New Year, New View? How a Few Small Changes Influenced my Portrait Painting Style

portrait-painting-oil-glazing-techniques

There was a small sign that hung below an empty black space, it read ‘In Prestito‘.

On loan.

Last Summer I was back in Florence, Italy, to visit one of my favourite paintings that had enticed me to the city over 10 years ago.

The only problem was, when I got to the gallery, the painting wasn’t there.

It was at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and I had missed it.

The painting?

Caravaggio’s sleeping Cupid.

Continue Reading New Year, New View? How a Few Small Changes Influenced my Portrait Painting Style

Inside Rembrandt’s Studio

outsideannefrankamsterdam

Earlier in the Summer, I took an impromptu trip to see ‘Late Rembrandt‘.

It was the first time that an exhibition had been solely dedicated to Rembrandt’s late works. Many of the most famous paintings that he produced in the last 15 years of his life had been brought together from museums and private collections across the globe.

This period is often the most celebrated due to Rembrandt’s development of a more gestural, impressionistic style and this was some 200 years before the popularity of the Impressionists.

He was out there!

I’d missed the exhibition when it was on show in London at the National Gallery but for the final leg of the tour it was going home to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Heavy dark shadows, hidden brooding eyes, thick scratchy textured marks, lots of Brown umbers and a dirty yellow varnish glow are all the things that excite me about Rembrandt’s self-portrait style.

With the allure of Nutella Waffles, the opportunity to visit Rembrandt’s Studio and the once in a lifetime chance of seeing so many Rembrandt’s up close together, how could I resist…

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7 Questions every Artist needs to ask before Varnishing an Oil Painting

how-to-varnish-oil-painting

An Introduction to Varnishing an Oil Painting

As we’ve discussed in 3 Reasons why artists varnish their work (and why some artists don’t) varnishing is primarily an aesthetic choice on the final finish of your painting.

Not only can it really bring up the vibrancy and richness in your realist paintings but it offers protection for the painted surface from atmospheric effects to make the surface easier to clean in the future.

No One technique for varnishing suits every situation — the texture of the paint surface, whether you want a matte or gloss finish, speed of completion etc.. all effect which varnish you choose.

There are different considerations to think about when you’re working with Oils in comparison to Acrylics, so here are some common questions to check before getting out the varnish brush…

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Glossary for Oil Painting Terms – The Essential Guide for Beginners

Sarumstudiosightsize

I was standing at the front of a queue in a packed art shop in London.

There were 15+ people crammed in behind me and I felt more embarrassed than I could remember.

I had been a researching new art materials and product releases, I’d spotted something new out and I was convinced the store stocked it.

After waiting for what seemed like days, I was at the end of the queue and overconfidently asked: “Umm…do you stock alkalid paint?”

It seemed like the shop suddenly fell silent…

Continue Reading Glossary for Oil Painting Terms – The Essential Guide for Beginners

The 3 Key Secrets of Portrait Painting Success

The Art_of_Painting_Jan_Vermeer

The Art of Painting (detail),  Johannes Vermeer, 1666

You might think you need more time, or the perfect paint brand or a new brush.

When the weekend comes and you’ve finally managed to find some ‘you’ time, the blank canvas stares back at you and the finished portrait, you so desperately wanted to achieve, seems a world away.

Your motivation is high, your drawing’s good but the jump from pencil to paint has hit a wall.

Flicking through an art magazine or shopping for a new paint colour suddenly seems like an attractive idea.

You’ll start next week when you’ve got the exact colour you need.

But what if these actions are holding you back?

What if you forced yourself to try and achieve more with less, give yourself some constraints and your portrait painting could make giant leaps forward?…

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How to Paint a Portrait in Oil – Part 5 of 5

how to paint a tonal portrait with colour strings

How to paint a portrait series. This is part 5 of a 5 part series of tutorials for beginners making the transition from drawing to oil painting.

We look at how importance value and tone are in creating a realistic black and white portrait using classical oil painting techniques.

Here is a quick review of what we have covered so far if you’d like to join in…How to Paint a Portrait in Oil - Part 5 of 5

Part 1 – Establishing the drawing, including the shadow line.

Part 5 – Finishing & Glazing

mixing damar varnish medium

The next medium to use is a simple mix of 1 part Dammar varnish: 1 part Linseed oil.

If you don’t have dammar varnish just add a bit more linseed oil to the previous mix. The varnish is fatter than the odourless mineral spirit but leaner than pure linseed oil.

Oil paint medium recipes

I have tried to keep the mediums in this demonstration as simple as possible because when I was first starting, I became obsessed with trying down track down the ‘medium of the old masters’ as I was convinced this would be the missing ingredient in my paintings.

It wasn’t.

I’ll go into more detail on the different recipes you can use in mediums for oils in a future post.

The greatest advancements in your own paintings, especially if you’re making the transition from drawing, will come from simple principles.

