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.

Commissioned portrait painting

Commissioned portrait painting in oil on board by Matt Harvey, UK portrait painter. Prices for portrait commissions are included on my page commission a portrait
Portrait of a girl. Oil on board. 30x40cm

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.

The video I made of the first glaze going on the underpainting is here on my videos page.

Portrait painting in oil on board by Matt Harvey, UK portrait painter. Prices for portrait commissions are included on my page commission a portrait
In the end I felt that it worked better to declutter the background, but I kept the colour suggestion of the chair, a warm light green.

Portrait painting showing grisaille underpainting

Portrait painting commission painted in grisaille oil paints with glazes. By Devon based UK portrait painter Matt Harvey
Detail of a portrait in oil on canvas, showing the grisaille underpainting before and after

This is a detail of a painting that I have shown before of the effect of glazing over a grisaille underpainting in a short time. You can see the first glaze which took around an hour to paint, and the effects are dramatic. It is something I wish I had filmed at the time along with the other short film I made of glazing the arm, my first video!

It also shows a detail of some decorative motifs I was experimenting with which in the end I discarded. Just the sleeve of his pyjamas had some tiny star decorations on, and I enlarged these stars to create a free floating design that ran across the painting. Its certainly good to have a record of this, even though it was scrapped. I’m still interested in the idea of playing games with the picture plane. Of course the realism of the portrait is an illusion, and it felt like a good idea to juxtapose that with something that flaunted the illusion.

The portrait is of my son and it was my wife who decided she didn’t like this design! Its something else I would like to investigate more in the future though.

The palette I used here for the glaze was fairly limited: Titanium White, Indian Yellow, Vermillion, Alizarin Crimson, and Sap Green.

It shows what can be achieved with glazing just a few colours over the Black and White underpainting, but strictly speaking Ivory Black is on the palette too, it was just painted beforehand and already dried as the grisaille. You don’t need umbers or ochres for the hair necessarily, and just a mix of reds and the Sap Green will do, as it did for the shadow tones. Like in a Zorn palette the Ivory Black mixed with white gives a cool bluish hue to the skin tones where it shows through.

I used a hogs hair brush to start and then blended colours using both that and then a sable brush to finish. There was an additional glaze to this but in the main I was happy with this first glaze, and it demonstrates the efficiency of the grisaille technique. Get the drawing right first, and the correct value tones, and then the glazing can achieve very quick results. Even though its quick to paint, every glaze is painted very slowly, very carefully, never committing too much paint.

Here is the final painting which is still not completely resolved. I think I preferred the earlier version and its just been left which is sometimes the only way I finish paintings. I may go back to it one day, but can’t now though because its being exhibited. Paintings though pass into one another in a linked chain of learning where all past failures and successes are handed down and carried through to future works. The point is to keep moving forward!

 

Portrait painting of a baby by Devon based UK portrait painter and artist Matt Harvey. A portrait commission in oil on canvas
Portrait of Hideo, oil on canvas

New video on youtube of the grisaille and glazing process

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.

Pencil portrait, spot the difference

I was recently commissioned to do a drawing of two twins. See if you can spot the difference.

custom portrait commission, drawing of twin girls, pencil on paper
The drawing before
Custom portrait art, pencil portrait. Commissioned art drawn by portrait artist Matt Harvey
The drawing after adjustments

I worked very closely from the photo provided but the client didn’t like the way the tongue looked in the end, so I had to do a bit of human photoshopping. In hindsight it was never going to work, but I followed the brief and was still happy with the drawing at that stage. Its the first pencil drawing I’ve done for over 20 years and, ahem, nearly 30.. Still working with a  crosshatch style. Old habits really do die hard with art. As I wrote in another blog, Learning to love black, it took me years to shake off the idea that black in a tube was a crime against art.

Oil painting demonstration: Glazing over grisaille – Portrait of Amy

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!

Image showing before and after views of a portrait painting commission where the first glaze in oil paint has been painted over a grisaille underpainting
Before and after glazing over grisaille. The first oil glaze took roughly an hour to complete. The grisaille underpainting was painted using Titanium White and Ivory Black oil paints, and the glazes are mixed from Alizarin Crimson, Raw Sienna, Cadmium Red, Titanium White, Ultramarine Blue and Sap Green, to name a few

Underpainting using Titanium White and Ivory Black oil paint on canvas

grisaille portrait painting of a boy by British contemporary portrait painter and artist Matt Harvey from Devon, UK
Tommy, grisaille portrait painting, oil on canvas. Painted with Titanium White and Ivory Black. This is a typical grisaille underpainting before the colour glazes of oil paint

Tommy- underpainting in progress. Underpainting is a technique used since the renaissance. It usually refers to a monochrome foundation or base layer, and layers of paint are applied on top. This one is a grisaille or grey, but there are various different kinds, and not always of the monochromatic variety. Titian used coloured underpainting. The idea is that it supports further layers of paint, as a foundation supports a house. For me it is purely a pragmatic solution where I can be confident that the drawing is correct and can continue applying further colour layers without having to backtrack and amend the drawing as I go. If I’m painting a portrait to commission I like to work as efficiently as possible, and in the past I have found myself in tricky situations where I have had to keep going over the drawing because its not right, and this can be very time consuming. As I have said elsewhere, you can throw a lot of good painting after bad if the drawing isn’t right first.

The other type of underpainting I have used is called ‘verdaccio’, which is a green version, and usually made by mixing black, yellow and white although I think a nice version would be with Michael Harding’s Sap Green and Titanium White only.  I never used black as my art teacher at school was a hardcore impressionist with a love of purple who could not abide it. Honestly it took me 20 or more years to get over that – just couldn’t use the stuff.

Anyway there were a lot of impressionists or those painting at the same time who loved a good bit of black, think Manet and Degas. But we were taught to mix optical blacks with reds and greens or browns an blues and these are very beautiful, and deeper than your average black in a tube. When I learned how to mix oil paint for skin tones from Louis Smith using reds and greens, that struck a chord with my earlier learning and its stayed with me as the basis of all the glazes I’ve found the most useful when painting portraits.

In every portrait painting I paint using the grisaille method, I use the same mix of Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red and Sap Green to start off (has to be a warm Sap Green – Michael Harding does a beautiful but cooler version which is different to the one I need). I have a Winton Sap Green that is good for now. Maybe a little Raw Umber as well.. All the other glazes I mix hover around this mix on the palette, depending on the person I am painting of course.

Revelation with colour glazing

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.

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First glazing over grisaille portrait

I’ve put the first colour glaze put on this portrait in 2 stressful hours! A few more glazes needed and I’ll add them over the coming days. I use M. Graham’s Walnut Alkyd medium which dries overnight – or to be extra sure within 48 hours. I enjoyed painting his ear and chuffed with the result! It felt good to achieve some economy of handling with the paint, and not get bogged down in it. #ear #chuffed #figurativeart #contemporaryart #portraitpainting #portrait #grisaille #underpainting #oilpainting #oiloncanvas #realism #art #painting #glaze #devonartistnetwork #devonopenstudios #devon