Past Commission: The McKenzie Portrait – SOLD
About six months ago, I was approached by one of my former patrons to paint a portrait of his two daughters. This was to be a gift for his wife at the end of the year. Since this took upwards of 150 hours to complete, I thought I would talk about the process involved.
Initially we considered whether to do two paintings, one of each girl, or have them both in a single painting. We decided to do the photography first and see what worked best.
I suggested we set up a time to shoot some reference photos at my studio, and that he should figure out how to get the girls out of the house with a few different outfits without making Mom suspicious. When that was done, I had several dozen images to work from. We shot a variety of high key and low key images which you can see in the proof sheets just below. I showed him the best images and we discussed what would work for a portrait, and he decided to use a single image with both girls. The problem was that they wanted to use the face from one photo for one of the girls, but the pose from another photo. I took the images into Photoshop, did a little manipulation and came up with the final reference image.
We then discussed the size of the painting. Dennis wanted this to be a large painting. After the experience with that study, this suited me fine, as I knew that a larger surface area would make it easier to develop textures and pull out more detail in the eyes and face.
I warned him that this would also take awhile. We set Christmas as a tentative deadline, with early January as a possible fall back date, in the event I needed more time. That gave me a little over six months. I told him that if we did this I wanted to pull out all the stops and make this something truly archival.
After agreeing to a timeframe, we began to discuss size and framing. I suggested some of the plein air frames I had seen when I was last at Tradewinds. We eventually settled on a wide black frame with a subtle copper bead at 30″ x 24″ in dimension.
I knew that I wanted to paint on a leaded white surface, and the risk of cracking with that type of surface is pretty high if it’s on a stretched support. I decided I would paint on a linen panel (because, why not?!) largely to take advantage of the texture of the material in scumbling and glazing in the later stages of the painting. I then purchased some 3/4 inch birch plywood and began to prepare the support for the painting. I wanted no problems with warping when I glued the linen. I cut this down to fit the frame, did an extensive amount of sanding to clean up the edges and prepare the surface for the linen.
I then visited a fabric store, and found a great deal on smooth linen. The problem with this was that it was creased, as the store kept it on a half-roll, which is a short, thin cardboard box that the fabric is wrapped around. I took a chance, hoping I would be able to straighten the crease with an iron and steam, and bought two lengths.
After several sessions with an iron, alternating sides, spritzing water and using a lot of steam, I was able to get the main crease out to where I could not notice it. This also got rid of some of the lesser creases that happened when it was folded at the store. I carefully rolled this up again on a larger tube and got it to my studio where I would be gluing it down.
The next step required mixing up some PVA glue with water. I cut the linen to a size that would leave a few inches past each side of the panel. With a couple of 3″ sponge brushes I quickly painted the PVA glue to the panel (sometimes it helps to be ambidextrous), then carefully laid the linen down over it, taking care to align the weave of the material with the panel. Using a large plastic drywall scraper, I began to burnish the material into the glue, pushing the excess through the fibers and from the center out towards the edges. This is a messy process, and fortunately I laid down some cardboard and worked on a glass table that I bought specifically for this process. Clean up is easier if you only need to scrape glass with a razor blade.
After an hour, I brushed a thinner coat of the PVA glue on top of the linen, making sure it filled the fibers completely. Over the next two days I added a couple more coats of the glue, less and less thinned out, to seal the surface.
After a couple of days, having let the surface completely dry, I used a fine wood file to file at a 45 degree angle along the edges, which does two things. First, it cuts the linen to the exact size of the panel. Second, it does so in such a way that the edge of the linen is actually inset from the very edge of the plywood, due to the bevel. This helps to protect the edges of the material from separating later. I gave the edges of the panel a final coat of the PVA glue, sealing in the edges of the plywood, and let it dry for a couple of days.