These aren’t glamorous, or shiny and new, but waiting for the ‘right’ brush, or the perfect medium will slow down your progress due to time and energy wasted searching for an answer rather than actually painting. Start simply with solid colour and flat tones and progress from there.

using skinned over oil p

Reusing Old Oil Paint

The first thing I do is put pressure onto the old blobs of paint on my palette, this bursts the paint skin and gives me access to the paint underneath. As I mentioned in the steps last week there are a variety of ways of keeping your oils fresh between painting sessions, and the paint can go slightly thicker using the method above, but as it’s at the final stage of the painting I’m happy to use it. Just use your own judgement if the mix feels okay.

At this stage of the painting, we are going to redefine some of the edges and check our drawing. Painting is a process of constant refinement and our fresh eyes are often our best judge.

how to paint a nose in oil paint

I then start to readdress some of the shapes using a round sable, as before when the paint goes on, it will feel like it sits on-top of the paint underneath rather than blending in, so I apply the paint knowing that I will be using a soft dry sable to blend and fuse the edges.

I work around all of the features redefining the shapes and subtly altering the tones.

how to paint a portrait in oils

I also add dark accents to the darkest points in the portrait, these can look a bit ‘stuck on’ but I will be softening them shortly.

glazing with oil paint

What is a Glaze?

A glaze is a method of altering the colour and tone of an underpainting by applying a thin translucent layer of paint. The best pigments for a clear glaze are the translucent pigments, as with all colours, the glaze will appear warmer when painted thinly, so classically painters like Vermeer used to start with a highly finished grisaille (a monochromeunderpainting) and then apply layers of colour in the form of glazes.

So, I then mix a thin consistency of paint using the blackest mix, to use as a glaze. This will be the most translucent as it contains none of the Titanium white (which is an opaque white)

If you were painting with the Flake white, you can make a more semi-opaque veil of colour to adjust areas in tone. This is called a ‘Velatura’ in Italian.

adding black accents
a black and white portrait

Focus in portraits

You have control of the viewers gaze, well a certain amount of control. We are always drawn towards eyes and contrasting colours. James Gurney has done some interesting eye tracking studies on some of his own paintings. Notice how the viewer focuses on the face.

For this painting, I keep the eyes sharper and more detailed and the lips and chin softer.

You then need to look to check the edges, are they too soft or too hard. I purposely leave the eyes and nose sharper in focus than the mouth.

adding ivory black to the shadows

Adding dark accents

Now I squeeze out some of the Ivory blacks and use this diluted with a tiny amount of medium to the very darkest areas of the portrait

painting high lights on the eye

Adding catchlights

With the fine sable round, I dot in highlights around the eye, this can really add a punch to the eye and make them stand out from the rest of the features.

raw umber and ivory black portrait

A Word of Warning…

This doesn’t just happen with one quick swift movement of the brush. As we get into more details of the face there is more room for mistakes and the drawing to go out. It’s amazing how a little change in movement or shape can change the sitter’s look, feel and emotion.

Sometimes you’ll be so close to finishing the painting, then go for one final brushstroke – only for it to go out and you are back to square 1, or so it feels.

This is where the Filbert sables become your best friends, they’re soft and you can subtlety blend edges and not make too drastic changes.

darkening down background for contrast

Darkening the background

 After looking at the portrait, I felt I could go darker onto the background. I quite like the Raw umber on its own but wanted to show you how much the background can affect your subject.

I use a thin mix of Raw umber and Ivory black and apply it to the background, much like the initial stage when we were just using the Raw umber. I use the number 4 Ivory Filbert to scrub the paint in, I don’t mind if the mix goes over the edge of the hair as it helps to blend it in and bring the face forward.

Notice how the lights suddenly look lighter due to the change in contrast we have created by adding a darker background to the portrait.

background before blending
finished black and white portrait

Reviewing the Process of Light and Shadow.

  •  The power of a single light source – The old masters used the effectiveness of a single light source to great effect. It is one of the best ways to create depth and form in your paintings, especially in portraits. You’ll find the more light you have on the face the harder it will be to create the illusion of depth.
  • Flat shadow area – These can be broadly split initially into two area, lights and darks. By simplifying the shadow line shape you can quickly establish a form. Just using simple, flat tones
  • Leaving the details for later – When you are first beginning you will notice areas of reflected light and details in the shadows. If you learn to resist painting these in, it will help so much in your progress as a painter. You can create a really powerful portrait really simply without having a photorealist finish.
  • Keeping your edges soft – I keep the edges soft and only sharpen the areas I want the viewer to focus on. This is a Classical technique to create the illusion of realism.
  • Work from Large forms to Small forms – It will be tempting to paint the eyes as soon as you begin, but getting the general shapes and modelling the form will pay dividends later in the painting. Adding the white highlights should be left until the end.
  • Glazing for subtlety –  When you first start using glazes they can be addictive and if you’re not careful, you can end up with the ‘Tom Jones’ effect ( see – How to choose a basic portrait palette for oils) so tread carefully and they can give some amazing results.

