I don’t usually blog about how I paint in anything like enough detail. I usually don’t think it’s worth dwelling upon. However, this week an oil painting I made turned out better than normal, so I thought I would give a rundown of the approach I took, in case it is of interest to somebody else. Just remembering the sequence of events will test my memory well enough and I only finished this one last Wednesday night. The entire work was executed over four evenings, two per week. Total painting time must have been less than eight hours.
Here’s the painting:
The theme of the exercise was loosely based on Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, so a classical palette and technique was called for. I’ve been wrestling with the classical palette and tonal range for a few months now, so this one was a real test of what I had learned so far.
I started out with only one colour on my palette: raw sienna. I sketched the figure freehand, from life, with a filbert brush. You can get a broad stroke or a fine point with a filbert. The night was warm, so I used the water soluble oil paint neat, straight from the tube. (Artisan oils, by Winsor and Newton – I hate the smell of turps! http://www.winsornewton.com/products/oil-colours/artisan-water-mixable-oil-colour/).
The only constraint I had, in the sketch, was that it had to be approximately life sized, so the face had to be about the size of my hand, from fingers to base and spanned side to side. I had done a preliminary warm up sketch in graphite on layout paper, so I was warmed up when I put brush to blank canvas. I drew the profile first and then finished the rest of the head, features and finally the upper body and neck.
I like to sketch in raw sienna for two reasons – it’s a nice mid tone, so you can cover it up and move your line work around later and secondly, it blends well with the other colours in the palette used for skin tones. I used to sketch in charcoal and pencil, but paint doesn’t stick to pencil and I had terrible colour contamination problems with charcoal. I like my lightest colours to really radiate. It’s why I don’t tone my canvas with a background colour, but paint straight onto white gesso, like Turner. I want my light colours to really jump out at you. Contamination by charcoal or darker colours ruins the effect.
Here’s a colour chart for the series of paints I use: http://www.winsornewton.com/products/oil-colours/artisan-water-mixable-oil-colour/colour-chart/. I don’t have them all. You can get by with a subset.
My approach, having established the sketch, is to block in some of the bigger colour areas. I started with the French ultramarine blue head scarf and a freshly cleaned brush. I used a little titanium white on the edge of the scarf and blended some into the blue already on the canvas, to give the impression of cloth. Amazingly, I pretty much finished the headscarf while roughing out. All I had to do later was go back with some neat ultramarine and simulate the shadows and deeper folds, but I wasn’t going to attempt that until later.
The next thing I did was locate all the darkest shadows in the skin and hair using burnt umber, though I also blocked out the areas where the hair was going to be with raw umber. I made very bold strokes to indicate the darkest shadows. At this stage, the filbert was still in use. I still had a little ultramarine residue on the brush, so that served to darken the burnt umber further. The bold strokes look entirely wrong, at this point in the painting and the temptation is to change them or blend them, but they are necessary. You have to be patient with these stupid looking dark stabs at the canvas. When the skin tones and hairs are painted, that bold, dark background will be so easy to lose and so precious to preserve.
Next, I wanted to block in the background. I needed something dark, that would dry reasonably quickly, so I mixed burnt umber, ultramarine blue (in equal parts), a touch of permanent alizarin crimson, just to bring the black back toward the red side and away from the blue and the secret ingredient – some impasto medium. The impasto medium was the main component of the mix. If you paint that mixture on very thinly, it dries quite quickly and leaves a matte surface. I used a Bob Ross round foliage brush to lay it onto the canvas, quite quickly.
I then set to work mixing up a skin tone. I used some raw sienna, some titanium white and some crimson for the mix, with very little white or crimson, but quite a lot of the raw sienna. That gives a lovely mid tone, which I used on the arms, the neck (avoiding the dark areas and blending into them) and the rest of the nose, cheek, ear, chin, neck, shoulders, chest and face. At this stage, I left the lips, nostril, eye and eyebrows blank. The area where the pearl earring was to go was also blank, at this stage.
To paint the light areas of the skin tone and blend them in, next, I used my trusty number 8 filbert and mixed up some titanium white, some yellow ochre (not too much of this) and some Naples yellow, cutting that mixture into two small heaps of paint, with my palette knife and adding the slightest touch of crimson to one heap to redden it. I then placed the two colours where I thought they ought to be, observing the model carefully. The redder mix was used on the cheek, on the chest, the nose and forehead, blended with the yellower blend. I used this colour for the eyeball too, with a tiny bit more white mixed in (not too much!)
