I have just finished the first glaze in oil paints on my grisaille underpainting. This short video project was all about trying to work out how Bouguereau made his paintings, something I have often wondered about.
His works have a particular translucent quality and it was my mission to try and fathom the processes behind this. I think the only real way one can do that is to use the glazing technique over a grisaille. Of course you may get an idea of how it was done using different painting methods or materials but I wanted to stick as closely as possible to his generally agreed method of glazing.
The only real way to understand another artist’s technique is to try and do it oneself. I have not copied many works in my art practice but this has been an invaluable exercise in understanding glazing generally. That is my real and only goal actually; to find a way to develop my own practice with glazing in my paintings. But in the process I hope to leave a course of videos that might enable anyone to achieve similar results to Bouguereau with a little practice. I feel that actually this technique is deceptively simple, but I am still trying to work out the most efficient way of doing it. If you look at Caravaggio’s paintings you can see that once the underpainting was done it was a small step to add some colour, although being able to do it is another matter entirely.
I still feel that anyone can begin to approach painting in the same way as these artists, it just needs practice.
This piece obviously needs some more work to get close to Bouguereau’s, but its only the first glaze, so I’m really looking forward to doing the second glaze and more. I’m thinking of getting a print of the grisaille and trying all over again, and that way I think I might actually crack it, based on lessons learned so far. It was never about making a perfect copy, only trying to come close to the original so as to learn the process generally.
I’m still getting used to filming myself working. The hardest thing about it is making room for the painting and the palette, where I would normally be much closer to the painted surface. I normally spend the whole time panicking!
I’m embarking on another short series of videos on my youtube channel showing the process of copying this part of a Bouguereau painting from start to finish. I hope to use this as a way to learn about his process and to improve my own glazing technique. Bouguereau primarily used grisaille and glazing as a method of painting and his glazing has a beautiful translucent quality. This first video focusses on how I prepare a canvas or board and using a grid to transfer a photo or drawing to the surface.
These images (the 1st 2 are film stills) show the first 3 glazes as they went on, alongside the initial underpainting. This portrait was a challenge in the sense that I underestimated how light the reference was and how light the final painting would be, so the grisaille was too dark to begin with and the glazes darkened it further. It is still a challenge to find this balance in the grisaille and resist the temptation to paint it too darkly.
When the values are a bit dark in the grisaille it can take a while to lighten them, although this can be a blessing because repeated glazing has an unrivalled quality compared to only a few glazes.
Philip Guston described himself as a moral painter, and said the effort a painter puts into their art is still there in the final painting. Sometimes where the path of least resistance has been taken, paintings can have a shallow quality sometimes. But all the effort and struggle, corrections, reworking, repeated revising etc. carry a moral charge that one can intuitively feel and perceive in the final painting.
Reference, taken in a setting with artificial and natural light
Grisaille underpainting, painted in titanium white and ivory black
Finished painting in oil
I have been reworking a long standing grisaille portrait painting in oil and experimenting with a more colourful painterly approach. I am still using the glazing technique, but with a more complex palette than some of my other work. The original photo reference was taken in an interior space under a combination of artificial light and daylight. This gave the skin in the reference a rich multi-hued surface, where the face was illuminated artificially and was only slightly in any shadow. Looking at it one can see oranges, greens, blues, yellows, every colour imaginable but with only the slightest variation in value, or light and dark. It has some beautiful cool shadows juxtaposed against warm (very warm) highlights.
I was pleased with the grisaille underpainting, and it worked because I am now more attuned to the very subtle changes in value when painting portraits. In the past I may have mistakenly exaggerated the changes in value, or light to dark, but I have come to see that these changes are only very minor and actually best left to the overpainting and colour glazes. It appears best to take a ‘paint by numbers’ approach and work in larger areas of grey values, what they call ‘blocking in’, and to use colour to build the shape of the face. Unless a sitter is very brightly illuminated with a strong chiaroscuro effect, then even the differences between shadow and highlights in a portrait can be quite subtle. Working in colour as opposed to modelling light to dark is something Cezanne called ‘modulation’ – where colour alone creates the sense of the form. He said ‘When colour is richest, form is most complete’.
