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.
There was something about the fall of golden light that I loved in this painting and the reality of experiencing it within the grand surroundings of the Pitti Palace was a world away from seeing it in an art textbook.
Caravaggio, 1608, Oil on canvas, (usually on display at the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy)
But sometimes, when your routine is broken and fate takes a hand, your direction shifts – you experience something new.
Dragging my feet and grumbling to Vanessa in 40-degree heat, I wasn’t the perfect gallery companion, so Vanessa wisely suggested an expresso in the courtyard of the Palace.
With a backdrop of the Boboli Gardens a serene and cool courtyard surrounded by elegant arches and slightly crumbling pillars, my tranquillity was restored.
We set off in a different direction around the gallery and hung high out of eye-line I happened upon a Ribera, a painting I’d seen before, but had forgotten was part of the permanent collection.
Jusepe de Ribera, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew
Now although this initially appears a very dark painting, I was focusing on Ribera’s refined draughtsmanship, his naturalistic handling of skin tones and subtle palette.
It is a real masterclass, a wide tonal range, an interesting pattern in the negative shapes, warm scumbled underpainting balanced with cool creamy whites of the cloth.
The skin tones give a realistic turning of the form yet are painted very simply and the position of the hand and feet indicate the gesture of the whole piece.
It brought into focus the other reason I’d returned to Florence – to study colour glazing techniques for Classical Oil Portraiture with Maestro Michael John Angel at the Angel Academy of Art.
Back at the Angel Academy
Whilst glazing is a technique I use on nearly all of my paintings, from landscapes, portraits and still lifes, this particular course focused on the glazing techniques of the painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Self-portrait, 1879
Bouguereau was a French painter who studied at the Ecole des-Beaux-arts in Paris and worked in a classical academic style. A high importance was placed on drawing, accurate depiction of the subject, a realist practice rather than an impressionist practice, resulting in a porcelain, ethereal quality.
Now, Bouguereau’s style is not how I naturally paint.
I’ve always favoured the sight-size gestural brushstrokes of Velasquez and Sargent. Building up warm colours in thicker marks by mixing the colour on the palette and then painting it on the canvas in one stroke, giving the paintings a more impressionistic feel.
When I’m in my studio at home, I begin portraits in pretty much the same way, the drawings good, the tonal contrast is nice and the painting comes along really well.
As the portrait develops I introduce colours I allow myself to paint freely, with expression and look forward to the moment I can get the thick paint out on the palette knife.
Bouguereau’s work is smooth and luminous, a build up of thin layers over a black-and-white ‘grisaille’ underpainting.
The foundations for all of these painters works stem from the same classical training. So the paintings often start the same, the academic teaching of the French Academy was studied both by Sargent and Bouguereau, but the surface quality of the finished portrait is different.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Cupid with a Butterfly, 1888
I’ve always been curious about the techniques and methods of glazing an oil painting from a black-and-white portrait up to full colour and relished the challenge of achieving a more polished look.
The painting starts off with a green/grey tonal ground. The reference image is black and white and positioned at the same size as the painting so I can work ‘sight-size’. When you can just flick your eyes from the subject to your painting, without having to resize the image in your mind, it makes it much easier to judge the relative tones and colours.
Once the dark shadow tone is established with a Burnt Umber, I start to introduce the lighter tones onto the light side of the face.
Here the full range of tones are on both the light and the shadow side of the face with the Burnt Umber still acting as the darkest part, away from the light.
Once the black and white tones are established the thinner smokey layers of colour can be glazed over the top.
The colour application is kept thinner in the shadows to allow some of the underpainting to show through.
Will Kemp, After Bouguereau, Oil on Canvas
Did I find the answer?
Yes, but it wasn’t as I expected.
In the inspiring location of Florence, no internet connection, 7 hour painting days and encouragement from Michael John Angel to persevere, I discovered it wasn’t a new painting technique I needed.
It was the simple discipline of applying multiple thin blushes of colour until the end of the painting.
The important bit is ‘until the end of the painting’
The truth is, I’ve never attempted to paint a Bouguereau before.
But I have attempted to paint something similar in a similar style and I found I kept on thinking about half-way through, that the painting was uninteresting and the surface quality was boring.
So I’d go to my default ‘thick paint stroke security blanket’ as reassurance when the painting wasn’t coming to life and I’d end up with a pretty decent portrait.
But it didn’t really fulfil what I’d set out to achieve – in fact, they looked pretty similar to my other works.
However, when working through the painting methods on the Bouguereau course, I had to resist my own ‘style’ when colour was introduced.
Instead of jumping for the thicker paint I had to hold back, work through the process with the same colours and thin layers.
And then something happened.
Before I knew it the painting was looking how I’d always imagined.
It looked good, not boring at all. The skin tones were looking smooth and luminous, and I hadn’t actually done anything much different.
My technical skills were the same, but the change in environment, experience from a knowledgeable tutor and breaking my painting routine from home had been enough to achieve a different result.
It was a really eye-opening exercise that satisfied my desire to learn this naturalistic realism painting style.
Will I be painting a series of super polished cherubs? Probably not, but I will be using the techniques within my existing portraits to create a new series of works (whilst still brandishing a fully loaded palette knife!).
It feels super exciting, a new influence that might take my portrait work in a new direction altogether.
The whites are first painted on the bow of the fabric so I have a indication of where the lightest areas are within the painting. I can then judge the tonal range within the skintones of the painting.
Will Kemp, After Bouguereau, (from a portrait of Gabrielle Cot) Oil on Canvas
Notice how you can see the grey underpainting in the turn of the jaw.
Out of interest, early in his career, John Singer Sargent had fate intervene with his painting style. He tried to study painting at the Academy of Florence.
At the time he applied the Academy was having a restructure, so he returned home to Paris to look for a different school.
It was on his return that he first began his studies with the French painter Carolus-Duran.
Duran had a different approach than Bouguereau, he didn’t build up the painting in layers so much as to teach a more expressive style of painting. Duran loved Velasquez, and this painterly style would be instrumental in Sargents own style of painting.
So try a new painting experience, learn a new style, if you see a painting class advertised and it’s not 100% your thing, give it a try.
It could be as simple as joining a local art group or getting together with friends to paint. Go on a guided tour at a local museum, get inspired by seeing actual paintings in front of you.
The change in studio, the people around you, the weather, they all affect how you and the paint behaves. This can result in breakthroughs in your painting that you may not have previously seen.
And if you catch me in a gallery studying a scumble, I’ll shout you a coffee, a brew and a biscuit should never be underestimated on even the most inspirational gallery visits.
You can see a more in-depth series of articles on how to paint a black-and-white grisaille here: How to Paint a Portrait in Oil – Part 1
p.s. I’m planning on a new step-by-step course on colour glazing for oil portraiture coming later this year.