For the highlights, I went back over the light yellow areas and applied a little titanium white, straight from the tube and blended it in on the canvas with some feathery brush strokes.
At this point, most of the canvas was coloured, except for the area where the black dress would be. Black is notoriously messy. It bleeds into all the surrounding colours and you have to be so careful not to contaminate other colours or your brush. I left the black areas for later, or at least for when the skin tones were tack dry.
The next stage in my painting is the most chaotic and least describable. Starting with a palette that had titanium white (or mixing white – it barely matters), raw and burnt sienna, raw and burnt umber and a touch of crimson, I mixed these colours variously and usually on one brush for light tones, a brush for mid tones and one more brush for darks, which I kept on the go the whole time. The actual colour on each brush changes, as I go for different tones, but I apply and blend wherever I think the colours ought to go. I might not get this exactly right, but it is my opportunity to begin to delineate contours and shadows and to start to soften the shapes and lines. I try to keep changing brushes so that I don’t contaminate the lights with darks and vice versa, but eventually all three brushes tend toward a useless threesome of mid tones, simply because of what they pick up on the canvas and so you have to stop and clean (or change) brushes.
At this stage, the only largish area of unpainted canvas was the dress. The model had a dress on which was essentially black, but it had a bright and colourful floral print, designed around the theme of roses. The black obviously had to be applied after the roses and foliage was painted, or there would have been no end of colour contamination. I chose magenta, dioxazine purple, permanent alizarin crimson and cadmium red for the petals. For the leaves, I had to create a muted green, blue mix. I mixed white, ultramarine and sap green. I adjusted the proportions until I got something that resembled what was on the dress. To create the petals, I used very loose strokes and painted the floral pattern quite quickly and impressionistically, leaving a heavy impasto effect. This was the most fun for me. There were some white highlights that I indicated with white, but the white was very easily contaminated by the other colours. I would have to come back later and add the white areas, once the paint dried a little.
Having placed the floral print, I then carefully painted in the dress in ivory black, taking care to not touch any of the skin or floral pattern areas. With a touch of white applied to the brush to make a dark grey, I then went back and loosely made fabric folds. It takes one stroke only, per fold. The less you work this on the canvas, the more realistic it looks. Painting wet dark grey into wet black is the key.
I turned my attention to the lips. Lip lines are hard to do. They are so characteristic, that if you get the line wrong, you lose the likeness. Also, brushes are too coarse to paint the line in last. You have to paint the line in first, with a burnt umber and then narrow that dark line by pushing the lip colour back into it, until all that is left is a very fine lip line, where the lips part. You do something similar with eyelashes, actually. Paint them slightly too wide and push lighter paint back over them to narrow the line.
Lips are a dark, dull crimson in the shadows, fading to a light-ish pink-orange in the highlights. You actually need about three shades of colour to do lips well. I chose a dull crimson, made from skin tone remnants on my palette, a pale pinkish orange and a pale orange-ish pink. I have no real idea what was in any of these mixtures, as I was simply using up some of the skin colours I had previously mixed and adjusted them to taste. As a final highlight, I worked and blended some white into the shiniest areas, so that it mixed on the canvas into a lighter shade of the pale “whatever colour” it was being applied to. That’s the thing about eyeballs and lips. They’re usually best rendered as different tones of skin colours. Eyeballs are not pure white. Lips are not ruby red (unless the model is wearing such a lipstick!).
The only part of the canvas that was now blank was the pearl earring. I used a mixture of white, raw umber and a tiny touch of the blue green mix I had created for the foliage on the dress. That gave me a muted brownish, greenish white. For the gold on the jewellery, I used yellow ochre. The trick to make both seem shiny and lustrous is to go back with pure titanium white, on a small clean brush and drop in some reflections on both the pearl and the gold.
By now the facial features and main shapes and contours were coming to life, noticeably. However, the effect is rather Lucien Freud-esque, because of the colours I had used to mix my skin tones. All of the tones are warm. None of the shadows are cold. This is the time when I discard the skin tones I have already mixed and I mix an entirely different set of skin tones. I take some cadmium red (very small amount – a little goes a long way!), some burnt sienna and some white and I mix a skin tone. I then add some raw sienna to half the pile of paint, to make a slightly lighter toned one. I also mix some white, some ultramarine and a touch of burnt sienna or burnt umber to mix a greyish light blue. It needs to be quite pale. Then I mix a third and fourth pile of skin tone with each of the two piles of skin tone I mixed with the cadmium red divided in half and the light blue added. So I get two reddish skin tones and two greyish blue ones. I have a light and a dark version of each. I also mix up a little raw sienna and cadmium red to get an almost brick coloured tone. Five different reddish skin colours and two different blue greys are now on my palette.
