14 November 2013

My Portrait Process: Third Step is the Underpainting

...grisaille, monochrome underpainting, burnt umber pick-out...much has been written about it, so I won't belabor the topic here, except to point you to what I consider a thorough discussion by Jan Blencowe, if you would like more details.  I use the underpainting to transfer the drawing and value relationships to the canvas.  A critical step.  And the color of the underpainting can lend a nice contrast to the final painting, where it peaks through as a warm layer under a cool color scheme, for example.

Here are a few examples of how other artists apply the technique...using the direct method: Nelson Shanks and Teresa Oaxaca...using the indirect method: Jacob Collins and David Gray

For my portrait of Kirk, I used a burnt umber pick-out technique.  I enlarged my drawing of Kirk to the final size (18x24") using a photocopier.  Using a piece of tracing paper coated with graphite, I traced the image onto my canvas, reiterated the tracing with pencil, then applied a sealant. Next, I laid down a mid-value stain of burnt umber diluted with OMS.  I picked out the lights with a rag, Q-tips (plain or dipped in OMS), and a kneaded eraser, and laid more paint in for the darks.  Not worried about the background at this point.

Here is my final underpainting.  That front arm/hand is still giving me trouble, so I'm working through it with some additional drawings.  Next step is the final painting...
Portrait of Kirk (underpainting), 18x24", oil on linen board

29 October 2013

My Portrait Process: Second Step is the Color Study

...also called the color comp.  More experienced artists skip this step, but I find it useful.  I don't want to get bogged down in the big painting with problems I could have spotted in the color comp.

Portrait of Kirk (color comp), 12x9", oil on linen

I use color comps for all the following reasons:
  • Work through the palette to be used in the painting
  • Define the light patterns and color temperatures to produce convincing form
  • Finalize the composition, background, edges 
  • Get a peek at how the painting will look framed, that makes a huge difference 
  • Plan the painting strategy (eg. layering and area sequences, transparent areas, etc.) 
  • Use as a constant value/color reference during completion of the big piece 
  • If something goes wrong on the big piece, test changes on the comp

For all these good reasons, I take the extra time to paint the color comp.  I'm always a little surprised by how closely the final painting resembles it, so that comp needs to be right. 

Kirk color comp, framed

From the framed color comp above, I see the need for more air around the subject.  The current cropping makes him look boxed in.  A small amount of extra room will fix that.

At this stage, I also work through other suspected issues.  For example, Kirk's hands were not ideal.  I picked the best references I had and worked up some value studies to think through the anatomy and value changes (below).  The middle hand is not usable.  I will go with the top and bottom hands.  I like the active/passive contrast they provide. 

Kirk's hands, 17x14", charcoal on Strathmore 400 paper

17 October 2013

Drawing Dynamic Hands with Burne Hogarth

My last 2 paintings included hands.  It took me way too long to paint them, and in the end they didn't look that great. I just feel it's a requirement of any figurative artist to be able to draw and paint hands well.  Hands are as expressive as the face, and they can make or break a whole piece.

So I'm working to improve my hand mastery in several ways.  My daughter, Amanda, has been hand-modeling for me (below).  I am watching Rob Liberace's dvd "Anatomy: The Arm and Hand" (it's pretty good).  And I found a great book on the subject, "Drawing Dynamic Hands" by Burne Hogarth.

Amanda's hands, 17x14", charcoal, 20-minute sketches from life

If you draw or paint people, you should consider getting this book...unless you're already a hand master.  Each page is loaded with well illustrated advice on how to infuse more gesture and energy into depictions of the hand.  Hogarth published several other books on drawing which might also be worth a look.

Here are the table of contents and a few random pages from "Drawing Dynamic Hands":

08 October 2013

My Portrait Process: First Step is the Value Study

There is no single way to create a portrait.  Each artist's process is unique. It's not learned in a class or workshop...it can only be developed through trial and error.  What I show in this post and several upcoming, is my current process.  For me, success relies on the work that happens before paint touches canvas.  It's not about copying a photo.  It's about hard work, careful technique, and artistic interpretation.

I'm preparing to paint an oil portrait of Kirk, 20-year-old son of a friend.  He's at that great age where he has a lot of freedom...trying to find his place in the world...not yet a cog in the machine.  I want that to come across in the final image.

Kirk in Youth, 16x12", charcoal and white chalk on Strathmore 400 toned paper.

First step in my process is a charcoal drawing.  This helps me work out the value structure.  Kirk sat for a 1-hour oil sketch so I could record true skin tones, then I shot about 400 photos of him.  This sketch is a composite of 4 photos, drawn freehand.

