A month and a half ago I began my most ambitious painting yet: a full body portrait of my father. And it’s now complete. Kind of. The only thing left is to let it dry and then varnish it. But that takes months and I don’t want to wait that long to share some pics.
The painting was commissioned by my dad after he saw the small sketch I did of his head. He liked that painting and asked me to paint a new one for his dental office. And then he gave me free reign. Size. Pose. Clothing. Everything was up to me.
But knowing that the painting would be on public display made me think very carefully about what I was doing. People look deeply into portraits, whether it’s consciously or not. Therefore, I did not want my dad to come off as imposing or threatening to any viewer. I scoured the internet and flipped through art books in search of inspiration. Eventually I came upon Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry’s painting of French architect Charles Garnier.
That was it. That was the inspiration I needed. I found the painting a bit too moody, but the pose was perfect and befitting a doctor. So with Baudry as my muse, I put paint to canvas.
Actually, first I had to photograph my father. There was no way our schedules were going to coincide in a manner that would allow me to paint from life. So with some help from my mom, I picked out some clothes for him, sat him up on a desk, posed him, and snapped a picture. Then I started on the painting.
As usual, I did a quick sketch, outlined it, and then put a wash of color over the whole canvas. However, instead of doing an underpainting, I went directly into color.
My first priority was getting the canvas covered with paint. I used a decent amount of medium (Liquin) and painted out thin coats. I was only looking for a general direction, not the exact color. The fluidity and freedom of the early stages are aspects I enjoy and I always have to remind myself to maintain those characteristics later on in my paintings.
Once the initial color blocking was down, I began putting more focus into my painting. I started with the face, wanting to work towards a likeness as quickly as possible. At this stage of the painting you can see I had his eyes too close together.
I worked clockwise around the piece, dropping down from the head, into the pant legs, and onto the desk.
My arrival at the suit coat was the beginning of a long journey. The side in light gave me plenty of headaches. I couldn’t decide if it was brown or green. And I thought I figured it out at one point. I realized it seemed to turn brown in the shadows and green in the light. But when I painted it like that, I was horrified at the result. So then I repainted it and repainted it, and after each revision of the coat I always wound up returning to some variation of green. I even brought the coat out of my dad’s closet and used it as a reference. But it did not help. Though my eye saw the fluctuations between brown and green, I had to generalize towards green on my canvas. That was the only way I found satisfaction.
After doing one complete paint through of the piece, I turned my focus onto the background. I needed to establish value there so I could have something to compare and contrast with the figure.
Bit by bit I worked my way through the painting, taking a multi-day break from the face in order to focus on building up everything else.
When I returned to the face, I found out I had problems. The eyes were too close and I’d grown the nose too big. It was time for my secret weapon: upside down painting. I flipped the canvas over, let my mind relax, and went to work.
Turning a painting over tricks my brain into seeing shapes instead of pre-conceived objects. Basically, when viewing the painting right-side up, my brain says, “Hey! That’s a face!” But when I turn it upside down, my brain sees the bits and pieces of the face as separate and simple shapes. Most brains are like this.
With that trick I was able to pound out a better likeness.
Above you can see I was half-way through one of my battles with the suit coat. I had painted it a brighter green to try to bring in more light, but it had made my dad look like a leprechaun. So I had to go back and subdue it.
Another major thing I struggled with was my use of white. Now, I don’t use white straight from the tube. My teacher Mr. Pulido taught me to mix my white with some yellow ochre and make a butter-like color. That’s what I use for my white. The yellow ochre keeps the white warmer and unifies the painting. Even still, I found myself washing out the painting. I was using white too much in my mixing and creating pale colors that didn’t hold any vibrancy. You can see through the progress pictures that this happens significantly in the suit coat. It was a by-product of me trying to bring in more light. But it wasn’t acceptable. Towards the end of the painting I had to go in and fight to put truer color back in the piece.
The largest surprise of the painting came in the pant legs. I painted them early on with raw umber and this led to the creation of an accidental grisaille underpainting. When I returned to the pants later on, I went over the raw umber with a glaze of burnt umber and burnt sienna. This gave the pants the exact brown I was looking for. Although, I did have to go over the glaze with a few areas of thick mixed color in order to prevent the pants from appearing too uniform brown. But my lucky accident there made me want to try painting out an entire piece in raw umber and glaze it. I’ll have to look further into grisaille methods.
As I got to the end, I discovered my painting was becoming too intricate. I needed more generalization and larger blocks of color. So I redid the background in earth tones and attacked the suit coat.
And oh. I guess here’s where I’ll mention that I began adding a new technique. While painting the patterns on the tie, I found that scraping away the paint with my palette knife helped to blur the patterns and give suggestions of color, rather than outright statements. I don’t usually combine my palette knife with my brush paintings, but I believe I’ll be doing more of it in the future.
My last several sessions were spent touching up the head, the hands, and the suit coat. I wanted to push the painting and get that likeness.
The final painting is something I’m definitely proud of. Though it’s tough to decide when to declare something finished. When I look at anything I’ve completed, I see the minor flaws as glaring mistakes and I have to remind myself to let go. I need to take what I learned and address it in the next painting. That’s the only healthy attitude for me. Obsessing over a painting would bring me nowhere.
Additionally, I have a few progress shots of the face:
And finally, I have been trying to find ways to make my blog more entertaining. So I’ve created a couple animated GIFs of the progress shots. Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to add videos of me actually painting.