I use the blueish-grey tinted skin tones and the grey blues to begin to blend into the darks already on the canvas, to indicate shadows. It’s a very subtle effect. You have to be careful to leave some of your darkest tones unmolested, or the whole portrait takes on an undesirable chalky tone. I then model the contours and features again, this time blending in my newly mixed skin and shadow colours. At this point, the reddish skin tones come to life. The cadmium red really adds some zing. For a more muted effect, a little cadmium orange in place of the cadmium red is a good solution. As it was a hot day and the model was under bright lights, however, the cadmium red addition was perfect to indicate how hot the skin was, on a very warm few nights.
I go back over the light areas with pure white, or with a mix of white and Naples yellow, sometimes with a touch of yellow ochre or crimson (or both) mixed in. Blending is your friend, here.
To render the hair, I progressively lighten some raw umber with white, painting the hairs with a small filbert (a number 0) and adding more and more white as I go, so that the individual hairs are all different shades. I also use the raw umber to render to nostril. The eyebrows, eyelashes and the pupil of the eye are painted with raw umber.
On the home strait now, the rest of the painting is all about smaller details. Firstly, I darken the shadows of the head scarf with neat ultramarine blue. This makes the lighter areas look more dramatic. I’m pretty happy with how the headscarf turned out.
The original sketch of the ear had it placed slightly too low, so I extend the upper part of the ear and rework the folds and shadows. Turning my attention to the iris of the eye, I take the original brown rendering (shades of burnt umber) and add a light blue circle around what will now become the pupil of the eye. As the circle expands, the blue shade is darkened with some additional brown colour (probably raw umber – I forget), so that it is darker blue around the circumference of the iris. This gives the effect of an iris that expands to let in the light.
Eyebrow hairs are rendered with a small brush, using light strokes and some raw umber. You have to be very careful not to turn this into a block of solid colour and let each hair show. It’s actually quite time consuming and you need a delicate touch.
I use a number 10 flat brush with some of the remaining background colour to sharpen up the details of the facial profile, especially around the arms and the bridge and tip of the nose. I leave the chin and lips alone. Those seemed to have been placed and shaped more or less correctly. The background colour was very thin and it looked a little threadbare in places, so I mixed another batch of impasto gel, burnt umber, ultramarine blue and a touch of alizarin crimson to add a second coat to the background, using the large Bob Ross foliage brush (a big, round, mop of a thing). A bigger brush hides most of the brush marks and leaves a matt flat finish.
The final part of my painting process is to add the sparkles. I use titanium white to place very small, pure white highlights around the painting. One of the corner of the eye, some on the edge of the head scarf, some more on the pearl and gold earring and in other subtle places. In particular, I added pure white to parts of the floral motif on the dress. This really lifted it. Having painted it loosely, impressionistically and with an impasto effect, the highlights really serve to draw the eye toward it. It provides a nice counterpoint, being slightly wilder and freer in execution, to the manicured and softly rendered contours of the face and skin. The contrast in application of the paint really works.
I rework the hair to place a few more delicate strands of hair at surprising angles, to give the look of real hair. It doesn’t all go the same way, even when combed. Hair almost always does surprising things and a few judicious, light strokes give that impression on the canvas.
Going back to the lighter skin tones, I try to blend in a little white or lighter skin tone colour to bring up those highlights and features. I’m never quite happy with how this goes, because it’s always too cold and white or too indistinct and blended. I need to work on this part of my technique a little more.
The last part of the painting is to make any final futzy fix ups of blends and lines, so that I soften the transitions I want to soften and make others crisp and distinct. Varying the softness of outlines and contrasting transitions of colour is something that can give your painting a better looking finish. If they are all hard and distinct, or alternatively all soft and diffuse, it looks too contrived. Varying the line work seems to lull you and the viewer into a sense of realism.
My palette still had a lot of that blue green colour I made for the dress, so I signed my painting in that colour. That way, although the signature stands out, it’s tonally related to other parts of the painting.
I’m quite happy with this painting. It turned out better than I expected. It’s no Vermeer, but it’s a nice enough portrait. I hope the tips and tricks and description of the approach I took, in this post will help you work toward better technique.