This step familiarizes me with all the subtle shadows, shapes, and edges...so when I get to the real thing it goes down much easier. I strategize how to use those subtle features to make the big image more interesting.

As you can see, I'm having trouble with the closest forearm and hand.  The anatomy and value are wrong and the hand is too big.  Cover them and the whole drawing looks better.  I will do some studies to work it out.

After that comes a small color sketch, to work through the color palette and make any final changes before the big painting.

24 September 2013

Lessons from the open studio...working from premixed paint piles

Another technique I tried at last Saturday open studio...premixing piles of paint.  A simple, perhaps obvious, strategy...but worth a mention.  The practice of premixing has been around a long time, many artists do it in various ways. The main benefits: it saves serious time and improves value/color accuracy and harmony.

Here's one take on the basic idea...instead of mixing each brushstroke from scratch, spend the first 20 minutes of a 3-hour session carefully observing the model (or still-life, or landscape) and preparing paint piles for each of the large shapes in your painting.  You will regain those 20 minutes several-fold later in the session.

I was reminded of premixing recently while reading the James Gurney book, Color and Light, p 122. Gurney also offers a good discussion of premixing on his blog.  Read the comments on that post, too.  Good information there.

Here is a link to a description of how Sean Cheetham uses premixed piles.  I like Sean's method...several piles of "mud" for the light and shadow sides of his model...never used directly, but modified to match the quality of light on the form.  For Sean, improved color harmony is the major benefit.  

And one more link...to a post from Underpaintings, describing how Daniel Greene premixes.  Greene creates more elaborate value strings of premixes, but the idea is the same.

Michelle with downcast eyes, 8x12", oil on linen

I painted this portrait of Michelle using premixes for the light and shadow sides.  I saved major time, but the biggest benefit was the improved color accuracy.  Flesh tones are always challenging for me, but I felt this gave me a more realistic result.  And I used the extra time to work up brushstroke variety and fine plane changes, all contributing to a better result.

10 September 2013

Lessons from the open studio...using both a warm and cool white for portraits

Every Saturday morning, I attend an open studio, with the model in a single, long pose.  Before each session, I pick one or two goals.  Today I tried portrait painting with both a warm and cool white on my palette.  The cool white was titanium, the warm white was from Gamblin (I heard about it on Deb Elmquists' blog).  My theory was that a choice of white temperatures would help separate the lights and shadows, produce better modeling of the form, and speed my mixing time.

Chris, 8x11", oil on linen. 

Chris was sitting under north light, so the shadow areas of his face were warmer than the lights. The Gamblin warm white did a great job lightening mixtures for the shadows without cooling the hues down.  That made color mixing easier and faster, which gave me confidence.  When I'm confident, I mix bigger piles of paint and get more paint on the canvas...so this warm white was all good for me.  I expect it will allow me to complete the early stages of a 3-hour sketch faster, so I can give more attention to the finish.

It's a nice white, regardless of genre.  Gamblin recommends it for landscape painting.  Deb uses it for still lifes.  I like it for portraits.  It is a titanium white tinted with arylide (Hansa) yellow.

21 August 2013

Vine Charcoal vs. Charcoal Pencil...and a Scott Burdick drawing video

I learned to draw at Watts Atelier here in San Diego using Conte charcoal pencils on smooth newsprint.  The cool things about charcoal pencils...not too messy, easy to sharpen to a nice point, and the charcoal stays on the paper. In fact with any pressure at all, the marks are indelible.  It takes practice to wield a charcoal pencil, but the manual dexterity you develop leads to better paint brush handling.  It's all connected.

Now that I'm out of school, I'm playing around with vine charcoal.  I like it...it's a classic medium.  Messier than charcoal pencil and the marks can be very delicate.  If laid down lightly, vine charcoal can almost be blown off a newsprint surface.  Some people don't like that, but I think it's an advantage.  Easier to correct a bad stroke.  Just a quick swipe with your finger.  And with a bit more pressure, your marks stay put.

If you want to see how a master handles vine charcoal, see Scott Burdick's video "Secrets of Drawing".  This video is for everyone, beginners to advanced.  I learned a huge amount about the expressive potential of the medium.

The first drawing below was created a few days ago...after I viewed Scott's video.  I used a jumbo Grumbacher medium charcoal stick for the lay-in and modeling of the forms, then detailed the features with a 2B charcoal pencil.  In contrast, the second drawing (below) was created a few weeks earlier with charcoal pencils only.  I see big differences.  I was able to make more expressive and more varied marks with the vine charcoal.  I stabilized the vine drawing towards the end with workable spray fixative.  Vine charcoal tears up newsprint, so I will use a different support next drawing.