Once the glue was completely dry (I recommend waiting at least 48 hours), I then sanded the ground with a fine sandpaper, just to knock down the ridges of the glue. The size I use is pretty watered down, never more than 60% glue, so there was not a great deal of texture, but the glue does dry somewhat crystalline, so it’s better to take that down before priming. I then used Zissner’s Oil Based Primer to prime the panel. I learned about that stuff from Stapleton Kearns, and I like it a lot. It’s very white (not quite as white as titanium white is) and it is meant as a ground for any kind of paint. It is also thin and deep staining, which means that you get pretty good coverage. The front got two coats, then the edges, then the back got three, with a day between each coat. A final sanding and it was ready for the leaded white.
I like to paint on leaded white because the surface is highly reflective, and it allows for wiping down to complete white again. I typically use Cremnitz White or Flake White from Winsor-Newton, adding a bit of mineral spirits to thin it out, and apply a very thin coat first, insuring that the entire weave of the linen is covered. After a week or so I add a second less thin coat, then a week later a third. Each coat is thicker and more substantial. By the last coat, I am concerned with the surface texture of the panel, having a rough idea of where the faces will be, I want to make sure that that area is very smooth and has a texture that will compliment scumbling and glazing. Once the last coat has had a few weeks to dry, I then sanded the panel lightly (be careful doing that), and was ready to begin.
While the leaded white was drying, I spent some time preparing an image that would allow me to accurately transfer the details to the panel. Starting with a black and white version of the reference photo, I applied some filters in Photoshop to get a very ugly, but useful line art rendition of the image. I made sure this was the exact same dimensions as the panel, gave it a heavy rectangular border, then printed this at 11″ X 17″. The reason for reversing the image and taking out all the color was to use less ink when I printed it.
I took that to Kinko’s to have enlarged…which was a complete pain in the ass. For some reason they wouldn’t just trust my measurements and enlarge the image to the exact percentage I requested, rather, they insisted on eyeballing it.
Since I brought a tape measure with me, and was in no mood to deal with laziness, they ended up wasting about seven or eight copies of the image until they got it close. At any rate, I left with an two copies that were each about 1% smaller than it should have been, but by that point the difference wasn’t worth the hassle.
I trimmed the excess paper from the sketch, and taped it top and bottom to the panel. I also cut holes along the sides of the figures, to allow tape to secure it to the surface, so it would not move on me when I transferred the drawing.
I decided early that I would use an oil transfer for the drawing. Partly because I wanted to save time, and partly because I hadn’t used that method before. This process involves painting the back of the sketch with oil paint, letting it set for an hour or so, then drawing over the line art with a hard pencil. Where you draw, the paint will transfer, giving you clean lines. Using one of my many canes as a maul, I was able to rest my hand there and not on the drawing. For the base color, I opted to use a combination of Iron Oxide Red and Terra Rosa. I wanted something that would stain, but would stain in a color that would match the bistre I had planned to use, and the more saturated aspects of the skin tone.
Once the drawing was transferred, I made a few corrections, wiping out errors with a turps laden rag, then let it set. The drawing was faint enough and thin enough that I did not worry about it showing through, particularly given that the background was so dark.
The next session, I decided to begin indicating some of the darker areas, and to lay in a base color for the background. Using the same mixture of Iron Oxide Red and Terra Rosa, I took some time to get to full coverage over the background. I then let this set up for a few days before continuing.
The next session was comprised of almost entirely mixing colors. I set up a spare Italian steel easel and a piece of heavy glass for what was going to be my vertical palette for the painting. I like working this way, where I have my reference photo on a screen next to my painting, and next to that, a vertical palette with my color mixes, and next to that a tabouret with a flat glass palette for mixing and holding brushes, medium and turps.
I’m not the first person to think of this, but simply put, there is a difference in the appearance of color when it is on a palette that is largely horizontal to the light, versus one that is aligned along the same plane as the painting. It is a far more accurate way to compare value and saturation. I also like to mix paints in advance, as it helps save time.
