The draughtsman’s guide to painting

Whenever I try out some new tech­nique I find a pat­tern in my habits con­firmed – in writ­ing and print­ing as well as in cook­ing or cyc­ling, it seems to be a really uni­ver­sal prin­ciple. Recently it happened with oil paint­ing. I tried out some baby steps around December or January, did­n’t have a clue and screwed it all up. Threw all the mater­i­al into a dark corner and for­got about it. This is the prin­ciple: I’d do some at best half-baked shit at first, then wait, typ­ic­ally for a few months, and then, in the second attempt, do some­thing really cool. Apparently new ideas need to fer­ment first.

In May I took the oils up again. In the mean­time I had acquired a few bits of know­ledge wait­ing to be used prac­tic­ally – in par­tic­u­lar about glaz­ing. Instead of paint­ing with opaque col­ours you take a mono­chrome under­paint­ing and put trans­par­ent hues on top of it in order to sep­ar­ate shape and col­our. This was very use­ful for me as a draughts­man with little to no ideas about col­our. Of course almost everything I did in the pro­cess was more or less wrong at first, but I learnt a lot about how to make the next pic­ture really fancy!

The ground for paint­ing is a (roughly A4-sized) board of ply­wood rather than can­vas. In almost every aspect wood is more prob­lem­at­ic than can­vas. It’s heav­ier, more dif­fi­cult to trans­port, more cum­ber­some to pre­pare. It’s “work­ing”, i. e., it’s expand­ing and shrink­ing, for a long time. Compared to can­vas it’s abso­lutely inflex­ible and may even crack and break (for this reas­on museums are still very reluct­ant to lend pan­el paint­ings away, com­pared to the rel­at­ive ease with which they send can­vas abroad). Last but not least there’s the ridicu­lous prob­lem of knotholes: If your pan­el has any, res­in may seep into the col­our later and pro­duce dark spots years or dec­ades after you con­sidered your paint­ing done.

Yet for largely glaz­ing-related under­tak­ings pan­el is recom­men­ded. Other than can­vas it has a smooth sur­face. The thick­ness with which trans­par­ent paint is applied is dir­ectly tied to how dark it appears. Even light col­ours darken the pic­ture over­all, while thick lay­ers of dark col­ours (e. g., pic­ture ultra­mar­ine) have that won­der­ful and oxy­mor­on­ic effect of seem­ing pitch black and max­im­ally sat­ur­ated at the same time.

In my case and sim­il­ar renais­sance-to-baroque paint­ings the lay­ers tend to be extremely thin. The amount of paint used can be quite homeo­path­ic. I’m lit­er­ally talk­ing about tiny beads of paint on the tip of a single brush hair! So the paint caught in the little space between can­vas threads can make a fairly dra­mat­ic dif­fer­ence. Painters who used glaz­ing extens­ively on can­vas, e. g. Vermeer, would use very finely-woven lin­en, much finer than what you’d typ­ic­ally be sold by your loc­al paint­ers“ supplier.

First a very rough – a very very rough – char­coal draw­ing. Its pur­pose is to mark where to find which fea­ture. This one here is actu­ally far more detailed than neces­sary and at the same time far cruder than it should have been. Next time I’d rather do some­thing with the look of a tech­nic­al blueprint.

Four and a half hours of total work­ing time. Keep in mind this is my first ser­i­ous attempt at brush­work, today I’d be much faster not so much for tech­nic­al abil­ity but rather just because of hav­ing a clear­er idea where­at to go.

The “mono­chrome” in this case means black-and-green. There are a few dif­fer­ent clas­sic­al under­paint­ing tech­niques that mostly dif­fer in the col­our employed: Grisaille is grey, ver­dac­cio green, bistre brown. The strength of ver­dac­cio lies in that a green­ish base takes out the sat­ur­a­tion of the warm (brown, red, yel­low) glazes on top that would nor­mally yield too gar­ish a skin tone.

Here I’m already work­ing in oil: oil diluted with tur­pen­tine. When work­ing in oil lay­ers there is one rule that is to be fol­lowed all the time: Fat over lean. Pure lin­seed oil would be con­sidered fat, paint com­ing straight from the tube is still rel­at­ively fat, and tur­pen­tine (which evap­or­ates after a little while) counts as very lean. Oil paint dries not phys­ic­ally by evap­or­a­tion but chem­ic­ally by poly­mer­ising – extremely slowly – upon con­tact with oxy­gen. After some days to weeks it seems dry, but to fully react it takes many months and, like too fresh wood, works in the pro­cess. That’s not a prob­lem unless slow-dry­ing (fat, thick) lay­ers are covered and sealed off with fast-dry­ing ones. Paint may wrinkle, crumble, flake off. No, thanks.

Thus for the under­paint­ing the lean­est col­ours are most appro­pri­ate. In fact it’s pos­sible to do without oil alto­geth­er: In ink or gou­ache, or in oil-con­tain­ing but still extremely lean tem­pera. Blending is a bit more dif­fi­cult (at least for me) in all of these, but still reas­on­ably well possible.

One thing I regret­ted all the time in later stages of the pic­ture is how I only took care of the skin in the under­paint­ing. Definitely should I have included shirt and hair at this stage which in the end now look far flat­ter than they could have.

