Every few weeks, I share my top art inspirations that I’ve read, experimented with or listened to. Here’s this weeks edition of things I enjoyed when I should have been at the easel, with the hope they might inspire your own work too…
My name is Will and I am an obsessive notetaker.
I get sidetracked easily.
If I’m listening to something that has piqued my curiosity, it can send me down a rabbit hole of research….usually halfway through a painting.
And then the copious note-taking follows.
It got so bad at one stage, Vanessa had to prevent me from buying new notebooks because after furiously filling them with fascinating insights, I’d annoyingly lose where I’d put them or worse couldn’t decipher what my own scribbling all meant.
On a positive, my last birthday present was The Remarkable Tablet (an e-ink notebook that feels amazingly close to writing on paper) which has helped add order to the chaos and made the kitchen table decidedly neater.
Some of my research notes do come back to inspire my practice and if they bring me a new understanding or appreciation, I figured they are worth sharing.
So here are my top 5 art inspirations that I’ve read, experimented with or listened to this week, when I should have been at the easel, with the hope they might inspire your own work too…
Joaquín Sorolla, Strolling along the Seashore, Detail, Valencia, 1909
In the heart of bustling Madrid, behind a protective brick wall, sits the elegant former home and studio of Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla (1863 -1923)
Huge decorative iron gates lead you through a lush Andalusian courtyard garden to one of the best-preserved artist houses in Europe, an absolutely priceless experience.
We arrived in Paris to catch the last few days of a retrospective exhibition of the Swedish painter Anders Zorn (1860-1920)
After a snowy week in England, we woke to blue skies, warm croissants and this amazing rooftop view from our hotel room. I couldn’t resist a quick pen sketch of the row of chimney pots in the distance before we hit the show, check out those windows!
Sketch from Hotel, Rotring Art Pen (F), Pentel Brush Pen and Pentel Aquash Water Pen in A6 size (10 x 15cm) Seawhites of Brighton Sketchpad (140gsm All-Media Cartridge Paper)
Detail, Mary Zouch, Hans Holbein The Younger, Black and Coloured Chalks, Pen and Ink c.1532-43, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
I was in London last month to catch the Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt exhibition, held at the National Portrait Gallery until 22 October 2017.
I was particularly interested in studying the collection of portrait drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger on loan from the Queen’s Royal Collection, Windsor Castle.
I’ve always admired Holbein’s oil portraits at the National Gallery London and the Uffizi Gallery, Florence but only ever seen images of some of his drawings in books.
The exhibition room was quite small, the lights low with very few other visitors and it really felt such a privilege to view these drawings in such an intimate space.
The walls were painted a dark Prussian Blue and many of the Holbein drawings were on a muted pink ground hung side-by-side in a line. They were all relatively the same size and the first thing I noticed as my eye jumped across them, was the variety of silhouette shapes created by the headwear and angle of the pose gave a real sense of the sitter.
You can’t help your mind wandering back to the Tudor Court of Henry VIII and wondering about the characters in the portraits (and for the fans of ‘Wolf Hall’ I have to admit, I was silently humming the theme tune)
They felt so fresh with some of the contour lines reminding me of a Singer Sargent’s portrait, it’s pretty amazing to see how contemporary these drawings looked considering they were drawn over 400 years ago.
When I was trying to find my way in portraiture, I’d spend hours studying Old Master paintings thinking “Wow, how did they do that?”
I was flummoxed.
Not only did the skin look realistic, but they’d managed to capture those bluish grey tones that lie just beneath the skin’s surface. In my naivety, I just couldn’t work out how you could paint one colour next to another colour yet create such a smoky transition.
I’d repetitively ask Vanessa, “When will I be able to paint the melt of the cheek you see on the Mona Lisa?”
Unhelpfully she used to say “Isn’t it just old?”
Inwardly I’d sigh.
And then I discovered oil glazing…
When Vanessa suggested a spot of Winter sun, if I’m honest, I dragged my feet.
Locations where being proposed and I politely nodded.
When she casually mentioned a possible trip to Seville, my interest was piqued.
Seville was the birthplace and hometown of Spanish artist Diego Velázquez, and one of my favourite paintings is the ‘Waterseller of Seville’ by Velázquez, but I had never seen it in the flesh, was it even in Seville?
Caught up in the fever of ‘my’ trip, I got researching and discovered the painting was actually hanging much closer to home, in Apsley House, London.
Apsley House? Where’s that?
Well as it turns out, it’s known as Number One London and sits at Hyde Park Corner.
How had I missed it on all my gallery trips and what else was there?
Holy Moly! There’s a study for Pope Innocent X by Velázquez, there’s a Goya, in fact, there’s another portrait by Velázquez and some cracking portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence.
I shouted through to Vanessa ‘Do you fancy a trip to Knightsbridge?‘
Who knew train tickets could be booked so quickly?…
There was a small sign that hung below an empty black space, it read ‘In Prestito‘.
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.
Caravaggio’s sleeping Cupid.
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!
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…
An Artist in His Studio, John Singer Sargent, 1904
Last month saw the opening of a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
The show highlights the work of one of my favourite portrait painters, John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925)
I’ve been a fan of Singer Sargent’s paintings ever since visiting the Tate in London as 15 year old student, blown away by Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, the most compelling scene with its magical sense of glowing light.
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, John Singer Sargent, Oil on canvas, 1885
I’d always thought it was quite a small painting having only seen it in books, but in reality it’s nearly 2 meters tall by 1.5 meters wide, the sheer scale of it being life-size really draws you into the piece. The golden hour light is fading and the glow from the lanterns illuminates the girls faces so beautifully.
And that’s often the most fantastic thing about visiting an exhibition, the experience of sitting in front of the painting and seeing it through the artist’s eyes…
Painting portraits with acrylics can be frustrating.
It can seem that you’re facing an uphill struggle.
After the pleasure of not getting headaches from toxic turpentine and being able to paint with thick impasto marks there seems to be double payback for daring to tackle a portrait with acrylics.
Not only do the colours appear unsophisticated and garish but the paint dries too quickly to blend together successfully, especially when you’re trying to mix subtle skin tones.
You can be left feeling disappointed with your results, admit defeat and crack out the thinners for another go with the Oils.
I’ve been working on a new portrait course, that can help develop your portrait skills and dramatically shorten your learning curve to achieving classical looking portraits with acrylics…
This week I’ve been featured in the U.K’s best selling artist magazine, ‘Artist & Illustrators‘.
The article was on understanding ‘How light sources can add impact to your portraits’.
It looked at three professional portrait painters and how they approach portrait lighting set ups of their subjects.
Below is the conversation I had with Martha Alexander from the magazine…
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?…
How to paint a black & white portrait in Oils
This is a time-lapse video of a classical approach to a black & white grisaille portrait painting.
It accompanies a free series of 5 step by step, portrait tutorials.
Click here to read How to paint a portrait in Oil : Part 1
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…
Part 5 – Finishing & Glazing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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 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.
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.