In preparation for that I created another image in Photoshop, where I sampled the color in key areas on the reference photo, and enlarged those colors, so I could more easily see and compare those to what I was mixing for my palette. You can see what this looked like at the beginning of the painting, the major colors with several values of each, to allow for highlight, main and shadow colors.
- Grumbacher Titanium White Soft Formula
- Grumbacher Mono Azo Orange
- Winsor Newton Cremnitz White
- Winsor Newton Prussian Blue
- Winsor Newton Blue Black
- Winsor Newton Terra Rosa
- Gamblin Dioxanine Purple
- Gamblin Asphaltum
- Gamblin Quinacridone Red
- Gamblin Perylene Red
- Gamblin Raw Sienna
- Gamblin Cadmium Yellow Deep
- Gamblin Cadmium Yellow Pale
- Gamblin Ultramarine Blue
- Utrecht Iron Oxide Red
- Van Gogh Pthalo Green
Once my color was set up (a process I repeated several times throughout the completion of this painting), I set to blocking in main areas of color. Beginning with the darks and brightly colored areas in the dresses, I started to find the values for each area. I also began to find the base colors for the flesh tones. I knew the patterns in the dresses would be the hardest part of this painting (that and the freckles), as they were such organic, scattered patterns, it was going to be difficult to get the placement right. The drawing only indicated the more notable landmarks. I decided to approach that indirectly, and bring that into focus as the painting progressed. I also darkened the background.
In the next session I continued with this process of finding the color for a given area, and blocking in piece by piece. Generally, the real painting doesn’t start until I get to a point where the majority of the canvas is covered. Given that my schedule initially only allowed me to work on this for 3-4 hours at a time, it was a matter of patience and slow progress. The benefit was that as I worked on one area, the others had a chance to set, allowing me to come back to them and add layers of color later.
At this point in the painting I am using strictly Turpenoid (odorless mineral spirits) as my medium. This dries relatively quickly, within a week or so you can paint over it safely. I am working with either Dynasty Interlock Bronze flats, Princeton Synthetic Mongoose Rounds or Filberts, or Bristle Long Flat brushes. I am mixing with a palette knife, and occasionally scrape back color after each session, partly to reduce the surface texture, and partly to simplify the color that I will be painting over. Oddly, although I thought I would throughout this process, I never did have to oil in. You’ll see why as the painting progresses.
At the end of this session you can see that I was trying to find the more saturated areas of the face, and get the base skin tones down. Throughout the painting I approached skin tones much the same way I approach painting water – that is by using overlapping layers of color, often warms against cools, which mix optically, offering a more sophisticated resulting color than trying to paint in areas of simple color.
By this point I’ve also started working on the hair, laying in the undertones, slightly darker and more saturated than the end result. That will allow me to layer strokes on top to give it depth and sheen. I’ve also restated the values in the skin tones. The girl on the left has very olive undertones, while her sister has pink and purple undertones to her skin tone. Balancing these is crucial and I spend a lot of time making comparisons to get it right. You can see I’ve added more detail to the face on the right, as well as the rightmost hand. The background is also a more saturated dark. This stage involves a lot of taking care of the easy stuff, leaving the harder stuff for later, when there is more information to compare to.
I should say at this point, when I work from direct observation, from life, I usually don’t bounce around as much. But a painting like this affords me the luxury of time. No model is going to sit for the tens of hours it will take me to paint in this manner. Over the next few images you’ll see this come into focus rather quickly.
At this point I’ve tackled both faces, trying to capture the likeness, the hair is largely blocked in and the hands are beginning to form. It’s also about this point when I realize that the dark background is going to be too simple, and I start formulating ideas about how to break that up. I’m still struggling with the patterns in the dresses, however I have certain areas that are beginning to look right. I have spent a good deal of time focusing on the face on the right, the expression, the eyes and mouth look fairly resolved. I decide I will let that dry a bit and go over it to break up shapes in the next few sessions. Below is a close up of the faces.