So now we have the finished painting, I could, of course, carry on refining with glazes to get a more realist finish.

However, as an impressionist starting point when working with Oils, I am happy to leave it at this stage and sometimes with paintings, it’s knowing when to stop that’s the hardest bit.

If you have any questions about painting a black and white portrait, let me know in the comments below. Students have been achieving some fantastic results, I’d love to hear how anybody else has got on.

If you want to learn about how to add colour glazes to a grisaille you might enjoy the colour portrait oil glazing video course.

Continue Reading How to Paint a Portrait in Oil – Part 5 of 5

How to Paint a Portrait in Oil – Part 4 of 5

black & white portrait painting techniques

How to paint a portrait series. This is part 4 of a 5 part series of tutorials for beginners making the transition from drawing to oil painting.

We look at how importance value and tone are in creating a realistic black and white portrait using classical oil painting techniques.

Here is a quick review of what we have covered so far if you’d like to join in…

Continue Reading How to Paint a Portrait in Oil – Part 4 of 5

How to Paint a Portrait in Oil – Part 3 of 5

portraittutorial translucent oils

“When you come back to your painting you’ll notice how the oil has become translucent overnight and won’t have the same coverage that you first thought.”

How to paint a portrait series. This is part 3 of a 5 part series of tutorials for beginners making the transition from drawing to oil painting.

Here is a quick review of what we have covered so far if you’d like to join in…

Continue Reading How to Paint a Portrait in Oil – Part 3 of 5

How to Paint a Portrait in Oil – Part 1 of 5

portrait painting techniques

How to paint a black & white portrait in Oils

Have you been practising your portrait drawing for years yet making the jump to oil portrait painting always seems to end in an underwhelming finish?

Or do you walk around portrait galleries in awe with the question, ‘How do they do that?’

Maybe you’re frustrated by your process and don’t know how to change it.

Portraits can seem like the toughest subject to crack and you can easily be disheartened by your efforts. One wrong brushstroke can cause a subject to suddenly look ‘wrong’, panic sets in – your pencils get sharpened, charcoal out and you don’t come back to painting for a while.

But you don’t want to draw anymore, you want to paint.

So where do you begin?

Continue Reading How to Paint a Portrait in Oil – Part 1 of 5

A Beginners Guide to Colour Strings (and How to Paint Quicker)

colour strings oil painting

When you first start painting, the vision is of squeezing out bright vivid paint colours, a handful of paintbrushes, maybe a beret?

But often this approach is an illusion, an artist myth.

To get professional results you need a professional approach.

If you want freedom and expression on the canvas, a bit of premixing can help you achieve more pleasing results, especially if you are trying to achieve a more realistic effect.

If you spend a little extra time in preparation, your actual time at the easel will be more efficient, quicker and rewarding.

Let’s enter the world of colour strings…

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The 3 Steps to Becoming a Better Painter, by Painting Less

acrylic still life painting courseEver wonder where you’re supposed to find the time to paint?

If you’re trying to paint in your spare time, it can seem impossible.

You’re already struggling just to find a clear space and get your paints set out and sometimes you can’t even manage that.

You want to work on your colour mixing, try a new paint colour, and definitely do some more sketchbook work, but you also have a job, family, friends — responsibilities that are just more important.

And so you wonder: should you just keep going, doing the best you can?

Or is there a strategy you can use that doesn’t require so much time and achieves better results?

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How to Choose a Basic Portrait Painting Palette for Oils

Will Kemp Artist head study

Head Study – After Collins, Oil on Linen, Will Kemp

“Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend”
John Singer Sargent

How not to paint a portrait, a personal tale

Let me take you back several years to the beginning of my experiments with portraiture.

It was a bright sunny morning after a long arduous night painting and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, I had finally cracked my self-portrait…. enter my wife Vanessa

Vanessa: “Why do you look like Tom Jones?”
Me: “I don’t look like Tom Jones”
Vanessa: “You do, what have you done? The portrait was looking great last night!”
Me: “I don’t look like Tom Jones”
Vanessa: “You do! Look how orange it is, you look like the freakin’ Tango man”
Me: “Shit….. I look like Tom Jones”

Skin tone, it isn’t easy….

Continue Reading How to Choose a Basic Portrait Painting Palette for Oils

The Importance of Contrast in Painting

contrast in painting

Contrast is really important when you’re starting to learn how to paint.

A good knowledge of contrast in drawing helps significantly because you will have learned the value of light and dark.

If you are coming from a non-drawing background, you will have to be more aware that to make a dramatic painting “contrast is king”, rather than trying to add a bright colour to lift the painting…

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