Hi there, I’ve just posted this on youtube. Its going to be one of 2 videos there but 6 in total on patreon where they are also unedited and in real time. This video is cobbled together from 3 real time films, about 3 hours painting in all. I loved copying this painting and learned so much. Looking forward to the next one! I still have to finish the Rubens copy I’m doing as well. And the glazing for this painting. After that Velasquez and Van Dyck.. all the Baroque greats. Thank you for looking!
Portrait of a young girl after Rubens 1st glaze from patreon.com/mattharveyart
Here is an image of the 1st glaze as I finished filming. The real time video will be on Patreon but there is a taster on youtube. One amazing thing I discovered doing this glaze was that I only used 3 colours; Titanium White, Vermilion and Yellow Ochre. I feel now that I may have been a bit stubborn in my pursuit of authenticity in the process here. Looking at the original I am sure that these are the only colours Rubens used, although the fact remains that there are deeper shadows in the original. Usually I would have painted the shadows in first and worked the highlights into them, and I am sure I would have got closer to it if I had. I have read that Rubens used Burnt Umber and Alizarin Crimson as well as Ultramarine Blue, and all these would have helped create shadows in the first glaze. I will correct it in the 2nd glaze but honestly I would have liked to get closer to the original painting. Comparing them here I can see that Rubens’ colours were a lot darker, or richer. I don’t know for sure if he used further glazes, and my initial guess is he finished it in the 1st. Having said that though, when you look at it the paint looks as if it has been built up in layers, but its hard to tell. I might try and do it again from a print of my underpainting.
I say I think he finished it in one go after underpainting because his paintings generally have that effortless spontaneity in the brushwork and the handling of paint. He worked quickly, and relished the magical effects of glazing over grisaille underpainting and the efficiency of this process. His large studio and many commissions encouraged this way of working – prizing brevity and clarity and the swashbuckling technique that is so characteristic of Baroque painting.
The shadows are simply the underpainting showing through and possibly the underpainting was in quite high contrast, or certainly more than you would usually expect. Look at the cool areas around her mouth. These are created only by the raw umber underpainting showing through the glaze above. But then maybe the shadow under her right eye is made with a cheeky bit of Burnt Umber and Vermilion? Its fun to try and find out. Fun and agonising at the same time. When teams lose a rugby match the captain always says something like ‘It’s really hurting! The lads just wish they could go out there and play them again now!’ Painting always feels like that. Especially when you’re waiting for the thing to dry so you can just get out there again and make it right.
I’ve been finishing the grisaille for this portrait painting copy off camera, which is relaxing! I worked on it for another 2 hours roughly, mainly adding pure black here and there and adjusting the shadows. There were a few areas where I sharpened the drawing, but its a fine balance between trying to work in a way that is possibly similar to Rubens and also precise in the copying. I have used fairly loose brushwork around the painting, particularly on her collar and black dress, because it doesn’t feel right copying a fluid spontaneous brushmark exactly.
Better I feel to approach it with some of the spontaneity of the artist. Even though it might not be an exact copy, its an interpretation of the artists work and at the same time an attempt to understand aspects his process. There are many many factors involved in this though. Things like size of brushes, mediums, painting surface etc., all create the impression of the painting, and here I am perhaps guilty of a lack of rigour. It is still possible just to approach something that may resemble Rubens’ working method even though in this painting my brushes mediums and painting surface are different.
I have honestly loved painting this copy so far, and have gained a much deeper appreciation of Rubens the artist. I have always loved painting with grisaille, and Raw Umber and Titanium White is very beautiful together. Painting the black today has finished this stage, and I can now make it available as a print so that anyone who may want to try and glaze it themselves can have a go.
