Friday, 1 April 2016

First oils portrait

A portrait in oils: the agony and the ecstasy.

Based on Carolina by Collins

This was intended to be a practice painting for an eventual self-portrait. When or if that will happen in the near future is another matter though!
I hadn't intended to go so far into a finished outcome but it went much better than expected - once I'd overcome a mid point crisis.

This blog post is partly to show how we artists don't magic our work with a wondrous swoosh of the brush, instead it shows how it's just a lot of hard work, preparation, doubt, anguish and a systematic approach to the various stages. Plus thousands of constant decisions that can be critical.

Here are the painters details:
  • 12" x 9" Alkyd oils using thinners and linseed oil
  • On paper
  • 2 brushes: no. 4 hogs hair filbert (long handled) and a no. 2 synthetic round
  • Mahl stick for the later stages
  • cotton ear buds
  • Cadmium yellow medium, burnt umber, ultramarine blue, cadmium red, titanium white and black
I worked from a colour scan at sight size as you can see in the photo below (the tonal value card wasn't used as much as I'd intended). I then sketched it out - sitting - by marking the distances and dimensions as accurately as possible and then blocking in the shapes, before adding the lines with a 2B pencil. I did consider using a grid to transfer for greater accuracy, but one that is extra work and two it wasn't a difficult face or a fussy image, so I decided to just draw it. The finished drawing was as accurate as I wanted and I was more than satisfied, except that I'd made her breast a bit too perky and high (I even wondered whether I should start her higher and leave the breast out as it may distract). Standing at the easel I then painted over the lines with a thin line of dilute burnt umber with a short handled no.2 cheap modellers synthetic brush.

The next stage was to paint in the background and the main blocks of tone with a thinned umber sometimes darkened with black and blue. This was to establish where the deepest shadows were (back of head and between arm and side), the main highlights (breast, shoulder, neck, cheek and forehead). Plus some mid-tones. Here it was at the "ugly stage" when you don't really want people to see it!

Once these were painted it was time for a break and hide the hideousness from others and to tape it to the board ready for the next layer of paints. This consisted of the usual of adding a little colour (mostly the blue shades to shadows, yellow to the background and her skin and the red to the nearer parts of her body - with small amounts to lips, inner eye, nostril, nipple and arm).
Oh it all sounds so straightforward but this was by far the worst part and the point at which I suffered a big crisis of confidence. For one I realised that it being my first portrait in oils I didn't really feel at one with colour mixing skin tones and temperatures. I was so close to just saying, "oh fuck it," and painting a big X over it. That's not me; I'm not a quitter and eventually my palette gave me what I wanted with so few tints and the glazes and layers mended things. One thing I really should've done though was to get those background tones and shadows right first time as the one thing you shouldn't do is have thicker (added fat paint) layers there; they should be lean in the background and opaque and right in the shadows early on. Fortunately, I think I just got away with it.

At the stage you see here, I finally felt that the worse bit was over and I really could pull it off if I kept going and sorted out some bits and bobs. So the final stage over 2 days was to correct her eye (the shape was wrong), get the nose length and shape right which though different to the original was fine in the end. In fact I could now establish that she would never be a true likeness of the original, but she had a character and beauty of her own that I liked. More shadows and highlights were added and blended and the arm was made a little bit fuller and the background darkened.
The end result can be seen at the start of the blog. In real life she looks better - whether in daylight or evening lamplight. All the family like it and I wish I'd done it on canvas or better still on board now. I'm even happy with her especially perky breast :)


  1. Great job, glad you kept going and achieved the final wonderful result!

  2. I love seeing this process - somehow more satisfying than just seeing the final piece (perhaps because I'm constantly going through various creative processes too). Hopefully I'll get to see the original soon.

    1. Thanks for looking over this Maddy. Glad you enjoyed it.