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Portrait painting - starting with an underpainting

The Drawing Room 10-week Oil Painting course was just about to go into it's last three weeks. A model was booked (the wonderful Kathryn Potter) and we were ready to go... and then we needed to sadly close our doors :( until it is safe to all meet up again :)

SO... in an effort to keep you all entertained, encouraged and working hard on your artwork while staying at home, I will write some blogs with work-throughs, drawing and painting tips and any interesting arty stuff I come across.

Last week I signed up to Draw Brighton's Patreon page and decided to use one of the portrait photos of Arianne to practice painting starting with an underpainting... and this is how it went...


Oil Paints: Raw Umber, Titanium White, Cadmium Red, Yellow Ochre, Ivory Black, Ultramarine Blue.

Brushes: Hogs hair: Filberts size 4, 6 and 12. Long Flat size 1

Synthetic: Flat size 10

3/4" Comber for blending and softening

I sheet of Fredrix Canvas (from a pad)

An underpainting is a great way of setting up the scaffolding of your portrait painting. You can work in a non-detailed way, concentrating on getting the big shapes, proportions and tones worked out without having to worry about colour mixing. Your painting is also quick and easy to edit and change at this stage. Plus you are learning SO much about your subject matter which will put you in good stead for the next stages of the painting.

1. To start with, I squeezed a modest amount of Raw Umber paint straight onto the primed canvas (18" x 24"). This is the fun part!

I also set up the image on my iPad right next to where I was working.

2. The next stage was to take a rag dipped in thinners and rub the paint all over the surface of the canvas. I always now use odourless thinners such as Zest-it, Sansodor or Shellsol. Aim for a mid-tone - not too dark or too light.

3. Now comes the drawing part. For this I used Raw Umber with a very small amount of thinners and a Hogs Hair filbert brush size 4.

Look for the BIG shapes and really look at those proportions. Don't put in any detail at this stage - that will come later. If something is not right, the paint is still moveable, so wipe it away and redraw until you are happy. It is really worth spending time on getting your drawing right at this stage... it is the scaffolding of your whole painting.

4. Next came the large hogs hair size 12 brush with pretty pure Raw Umber paint. Here I was searching for shadow shapes (the strongest shadows). I also looked for my lightest lights and used a rag or a clean brush with thinners to remove paint and go back to the lightness of the canvas. Brush marks can be quite streaky at this stage but the next layers will go on better.

5. By pushing the paint around and experimenting with how loaded my brush was, I was able to achieve a range of tones to help me see the main masses of tone. Again, keep it fairly loose and not too detailed at this stage. It really helps to squint so that you see your subject matter blurred - this means that you can see the main big areas of tone and how they relate to each other without getting drawn into the detail too soon.

6. Raw Umber is an earth colour and dries relatively quickly - especially when mixed with thinners. I left my painting overnight (although it can be worked on quite soon after it's completion) and the next stage was mixing my main colours.

I decided to tackle this painting using the Zorn palette which is Titanium White, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red and Ivory Black adding an Ultramarine Blue to the mix.

Again, keep looking for the big shapes in terms of colour and tone. The Raw Umber underpainting will have helped to key your darks so that it is easier to judge what colour and tone your lights need to be.

More saturated colours appear in the light areas of a face and as the planes of the face turn away from the light, the colour becomes darker, desaturated and cooler. It is a good idea at this stage to edit what you see, down to just five colours on your palette. By looking at your palette and your subject, you can easily see the relationships between the colours on your palette and the colours you see on your subject.

DON'T FORGET your background - this will effect the way the colours and tones look on the portrait. I started by putting down my background so I had something to work against.

Start to place blocks of colour down. Be bold and don't lose your nerve. Remember oil paint is easy to wipe off, move around and paint over!

7. With my five main mixes on my palette, I was able to subtly change the hue or tone so the colours worked better together. My main aim with this painting was to work on an oil sketch so I could practice colour mixing and applying paint. Along the way, I constantly re-looked at the drawing and changed it accordingly. Sometimes just walking away for a cup of tea, or taking a photo on your phone can help you to see your painting with fresh eyes. Other ways of doing this are to look at in a mirror, turn it upside down, or stand at some distance from it.

Next time, I think I will work on a smaller sized canvas and go for some really big mixes and big brushes. It may turn into a complete mess but I won't know til I try.

Why don't you find an image that you'd like to copy and try a painting. Perhaps it will be just an underpainting - you don't have to use Raw Umber. Limit yourself to one or two colours. This will get you used to handling paint and your brushes.

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Apr 01, 2020

Fabulous painting Wendy, looking forward to reading your future posts! Take care Sal xx

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