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!
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 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
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.
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 is a portrait I painted of my brother Tom a few years ago, and I wanted to share it as I love the composition. I don’t know if its obvious but he’s reading, and enjoying a cup of tea at home. I feel the composition of the painting has a compactness to it, whilst having three distinct spatial areas – himself in the foreground, the room behind, and the window and world outside. There’s also the added dimension of the other window on his right, shedding light on his hand and cheek. And you could include the space I sat and painted in. I think I spent an hour or so on it and it was a good likeness, so decided to leave it as it was.
I was quite free with colour at the time and that’s something I want to renew and develop further, as another discipline to complement grisaille painting. I think some of the paintings I made in the years before I learned traditional techniques have a freedom and spontaneity that I don’t want to lose sight of. I’ll share more of these on this blog soon.
I’m hoping to start going a drop-in life class to specifically do some oil sketches and Alla Prima portraits so we’ll see how that goes. As I post this I will be at a portrait class in Topsham, Devon, and I will post again about it. Alla Prima is a technique I’ve had a little instruction in, but I’m feeling the need to go back to Bristol to have a chat with James Scrace about it. I’ve mentioned before but he worked for and trained under Pietro Annigoni, so he knows what he’s talking about! Alla Prima is Italian for ‘first attempt’ and is also called wet-on-wet. You basically try and finish the painting in a sitting, rather than painting layers of oil paint on top of paint that has been allowed to dry. I’d love to do one of Louis Smith’s courses on it as he provides brilliant tuition in all things academic in oil painting and portraiture.
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.