And gen­er­ally the under­paint­ing isn’t the strongest: The eyes are flat, pro­por­tions in the lower half of the face are fairly messed up and so is the hand – in short: everything really. For some reas­on this was­n’t so clear at that stage – self-betray­al, I sup­pose. Here’s one huge issue with this kind of lay­er­ing: Corrections of pre­vi­ous stages are impossible (on the oth­er hand, cor­rec­tions of the cur­rently wet upper­most lay­er are very easy because they don’t affect any­thing below them, unless being done very care­lessly). Once the paint­ing gets its first lay­er of col­our the under­paint­ing turns wholly immutable.

The first two attempts at a col­our lay­er failed: I had used the wrong medi­um. Confused two dif­fer­ent glass jars stand­ing on my desk. They’re not even sim­il­ar and it took me two days to notice why exactly the paint would­n’t dry and stay on top.

This medi­um is a mix of lin­seed oil, tur­pen­tine and dam­mar var­nish. The oil and tur­pen­tine adjust for fat-/lean­ness, the dam­mar – a res­in also used as a final var­nish – speeds up dry­ing. Otherwise the same paint­ing might take half a year. By this stage pic­tured on the left, the first col­oured lay­er of burnt siena, three weeks have passed and nigh thir­teen hours of paint­ing, many of which were wasted on dead ends and cor­rect­ing avoid­able mistakes.

It’s pos­sible to mix medi­um and paint right on the palette – there are some, though, who advoc­ate cov­er­ing the pic­ture or selec­ted parts of it in pure, col­our­less medi­um, then adding col­our into that wet sur­face. The lat­ter way has worked very well for me but it may not be optim­al, I need to do more research on this. Just know that both are possible.

At one point, after four or five lay­ers, I found the col­ours way too intense, even with the ver­dac­cio below – so I figured I could add a com­ple­ment­ary ultra­mar­ine lay­er. Blue + brown = grey, I thought. And it actu­ally was a good idea that’d work that way – unless of course I’d take too much blue. This is what happened and gave me a severe case of cyanosis.

Glazing does­n’t just con­sist of col­our­ing pre-set shapes like in a chil­dren’s book, although it comes close. Since, as men­tioned, every lay­er darkens the pic­ture a bit over­all, it’s neces­sary to light­en up some areas manu­ally. Opaque white is gently mas­saged into these places – and really the smal­lest amounts, lest it cov­er the lay­ers below entirely. Compared to the glazes its impact feels much stronger. It’s pos­sible to add a glaze and won­der wheth­er any­thing has changed, while the tini­est drop of white left me afraid this was really way too much now – in fact, these seem­ingly tre­mend­ous amounts of white are neces­sary. As a child I used to won­der why white people were called “white” when in fact they’re rather pink­ish. Painting now it feels as if (Centronorthern European) people are really scarcely any dark­er than sun­light. This sum­mer I’ve already got sub­stan­tially tanned, and yet still I am incred­ibly white. More than in the paint­ing for sure: Let me blame the warm light bulb illu­min­at­ing my desk, please.

Between the under­paint­ing and the state to the left there have been about nine or ten lay­ers. Finally I added some hair (and real­ised that the fore­head ran out of skin, duh), and shirt. Apologies, by the way, for the ter­rible pic­ture qual­ity so far – it’s just that wet oil does­n’t go along so well with the scan­ner. This ver­sion had had enough time to dry, though, because it’s from when I returned from my three weeks in France. The next such paint­ing will have a qual­ity Praktica-based doc­u­ment­a­tion, I promise.

Note the back­ground. It’s glazed, too; dark green on a black ground. I had con­sidered a red back­ground in order to let the skin itself appear more muted – accord­ing to shady inter­net sources, Délacroix once said: “I can paint you the skin of Venus with mud, provided you let me sur­round it as I will”. But while it’s incred­ibly tempt­ing to put some bright, undi­luted tube paint some­where, I came to find it too strong and went for a dark green instead of the kind you’d see in Cranach por­traits, for example. Probably I could just have put the col­our there as is, but I exper­i­mented with glaz­ing a black back­ground instead. Would it remain black, I wondered, or gain some sat­ur­a­tion? The res­ult was fant­ast­ic. In this state you can get an idea of the dif­fer­ence, because I had to cor­rect some­thing in the left half that led to los­ing trans­par­ency there. It required anoth­er trans­par­ent glaze, as did those areas of the shirt that lay in the shad­ows. Turned out that glaz­ing uni­formly over a pre-shaded under­ground looks much, much bet­ter than super­im­pos­ing a shad­ow onto a col­oured surface.

And yet – all done, now! By the end of July, with this one break of three weeks, I accu­mu­lated 21 hours and a half of draw­ing-and-paint­ing time. The writ­ing alone took one hour and a half, it’s awful to do with a brush when used to feath­ers – I was temp­ted to give it anoth­er lay­er in order to smoothen the dif­fer­ences in bright­ness between the dif­fer­ent let­ters, but screw it, it looks more lively in this ama­teur­ish man­ner. Gone are the times, any­way, when paint­ers who knew how to write could make some extra pennies.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.