Amanda, vine charcoal on newsprint, 18x24" (3 hours from life)

Amanda, charcoal pencil on newsprint, 18x24" (3 hours from life)

Here is a YouTube preview for the "Secrets of Drawing" video

If you don't know Scott Burdick's drawings, here are a few examples.  Hopefully he won't mind.

07 August 2013

Cut Costs by Painting on Unstretched Canvas

As I said last post, I'm painting from life as often as I can.  Since I'm mostly figurative, that means painting people.  My daughter Amanda models for me, and I also go to weekly open studios. To reduce costs, I started painting on unstretched canvas.  It's about 1/3 the price of same-size commercial linen board. The panel for Amanda (below) cost $2.50.  Tape it to a board, paint on it...once it's dry, stack it with the others.  If I want to keep a painting around, I can always mount it to a board.

Of course, buying your canvas in bulk is key.   Amanda (below) was painted on Claessen's 15DP linen, which is actually one of the less expensive of the quality linens.  If you're in the States, Utrecht seems to have some of the best sale prices.   And if you aren't sure which support type you want, order the linen swatchbook from Blick and try painting on the samples.

Aesthetic note:  15DP is rougher than portrait linen, like Claessen's 13, which is what Ginger (at bottom) was painted on.  Note the textural differences between the 2 sketches.  The 15DP adds character to the brush strokes, as you can see from the close-up, but you can still pull a clean hard edge, if you wish.

Amanda, 11x14" oil on Claessens 15DP linen

Amanda (detail), 3x4"...pebbly surface; notice the red hair strokes.

Ginger 8x10", oil on Claessen's 13 linen

15 July 2013

A fundamental artistic decision...to work from life or from photos?

Amanda, 24x18", charcoal on newsprint; recent 2-hour sketch from life

At the moment I am enjoying a mentorship with Lea Colie Wight.  Lea is a talented artist and teaches at Studio Incamminati.  I set out with lots of goals for this partnership, but the unexpected lessons are what I appreciate most.

One example...thanks to Lea, I see that my recent drawings and paintings are suffering because I'm working too much from photos.  Without realizing it, I developed a photo dependency since leaving art school.  Don't get me wrong, photography has value. But I'm too dependent on it for reference, and it leads to images that look like paintings of photos.   Not good. 

Lea is showing me how to work from life to create larger studio pieces.  Photos are so convenient...that is their tyranny.  But if you commit to working primarily from life, there are plenty of techniques you can adopt to make it possible.

And I like the results.  The always-present time constraint when working from life in any genre, creates a sense of urgency that keeps the results fresh and exciting and intuitive.  Hard to achieve when working from a photo.  And, with few exceptions, photos are a poor substitute for the real thing.  There is just not enough high quality information captured in a photo.

So I have taken a pledge to control my photo habit. I will still use them, but in a more limited and deliberate way.

But where to find live subjects?  If you are a figurative artist like me, there are probably plenty of people around you willing to pose for a small fee or for the sketch you produce of them.  You don't need a pro.  I will be hiring my daughter, Amanda, to work with me for the next year or so.  You've met her before in this blog, here and here.  She holds a pose better than some pros I know.  Nude poses are out, of course...but I'm okay with that. 

01 July 2013

Learning about Skin Tones from John Singer Sargent

I have been studying the color of flesh a lot lately.  I am not satisfied with the skin tones in my paintings and I need to correct that.  Too warm and chromatic.

I'm testing some earth colors suggested by Sharon Sprung in her video "Understanding Values in Skin Tones".  The video is for beginners, but there are some good color pointers.  As a result...new colors on my palette: raw sienna, raw umber, red umber, and payne's gray.  I like muted colors.

I'm trying these new colors in some master copies.  I chose a range of reference portraits with a nice variety of flesh tones. You can't go wrong with master copying.

Today's post shows 3 copies after John Singer Sargent.  Let me say up front...my purpose was to evaluate flesh tones, not to produce an exact copy.

Head of a Capri Girl, 1878. Rich, dark skin tones and a good example of value gradation down the face. I used yellow ochre, terra rosa and paynes gray here.  I love how Sargent used the opaque terra rosa tint to cut in those shapes around the chin and neck.  Click here to see the original.