Here is the grisaille next to the reference. Its difficult to pinpoint what isn’t quite working here, but things usually get resolved with the colour glazes. I wanted to put some darker shadows around her mouth because you can see this underpainting showing through in the original. Hopefully then I will be able to create the same effect. Looking at the glazing on the original I think he’s used a mix of Vermilion and probably Yellow Ochre, and you can see the almost patchy way he has applied various combinations of these pigments around her face: her temple, cheeks, forhead etc. He has also used something more like Vermilion and white to create a pink which can also be seen here and there. I hope to be able to show that process or something like it when I film myself painting the glazes soon. I will only really know when I have tried it. You can see all the highs and lows of the glazing in real time on my patreon page, patreon.com/mattharveyart.
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.
I wanted to share the magical transformation an oil painting undergoes, glazing oil colour over a monotone underpainting.
I filmed myself painting the glaze and velatura over this portrait for one hour, in 3 short videos – this being the first. Its the first glaze and there will be a few others to finish the portrait, but this video shows the process, and I hope shows why I find it such a rewarding method to work with. It shows the dramatic results you can achieve in a relatively short amount of time.
Here is a double portrait I worked on from a photo, to give an example of the process. I originally painted Anna in a grisaille, and went over the face in colour, having changed tack and wanting concentrate on a single opaque colour layer. It was worked into over a few sessions with additional glazes of colour.
In contrast I painted Simon’s face in colour directly onto primed canvas. I painted a ‘ground’ (or colour stain) on the canvas first, using a couple of coats of acrylic Burnt Umber. You can also see where I drew the grid. I had to leave some of the background unpainted so I could still follow the gridlines! It was one of those rare occasions where I was able to get the drawing right on the first attempt.
When doing commissions this has been something I have avoided trying too much, because when the drawing doesn’t work I can spend many hours going back over the painting, needlessly, because if the drawing was all correct in the first place it wouldn’t have been a problem. Many bad experiences trying to fix paintings like this led me to use the grisaille method, because that is a great way of ensuring the drawing is right before attempting colour.
When I say drawing I’m talking about drawing with the paint. I’ve written about this before, especially here regarding the utmost importance of getting the drawing right first. Drawing is all of painting – figurative painting that is. That’s why even though I trained as a sculptor I could try painting portraits, because I had done a lot of drawing already. Working to commission means I need to make sure there’s no wasted effort.
This beautiful painting by Titian from the Prado Museum is the reason I wanted to try and learn the technique of painting with a grey layer, or underpainting in grisaille, a technique that Titian pioneered.
The flesh appears both taught, as if it was carved out of marble, and fluid at the same time. Titian painted this in Rome, and you can clearly see the influence of Michelangelo in the rendering of the forms and their monumentality. Another interesting fact is that he painted it on Slate. You can see the colour layers as applied over the grisaille and they seem to dance and flicker on the picture plane. It is as if Jesus Christ is illuminated from the inside, and the strokes of glaze glow like flames burning in a furnace. The cloth Christ is wrapped in has an extraordinary quality which maybe I could get to the bottom of by copying.
I don’t paint portraits with this kind of chiaroscuro and extreme passages of light to dark, but maybe I should. Chiaroscuro as seen here feels like it belongs in a different age, but it would be interesting to see if you could do it today, and make it something worth looking at, without pastiche.
These paintings of Christ on his way to the crucifixion were meant as devotional images, painted in such ways to elicit empathy from the viewer. You can feel the depth of Titian’s religious faith in this painting. There is more information on the Museo Del Prado’s website about it.
It feels a bit shallow chatting about it in this way, or that I’ve somehow understood it when I don’t think I have at all. Perhaps the only way to come to terms with it is to try and copy the painting, but the subject is so raw that personally I don’t think I can. I am able to admire this painting, but not as a devotional object and certainly only in a small way appreciate it in the way Titian intended. But as much as being a devotional object it is also celebrated because of the skill and grace he displayed in handling the paint after all. I do believe though that it was his religious faith that gave rise to his superlative technique here.