I have painted a few grisaille portraits where the grisaille is too dark, and this was the problem here. Unfortunately I can’t show a photo of the first glaze which didn’t work, but the colour glazes I used over the initial grisaille made it all too dark. This has happened in some other portraits I have painted. Oil colours themselves can have different values depending on how much paint you put on, so when I tried to colour his cheek using a little alizarin crimson with sap green this was too much and ended looking unsightly. When I squint my eyes at the reference it looks the same as the grisaille in terms of the values, so in order to make room for the colours on top I needed to lighten it first. I don’t actually like painting too methodically in this way, as it seems to suck all the joy and spontaneity out of it so I need to develop it so it still feels natural. By natural I mean the relationship between me and subject is one of looking and responding in the most unaffected way, without calculation. Here is a portrait from 15 years ago, painted before I got stuck into the grisaille technique and trying to find the best formula to paint with. I still love the freshness and simplicity in the drawing and colour rendering. My goal would be to combine this with a more rigorous technique if that is at all possible.
When I attempted to glaze it I found I couldn’t do it, the hues were just too subtle. This was in the early stages of my learning the glazing technique and was beyond me at the time. So the glazed version was shelved for a good while. I have a bad habit of giving up on paintings when actually nearly all paintings are redeemable. As Camille Pissarro said though, you have to keep working until you get it right. When this happens paintings just end up marked ‘fail’ on the fail shelf, and they gnaw away at me. This is a weakness I am trying to overcome, and in that spirit I went back to this portrait and reworked it, specifically after looking at Bonnard. He is such a gorgeous painter who has a rare magical ability with colour, always surprising and new.
Looking at Bonnard fuelled the desire to just let go a bit and love colour, love painting again. Sometimes working on the grisaille technique has made me work in a narrow way and I felt I lost my earlier naive jollity. That’s not what I was taught though by Louis Smith amongst others, who all used many different colour hues when glazing. I just got to a point where I found a way that was working and stuck with it. Having said all that, I was happy with the grisaille paintings that I glazed, I just felt I wanted to let go a bit. It wasn’t working in this particular painting anyway, so I needed something different. I can’t just ape Bonnard in his beautiful loose technique, which you can see was always his sensibility when you look at his early work. I love colour but also love ‘polishing’ the drawing, which is something I get from my love of stone carving.
Here is a Bonnard self portrait to give an idea of what I mean.
Here is a new video of me working on a first colour glaze in oils, over an acrylic grisaille underpainting, which is a new medium for me. I’m trying to speed up the process a little bit. It took a while to get the hang of acrylic, something I’m still progressing with. The grisaille is done using raw umber and titanium white, but hopefully the video is self-explanatory.
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.
My latest film, another shot while putting on the first glaze over a grisaille underpainting, is now finished and on youtube. Here’s a link to the first installment:
It’s been an interesting experience filming myself working, and quite strange to watch it back as I’ve never seen myself working before. I wanted to make an authentic account of working with this method, and create the film I was looking for when trying to learn how to do it myself. Of course thats a process that never stops!
This is the first stage, the grisaille. I will be posting a video of the first glaze in a few days. The sitter is the sister of the earlier portrait posted. I will be able to continue modelling the forms as I glaze. I have talked about this elsewhere but the drawing never stops while glazing is taking place, each glaze revealing new areas to develop in the painting. The grisaille is not perfectly formed but is enough to form an anchor for the rest of the painting. Hue or colour is in itself drawing and form and all the imperfections and flat areas are transformed with the glazes.
There are many different ways to make a grisaille underpainting; with black and white as here, or you can make a ‘verdaccio’ which is monotone green and white, or burnt umber and whites. In the future I would like to do some paintings with very limited palettes, like the Zorn palette which has Yellow Ochre, Black, red and white. Or like the one I used at school, Burnt Sienna, Cobalt Blue and White. Just thinking about it is so nostalgic and I fondly remember swimming in warm and cool tones back then.
This is Amy’s portrait, glazed in oil paints. I filmed myself doing this and it will shortly be on my youtube channel. Its still in the early stages, and when this layer is dry I’ll go over it again, up to 3 or 4 times. I don’t know if I’m going to film those other stages – they might be a bit boring as its just a lot of tinkering. In the early stages its quite dramatic how a few glazes of colour changes the grisaille into a very nearly finished portrait. Stay tuned!