The next session I spend working entirely on the faces. This involves sometimes scraping back with a palette knife, then repainting. Sometimes I am adjusting the color to be the right hue or saturation or value, sometimes I am simply adding semi-tones or semi-tints to soften the transition between areas. At this point I’ve broken out my liner brushes and am using a smaller stroke module (smaller marks). Minor corrections in placement, occasionally using a soft Langnickel Royal Mongoose brush to soften edges. Now the true painting is well under way. Sometimes it seems that real painting can’t happen until you have paint down to push paint into. This is how we can control edge quality and direct the eye to focus on certain things, but not on others. Below is another close up of the progress. The painting is starting to cook, and I can’t wait to get back to it.
By now we’re into December and time is short. At this point I’m working 6-8 hours a day on this painting. Sometimes I spend more time looking than actually painting, but that allows me to make the right strokes of the right color, in the right place, direction, etc., and the painting continues to progress. I’ve spent a lot of time on the hands now, and have made a concerted effort to fill in areas of the blouses to get to full coverage. By this point Dennis is also getting nervous. In actuality, I’m ahead of schedule and am quite relaxed about it. I’ve wrapped up most of the other work I have to do while chasing rent, and heading into the holidays, I have a lot more time to paint.
The next couple of sessions result in this stage – what I referred to as “Freckle Painting Madness” – I wasn’t sure how far I would take this. In the reference photo they are quite distinct, after all it was the height of summer when we shot it. I find myself overstating the color and value, then knocking it back a bit by dragging a clean brush over each stroke. The key is to make it look more like freckles and less like the measles. I knock it back even further towards the end of the painting. Subtlety is everything. Yet I am beginning to like the effect, the skin is looking lifelike, the pattern of freckles and tone variations are random enough to look real. I’ve also begun to push the values and details in the hair. Using smaller and smaller brushes, I am beginning to indicate direction and the final values.
At this stage of the painting I have begun to use a mix of 50% Richeson Copal Medium and 50% Refined Linseed Oil as my painting medium. I really love this stuff. The paint is becoming more transparent and I am effectively glazing in certain areas. I am also trying to keep the shadow areas more transparent than opaque, and I am giving much more texture and impasto to the highlights. The direction of each stroke in these areas is a big concern for me. I am still thinking about what to do with the background. I need to break up the shape, so it is not as flat, but I also know it should compliment the skin color and be subtle. Below are a few details.
With about a week left before Christmas, I am now putting the final touches on this painting. I’ve gotten to the point where the patterns in the dresses are randomized and close enough to the reference to look right. The tricky part of that area is making sure the colors and values in the patterns are not so contrasty that they steal attention away from the faces. I am repeatedly taking a soft brush and dragging it to soften edges, restating values to darken colors as they enter shaded areas, etc.
I have added a slightly lighter green to the background, using three different values and more energetic strokes to break up that area and give some movement and atmosphere to the space in which the girls are sitting. It’s hard to see it from these images but you can get a sense of it in the final image. Like I said, it had to be subtle. Dennis even remarked that if I had not told him I used green he would not have noticed. I noticed that it complimented the skin tones perfectly.
This again is the final image. In the end I finished with a few days to spare. I took it to my school on Saturday to show Dennis, and simply had to wire up the frame. I loaned him an easel so he could surprise his wife with it on Christmas morning. How he managed to hid a wet painting of this size from her for a couple of days is beyond me, but mission accomplished.
All said and done I estimate that this took around 150 hours, from planning, shooting the reference photos, preparing the ground and support, picking up the frame, priming, sanding, transferring the drawing, all the painting and framing. At $1600 that comes to a little over $10/hour. During this time I had to deal with no less than five major crises, lost my truck, was walking for the better part of three months, won an award, lost an assistant, doubled my teaching schedule, and had some long established business relationships fall apart. It’s never easy, and there’s no end of crap to get in the way. Regardless, I am grateful for the opportunity.