I am starting an oil portrait commission, and have decided to document my painting process. This will allow my client and blog readers the opportunity to watch the painting come to life.
First I sketched out the subject in pencil on an 18 x 24 primed canvas. Since I had already done the preliminary sketch in pastel, I did not have to work out the placement and composition. Then I went over the sketch with a permanent marker and erased the pencil. That is a trick I learned from the great artist Clark Hulings, with whom I had the privilege of working and studying in Santa Fe.
Then I toned the canvas. A toned canvas helps me to see the values more accurately, as a white canvas is too bright and throws the values off when comparing them next to it. Most artists tone their canvases in a warm neutral tone. However, I have found that in doing portraits, a bluish gray tone gives much more realistic flesh tones. That is because we all have a blue undertone to our skin due to our veins. The background will also be blue and cool, so this will help it to recede more.
I toned the canvas with a mixture of ultramarine and a little black, using a lean medium mixture that I came up with. Then I used a rag to wipe the canvas to ensure the color was distributed evenly and into the weave of the canvas. I left the area for the figure lighter than the background, as I want the next layers of color to reflect off the canvas’ whiteness more than the background. This is a way of getting that luminous quality, since light will filter through the paint layers and reflect back off the canvas.
Now I need to let the canvas dry for a few days. It is important that the surface be dry in order for the next paint layers to be applied without mixing with the background color. The next step will be the under painting.
Some artists prefer to work “a la prima”, which means to apply paint to the canvas (pre-toned or not) directly to get to the finished image right away. Sometimes I paint a la prima, but to get the effect that I prefer for portraits and other subjects, I use a hybrid method of the old masters. It is called the Venetian method, which itself was a hybrid of adapting the Flemish style and a la prima. It shortens the painting process, while giving the luminous quality found in the old Flemish paintings. I love the look of a painting where the subject seems lit from within. That is what I strive for in my work.
I estimate that this painting will take about 6 – 8 weeks to complete and be dry enough to deliver to the client. Oil painters know that the paint layers continue to dry over months, depending on the application methods used, and applying a varnish too soon can cause the paint to crack.