Head of a Neopolitan Boy, 1878.  An example of warm skin tones; the basic color mixture is yellow ochre, cad red, and alizarin.  Sargent painted this study when he was 22! The background is raw umber, a nice compliment to warm skin tones.  Click here to see the original.

Alice Shepard, 1888.  Cool, fair skin tones.  I used raw sienna, alizarin and raw umber here.  This front-lit portrait shows how deft Sargent was at modeling form with subtle shifts in temperature and value.  So difficult to do well.  Click here to see the original.

If you are looking for source material, the Athenaeum, Google Art Project and Art Renewal Center are good online image banks with lots of high resolution images to master copy. 

19 June 2013

Scraping Down to Soften Edges in an Oil Painting

I recently came across a technique, called "scraping down", in a short video by Marc Delassio.  I tried it last weekend during a portrait painting session. I like the results it produced.

Maryam, 11x9", oil on linen
Here's what I did:

I started by painting a quick portrait of the model in about 40 minutes.  I got the big shapes down and used plenty of paint.  I added the lips and large eye shapes, but not too much detail.

Next, I scraped down the image.  The video shows how.

Then I softened all the edges with my fingers.  This produced a gauzy, and surprisingly accurate, portrait.  My mind's eye filled in the blanks. 

I spent the rest of the session adding back a few hard edges, adjusting shapes and values and painting in the details.

It actually sped up the process and allowed me to get more done during the session.  And I like the results it produced.  I could have worked the edges better, but I was starting to get bored...needed to move on.

10 June 2013

Charcoal and White Chalk Portrait Drawing

This portrait, of one-year-old Nicholas, was drawn with charcoal and white chalk on toned paper.  I've posted similar drawings in the past (here, here, and here.)  Charcoal/white chalk drawings are straightforward as long as you keep value relationships and shapes accurate.  Great practice for value control.  And you can get fairly convincing modeling of the form much faster than with graphite. It's an old technique that never looses it's charm.  And it's fun.

I used Wollf's carbon 2B and 4B and General white chalk pencils on Strathmore 400 Artagain Steel Gray paper, which has a nice tooth. Drawn free-hand from a photo, it measures 12"x9" and took about 12 hours to complete.

I was inspired to do this portrait after seeing an article on this technique by Scott Waddell in the Spring 2013 issue of Drawing magazine.  Scott used graphite and white chalk in his demo, but charcoal works just as well.  Choose a paper with a value approximating your halftones.  Model the light side with chalk and the shadows with charcoal. That's it.

23 April 2013

Portrait of Aaron...and Diego Velazquez

Portrait of Aaron, 14x11", oil on linen

Today's piece is a commission..."Portrait of Aaron".  Aaron is an earnest young man of 12 years...older brother of Drew in Blue.   Such a tender, pivotal age...I tried to capture that essence in his portrait.  The painting required 8 hours of planning and 40 hours at the easel.

As usual, I started with a small color study to establish values, the palette I would use, the basic design, etc...it's so easy to work through all the uncertainties in miniature.  And for commissions, it gives you something to show the client.  It took me 5 hours to paint...most of that was "thinking" time.  I considered giving Aaron a slight smile, but he wanted a more serious look. 

Color study for "Portrait of Aaron", 8x6" on linen board

There were 2 challenges with this painting.  First, there were 2 light sources on the subject.  Values on the light and shadow sides were close. If the values weren't kept separate, the whole painting would break down into a muddled mess.  The lightest dark must be darker than the darkest light.
Second, I wanted to push the temperature differences...cool flesh tones on the light side and warmer in the shadows, even though it wasn't so apparent in the reference photo.  This temperature difference would reinforce the value differences, to help define structure.

Here is the progression...

Each photo shows one day's progress after 4-6 hours of painting.

I blocked in as described previously, then covered the white of the canvas with thinned paint.  When I absolutely must get a likeness, I mark the corners of the eyes, mouth, and nostrils with transparent maroon, as guides during the painting process.  After the transparent block-in, I defined the big shapes carefully with an average value/hue.  Next came a first pass of the features.  It helps get the painting out of the "ugly phase" and I need something looking back at me...it tells me things are working.

At this point, I took a long look at the painting and designed a strategy for finishing.  I listed the major steps in a sequence that would allow me to work edges wet-into-wet, or have a dry layer ready for a second pass at the right time.  With a few more years of experience, I won't need to do this type of planning, but it's helpful to me now.

Once the big shapes were accurate, I started breaking them into smaller shapes to turn the form.  The smaller shapes must fall within the value ranges of the larger shapes to maintain the structure.  I am thinking about the shapes and planes, and leaning on my drawing skills, as I move through this stage.

