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Working Up From a Grisaille
By Scott E. Bartner
This is an excerpt from Richard Stull’s feature article on Scott E. Bartner entitled “Transcendent Technique.” It ran in Magazine‘s January/February 2014 issue. Click here to subscribe!
I painted Portrait of Aida (view it on my website, www.bartner.nl) in 2011. Then in 2012, I created this step-by-step demonstration of my process, based on an image of that painting.
1. Imprimatura and outline: For my surface I used Belgian portrait linen mounted on a panel, which gave me the best of two worlds: the tooth of the linen and the solidity of a panel. The color of my imprimatura (toning layer), as designated by the Munsell color system, was 5YR6/2. (For an online article on the Munsell color system, click here.) I then began an underdrawing of my subject with an outline brushed on in Zecchi Vandyke brown, a warm brown that looked good with the imprimatura. I have a general rule: Keep the painting looking good at every phase. That way, you’re more motivated to return to it.
2. Modeling and facial planes: I continued with the underdrawing. The Zecchi Vandyke brown allowed me to show modeling well and thus helped me understand the planes of the subject’s face. I used a little Old Holland Vandyke brown to strengthen the drawing.
3. Highest value of grisaille: Using a combination of flake and titanium white, I began the grisaille underpainting. The value of the background and the warm brown underdrawing gave the white a distinct luminosity, which I tried to retain throughout the painting. I always work from the highest value, usually the forehead, inching my way down the rest of the face. Every value is thus related to the forehead. The point of focus in this piece will be the subject’s left eye.
4. First pass of grisaille: I’d made progress, but I really needed to build up the underpainting (grisaille); otherwise, it would take on too grayish and dark an appearance when I applied color. That’s a situation I didn’t want to face. With this technique, it’s easier to go darker than lighter.
5. “Blush” of color: I restrained from putting in the catch lights and dark accents. Above everything else, I wanted the form to be correct. Putting down a blush on the cheeks before adding flesh color was desirable because that color would react with the transparent flesh color layers in a way not achievable with a more direct method of painting.
6. Finished grisaille: Here you see the completed grisaille. I’d tried to build it up in such a way that the gray areas wouldn’t be too prominent. I’d also added a layer of color to the subject’s hair. I’m not an artist of dark backgrounds, so I stayed with a background value of 5 or 6 (Munsell scale).
7. Background chroma and fleshtone: I needed to address the background chroma before working with the fleshtone. A high-chroma background can make the fleshtone appear washed out; a neutral gray background can look like auto primer. I generally try for a chroma between /2 and /3 (Munsell scale), as I did here. Then, when the grisaille was completely dry, I applied the first layer, or veiling, of flesh color. This layer consisted of a mixture of burnt sienna, cobalt blue, and permanent red. My medium was a solvent-free combination of Rublev Oleogel and an amber resin prepared by James C. Groves. While this layer was still wet, I mixed an opaque flesh color of a similar hue and worked on smoothing the value transitions.
8. Second layer of flesh color: Here you see my second color pass of the fleshtones. These color passes are called “veiling” rather than “glazing” because my mixtures contain a small amount of flake white, which makes them semitransparent. This technique makes the portrait appear to have been painted directly (without underpainting or glazes), but the semitransparent layers are more beautiful and lend a strong sense of structure and form.
9. Colors and folds: I quickly blocked in the rest of the painting to get down my color ideas, which I would adjust with the final touches. I resisted going crazy with the folds and patterns; they should never command more attention than the head.
10. Final Tonal Touches: For the last phase of Portrait of Aida (Study) (oil, 15¾x12), I worked with values (light and shadow) to further emphasize the form of the head. I applied a transparent glaze to the face, giving the flesh subtle variations as opposed to a masklike appearance. I also changed the position of the catch lights in the eyes from 11 to 2 o’clock, making the subject more engaging. Small changes make a big difference.
Grey Tones for Portrait Power
Explore grisaille in all of its shades of grey and embrace the power of portraiture in this video demonstration.