On Saturday mornings this year I’ve been going to an open studio in Ypsilanti on the Eastern Michigan University campus, organized by artist Nora Venturelli. Every week there is a live model and about 20 artists show up to practice life drawing for a few hours. The model begins with a number of 2 to 5-minute poses, then settles into a number of 10 to 20 minute poses. The drawing at the left is a study that I did from a 20 minute pose (charcoal, on white charcoal paper about 20 x 16). I decided to try an oil painting working only from this charcoal drawing.
Since one of the ideas of this blog is to write about my journey in becoming a self-taught artist, I’ll write about how I approached this painting and also about what I’m learning. I started with a Richeson hardboard panel that came pre-coated with a thin layer of acrylic gesso. Gesso is finely ground calcium carbonate (chalk) in an acrylic polymer binder with a pigment. Acrylic gesso is used as a primer on most pre-primed canvases or hardboard panels. It provides tooth and it’s semi-absorbent. For this painting, I wanted to create a surface with additional texture, so I applied a thicker gesso layer of my own on top of the thin, pre-primed layer. At the same time, I wanted to tone the painting surface so that I’d be applying paint onto a mid-value tone instead of white. I mixed white acrylic gesso (Blick artist’s gesso) with a little water to about the consistency of heavy cream and added some acrylic paint, in this case a blue-grey color. (Note that acrylic is often used as a primer for oil painting, although some artists such as Richard Schmid prefer an oil-based primer for oil paintings, and I’ve experimented with that in other paintings*.) I applied the toned gesso mixture in a thick layer using a 2” housepainter’s brush, making strokes in random directions. I made the gesso mixture just thick enough that I would be able to see the brushstrokes in the gesso layer after it dried. I have to say I really enjoy this step — I usually lay out four or five panels and do them all at once and find that this step is a lot of fun. Then I set the panels aside to fully dry.
On the fully dried, gessoed and toned panel, I started with an oil paint imprimatura (a semi-transparent stain of thinned oil paint to cover the surface). I thinned the paint with oil of spike lavender, a medium I’ve been experimenting with that is less harmful to your health than odorless mineral spirits and gives off a smell that I quite like. It also has a wonderful way of thinning and extending oil paint and it dries relatively quickly. i covered the entire panel in a variety of greyed-out, mid-value blue tones. Then I let that dry for a few hours. Into the imprimatura, I then made a line drawing of the figure in charcoal. I then proceeded laying on a thicker, opaque layer of oil paint, still using small amounts of oil of spike lavender (but no medium at all where I wanted the strokes to be thicker, or scumbled). My idea for this painting was to make it a monochrome of blues and blue-greys, with a near-full but not quite full value range (using values 2 to 8 on a scale of 1 to 9). I also wanted to capture the feel of the charcoal drawing in the painting. I wanted dark blue-black lines to be visible in the finished painting in some areas, similar to the way the heavy black lines are visible in the charcoal drawing. I wanted the colors to be mainly muted and greyed, but with a few strokes of more intense color near the center of interest (the model’s abdomen). I used deep ultramarine, cobalt blue, and mixtures with phthalo green blue. To grey out the colors I experimented with mixing in a little cadmium red, but that leaned too much toward the purple, so I wiped most of that away and instead used terra rosa. I didn’t use any warm colors at all in the entire painting; I wanted it to be a cool-only monochrome in blues, blue-greys, and near blue-black.
I learned quite a bit from doing this painting. I read in one of my art instruction books that it’s not the number of paintings you do that makes you progress, it’s the number of insights. So I’m always looking for new insights as I work. I gained some insight here about using a variety of brushes for a variety of strokes, and once a stroke looks good, leave it alone — fight the urge to go back and fuss with it. I learned to load up the brush with a big enough blob of paint to make a single, thick stroke in those cases when that’s the stroke you want. But in doing that stroke, you always pick up a little bit of stray paint from the layer underneath. I cleaned the brushes often and re-mixed new colors on the palette often — two practices that the artist Richard Schmid emphasizes. I learned to use the palette knife with thick paint to make a scumbled texture in the background areas. I rarely use the palette knife on the painting itself and this is something I want to learn to do. Finally, one of the most important insights from this painting might have been the idea to use intense colors of different values as part of your planned value painting. For example, an intense pure shade of ultramarine blue is a value of 7 or so, so use that in a location where you want a value of 7 to help describe the form. By doing that very selectively, and using greyed-out values elsewhere, you better draw the eye to the center of interest.
Most importantly perhaps I learned that if you have a good charcoal sketch from a live model, it’s possible to use that as a basis for an oil painting. This was a thoroughly enjoyable exercise, so watch for more paintings like this.
* Not having gone to art school, these types of technical details about the standard use of materials, together with variations on their use, have been for me a key part of the learning process. That itself could be a topic for a blog post.