Portrait painting step by step, glazing over grisaille

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.

Portrait painting commission in 3 stages by British contemporary portrait artist Matt Harvey, based in Devon, UK

Portrait painting in 3 stages: The grisaille, the 1st glaze, and the 5th glaze. The glazing process is the same each time, and the portrait just gets steadily refined as it progresses

Portrait painting from grisaille underpainting to fourth glaze

Here are a selection of photos showing the completed glazes done over the grisaille underpainting in this portrait commission.

Custom portrait commission of a girl laughing, child portrait in oil paint by portrait painter and artist Matt Harvey

The first layer, called a grisaille as its painted in grey, using Titanium White and Ivory Black

First glaze over a grisaille underpainting, oil on board by portrait painter and artist Matt Harvey

The first glaze which was painted in roughly an hour. This is the subject of a film in 4 parts, showing the 1st glaze being painted in oils

Second oil glaze on a commissioned portrait painting by British portrait painter and artist Matt Harvey

The second glaze, painted after a couple of days when the first glaze had fully dried. I use M. Graham’s Walnut Alkyd medium. The alkyd accelerates the drying, otherwise the oil takes at least a week to be dry enough to paint the next glaze.

3rd oil glaze on a grisaille portrait, from a portrait painting commission by British portrait painter Matt Harvey

The third oil glaze shows the colours getting richer. I continue to model the forms of the portrait while I paint the glazes.

Ruby 4th glaze, oil on board, custom portrait commission by portrait painter Matt Harvey,oil on board

4th glaze

Anna and Simon portrait

Anna and Simon, oil on canvas, Matt Harvey Art

Anna and Simon final version

Anna and Simon progress 4, oil on canvas, Matt Harvey Art

Anna and Simon progress 3 – refining details and adding glazes for depth. I was trying to be economical about the details of Simon’s jumper

Anna and Simon progress 3

Anna and Simon progress 2 – here I have blocked in all the areas of colour, like a ‘dead layer’

Anna and Simon, progress 1, Oil on canvas, Matt Harvey

Anna and Simon progress 1- at this stage I abandoned the grisaille and worked colours straight onto the canvas

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.

Portrait of Tom

Portrait of Tom, Oil on canvas, Matt Harvey ArtThis 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 Scrase 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.

Portrait painting in stages

This is an early example and one of my first efforts at glazing over a grisaille underpainting, a portrait I painted of Dai, in stages. You can see the grid system I used to copy the original photograph reference. I don’t have a strict methodology of working from darkest darks to lightest lights that you can sometimes read about on academic portrait painting sites, but generally work by guessing. The painting doesn’t use so many glazes, maybe 3 or 4, but at the time I felt it had a nice quality and I left it. #contemporaryart #realism #underpainting #art #portrait #grisaille #underpainting #portraitpainting