paint loses its painterly qualities. It would work if all of my brush mark-making was done in the same way but a lot of what I do leaves a painterly effect. I need to be shown how to do this by someone who knows. But I don’t want to be too fussy about the blending, again probably because my instinct is to let the paint ‘blend’ in the eye of the viewer. I’m not after a perfect finish. There’s more of a sense of the alchemy of painting and the transformative qualities of paint when it’s a bit rougher and more painterly.

The art historian Richard Elkins wrote a brilliant book titled Painting is Alchemy and he writes about how painting isn’t an exact science, but more akin to alchemy. The specific qualities that individual artists look for in paint can never be written down and aren’t formulaic. It’s transformative

 

 

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