I tried not to blend adjacent shapes to create transitions.  I like to see the brushwork.  When a halftone or subtle plane change occurred, I tried to express it with a separate brushstroke, or tile. 

To finish, I kept painting until I couldn't see anything to correct.  I did 3 passes on that focal eye, adjusting the shape and value.  Towards the end, I realized the mouth was too high (a short filtrum is one of my common errors), so had to move it down about 1/8".  Got rid of those wrinkles in the right shoulder (Thanks, Mary).  Darkened the subordinate eye (Thanks, Lea).  Constant corrections all the way to the end.  Next step is the unveiling with the client.

Framed and done...


Regarding artistic inspiration...

Looking at great art motivates me during painting.  I found inspiration during this painting in the works of Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez. How to infuse that much gravitas into a portrait?...stunning.

If you want to add Velazquez to your library, I recommend 2 books: Velazquez: The Technique of Genius by Brown and Garrido and Velazquez by Dawson Carr et al.  I own them both.  The second book is a steal under $30.

Self-portrait, circa 1645

Francesco I d'Este, Duke of Modena, 1638

Camillo Massimo, 1650

13 February 2013

Portrait Sketches in Oil...and the Cecilia Beaux Forum Mentoring Program

I'm posting recent oil sketches from life...proof I'm out here working.  Why paint from life?  It's exciting, for one thing.  It sharpens observational, paint mixing, drawing, and brushwork skills. Time constraints force decisiveness and keep things loose. And decisions regarding color/value/edge haven't been made for you...as with a photo.  Of course, I paint from photos, too, but it's nowhere near as satisfying.  The oil sketches below were painted from life in 2-3 hours on 12x9" linen board.

Here is a link to some earlier oil sketches, posted in July 2010, when I was just starting to paint.  When you're just starting, you think you'll master it in no time. Instructors make it look easy.  Then you discover the truth...painting is hard.   To master the medium, you've got to paint a lot and really want it.


Regarding atelier training...I'm no longer a full-time student....

After 5 years of art technique classes at Watts Atelier, it was time for change.  I was a bit sad about it at first, but it's a natural progression and the right thing to do.  Last fall, I applied to a mentoring program sponsored by the Cecilia Beaux Forum of the Portrait Society of America, which allows more individualized training in key areas I need to improve...to move the art forward.

Happy to say, I was accepted into the program and paired with Lea Colie Wight.  Very excited.  Lea is an accomplished representational artist and teaches at Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia.  We will connect by phone and online every few weeks.  The mentorship lasts through August, and I will post updates.

10 January 2013

Persistence...and "The War of Art"

After incubating a few weeks, I grew dissatisfied with a drawing I recently posted.  I decided to go back and continue working it up, to see where it would go.  I like bringing pieces to a solid finish.  Some artists feel it's better to move on to the next piece, to have more "starts".  Both approaches have merit.  I think pushing through to the finish cultivates persistence...a useful trait for an artist.

Learning how to finish a piece is important knowledge that can only be learned from experience.  It's not intuitive.  Many times the work stops before the piece is done.  Enter persistence.

For "Small Wonder", I ended up changing the composition (crop), background, value pattern and many of the edges.  I even moved the right eye up 1/8th inch, widened the nose, and re-shaped the mouth...can't leave drawing errors on the board.  It was almost a brand new drawing, so I re-titled it, too.

After an additional 25 hours, I'm satisfied I reached the point of diminishing returns on this drawing...ready for another "start".

The finished drawing after 55 hours...

Small Wonder, 9x6", graphite

The original 30-hour version...

Amanda at Two, 14x11", graphite


I just re-read "The War of Art" by Stephen Pressfield.  If you need motivating, get this book.  It's a quick read and so relevant to the creative process, whatever your medium.

This is what Pressfield says about persistence...
"The professional understands delayed gratification.  He is the ant, not the grasshopper; the tortoise, not the hare.  Have you heard the legend of Sylvester Stallone staying up three nights straight to churn out the screenplay for Rocky?  I don't know, it may even be true.  But it's the most pernicious species of myth to set before the awakening writer, because it seduces him into believing he can pull off the big score without pain and without persistence"

"The professional steels himself at the start of a project, reminding himself it is the Iditarod, not the sixty-yard dash.  He conserves his energy.  He prepares his mind for the long haul.  He sustains himself with the knowledge that if he can just keep those huskies mushing, sooner or later the sled with pull in to Nome."