Here is a recent portrait commission using the grisaille method, where the colour glazes overlap and create an optical effect as the light passes through each layer. This one has around 6-8 layers of oil glaze over the grey underpainting. As I have mentioned before, I use M. Graham’s walnut alkyd medium, which dries quickly enough and doesn’t give me a headache. I was constantly repainting and working into the drawing as I went, and the main problem in the end is the risk of over-working it, so at this stage I decided to call it a day.
The portrait has a rather serious quality that I like. There was a lot of revising and correcting, but the head looks as if it could be carved out of marble. As a sculptor by training I definitely enjoyed painting this head with its beautiful symmetry. It’s one of those things but I would rework it if I could get it back now, but actually I couldn’t because it lives in its own time and I correct it in further paintings. Each painting is part of a long chain of work that link one to the other, and each painting has its own quality, for better or worse. Actually I would have loved to carve a portrait sculpture based on this portrait.
There was a lot of correcting while painting the glazes, because the grisaille was probably not complete at the time of the first glaze. But as Philip Guston said, painting should have a moral aspect, and somehow all the effort spent in painting a picture or portrait is stored as a kind of moral force. The opposite would be something like doing it with a photoshop app and a click of a button. This is absolutely true and you can always sense this in a painting, and in the most subtle way all the effort, all the revisions and alterations, all the agony and effort, and joy, show in the final painting. Philip Guston was a true hero of art.
One of the most important things that has happened to me in all the years I have been portrait painting was going on a course run by Louis Smith in 2014, learning about glazing. Looking at his website I thought this would be about glazing as I understood it where you have a very thin translucent layer of paint and you go over a grey underpainting, or dead layer, like Caravaggio or Ingres. We learned to glaze over an underpainting, but the glazes felt more like ‘half-pastes’ as they were not entirely transparent. Even so it transformed the way I approached colour mixing for portrait paintings, and I learned amazing colour combinations of reds and greens which are now the foundation of my approach to painting a face. I’ll write about them in another blog post. I found out about Louis Smith from Jonathan Jones, the Guardian newspaper art critic.
On the course, which was over a weekend, we used a monochrome print from another portrait and went step by step through the process of building up areas of colour, slowly refining and blending each.
For this portrait as usual I used a canvas on board, and cropped it slightly to fit the subject. I started with a grisaille underpainting using Raw Umber and Titanium White and a little medium. I’m hovering between a straightforward Ivory Black and White underpainting, and other versions, mainly Raw or Burnt Umber and White. Burnt umber has a little more warmth. I’ve looked around online and you can see people painting with blacks which are made up of reds mixed with greens, e.g. Alizarin Crimson and Viridan Green, or again different blues and browns. At school I was taught by my militant impressionist teacher Mr. Baines that using black was sinful and one should only EVER mix blacks optically, and his chosen mix was Burnt Sienna and Cobalt Blue. You can mix a nice black from these two, but I went off Burnt Sienna a while ago (I’m sure I’ll come back to it – at the moment it just has a bit too much character, like someone talking very loudly at a party, so you can here them wherever you’re standing!). I think you can achieve a deeper black mixed from Burnt Umber and Ultramarine or Cobalt Blue.
Having said all that, in the name of efficiency I have stripped back all of my processes to avoid unnecessary headaches so I generally I use Ivory Black and Titanium White! I have also learned from Louis Smith that a little Alizarin Crimson mixed in with Ivory Black gives it more depth, so I also do this on occasion.
The thing is that I can achieve this depth at a later stage by glazing darker colours over the underpainting so again the Alizarin Crimson gets ditched when I want to simplify the process. I’m possibly lazy, but if you are working on something over a few sessions and have to mix the colours each time inconsistencies can creep in and so thats just another layer of process that can be removed.
You can see an example of the depth achieved through glazing in the image below where the grisaille is actually quite bland in comparison. Dark glazes in and around the eyes give huge depth (generally I won’t use black at this stage and mainly use Alizarin and Sap Green or Cadmium Red and Viridian, or blues or browns or whatever..). This is the first glaze and already it has transformed the tonal range of the portrait.