The breathing in the painting

November 18, 2014

‘…it is fairly easy to imitate his technique.’  Famous last words! (See previous post)

I’m in the completion stage of copying in oils, an Isaac Israels painting.

There are various ways to copy a painting. If you want to reproduce the subject perfectly, you can meticulously fake the paint strokes by using small brushes to get the desired effect. That is basically drawing.

But my intent was rather to learn how to paint the way Israels paints; to get inside the process and as spontaneously as possible, imitate his ‘handwriting’. Calligrapher,typographer Jovica Veljovic speaks of the ‘breathing in the writing’- the sense of rhythm, spirit, pressure etc, contained in the way the pen makes marks on the paper.

I used to do an exercise with my calligraphy and drawing students: sign your name quickly without thinking about it too much. Now, slowly copy that rhythmic, spontaneous form, trying to duplicate all the little twists, curves and changes of pressure of the original. You’ll see that your result looks awkward, it is almost impossible to capture the flowing unselfconscious feel of the original.

Trying to paint like the artist did is like finding the breathing in the painting. You are forced to be there, with him in his studio, at the moment he was confronted with this model, the lighting, the colours on his palette. And to understand how he was thinking, why he used the colours he did, what order were they put on, rubbed out, reapplied?

Working this way, you enter the search with him, because every painting is a journey of discovery with lots of wrong turns, and a lot of painting is simply correction. My husband saw a recent stage of my painting and said it looked to him ‘better’ than the original. By which he meant, perhaps, neater, less ‘splotchy’.  But that isn’t the point of the exercise at all! It is to try to get into a mode where I understand the artist’s ‘handwriting’, and though the aim isn’t to reproduce his signature, it is to ‘write’ in the same kind of rhythm.

To start, I prepared the canvas board with a layer of acrylic the same colour as untreated linen canvas because this shows through in places on the original painting.

I drew the figure freehand in charcoal, using a horizontal and vertical axis for reference (first having traced the magazine picture and added those same axes to the tracing).

First oil washes

First oil washes

The next one blocks in the colours.
blocking in color

A later stage develops this further, trying to keep the painterly strokes.Deepening colour

As I got deeper into the process of painting the face, I started to see what I had taken on. One way a painter works is by applying paint and then modifying it on the paint surface. So what I am trying to capture is often a brushstroke with either an adjoining colour on the edge of it, or one that picks up underlying colour. That’s why exact rendering with one brush and one colour at a time wouldn’t teach you anything about how the artist painted, nor would it give an alive result.

In the next images, you’ll see the limited palette I chose for this painting (details upon request); the brushes- in the end I had 12 different brushes going, with about 5 of them for just the flesh tones; and the skin tone part of the palette. This last one is important,- I found it easiest to mix a warm light, middle and dark skin tone, and a cool range of the same before I started painting. I almost never used them pure, but usually mixed a bit of cool and warm, or whatever I thought I needed at that moment. It helped come close to the streaky, painterly effect I liked so much in the original.

Here is a detail from the original photo of the painting,(I have to go see the original original sometime!)  It is hard to see here, but the dark strokes in and above the eye are mixed with the flesh tones surrounding it, and there is also blending and reflection of the daylight blue hitting the nose and the  burnt sienna defining the hollow area below the eyebrow. Also, when painting in the hair, you can see directly to the right of the eye, how the strands of hair also pick up some of that warm flesh tone on the cheekbone.

Close up of original

Close up of original

So here below is where I ended up a few days ago.

starting to look like something

starting to look like something

Even though the face is a bit blotchy, it captures the feel I wanted.

I worked on it more, and where I am now (below) may be closer in surface appearance to the original, but I feel it loses some of the spontaneity of the paint application.


Current version


Here are my two recent versions next to the original.

There are still a few things I want to work on, but this is more or less what I want to share of the process.




Woman in front of sunflowers, by Isaac Israels

Woman in front of van Gogh’s sunflowers, by Isaac Israels

I first came across this painting several years ago in a magazine. Attracted by its simplicity and the freedom of the brushwork, I cut it out and put it up where I could see it daily. It has migrated from downstairs where I once had my little shop, to upstairs in my studio, and has survived any number of cullings and rearrangements.

At first,  I wasn’t that crazy about the subject matter, (although it was fascinating to find out recently that Israels had borrowed several of van Gogh’s sunflower paintings to study them, and had used them as backgrounds for several of his paintings beside this one). But it has grown on me to such an extent that I’m making a copy of it to learn as much as I can by reproducing it.

Slightly frustrated by having only a magazine photograph and a web image to refer to, I was longing to see the original.  It is in Holland at a well- known auctioneer, but at the moment it is too long a trip to make for one painting. Instead, I went to visit the Groninger Museum’s collection  in the hopes that I could find a similar painter from the same period to study.

I was delighted beyond words to actually find an Israels in the current display of part of the Groninger musem’s permanent collection. It seemed so coincidental, but I’m almost ashamed to admit, not being a great art history scholar, that I hadn’t realised that Israels was Dutch and a respected figure in the Amsterdam Impressionists group. The painting was a rather drab portrait of Aletta Jacobs, a well known Dutch doctor and feminist, but it was a prayer answered to be able to get up close and see the real colours and actual brushstrokes.

Copying a painting, for me, can be a spiritual experience of actually inhabiting the soul of the artist. By trying to reproduce the essence of the painting, you have to get inside the painter’s head and metaphorically strip layer by layer of time and pigment down to the beginnings, where he set it up, adjusted the light, and made the first sketch.

With Israels, this has been relatively easy. His work is so honest and transparent and somehow close to my own sensibility, not necessarily in technique but in intent,  it is fairly easy to imitate his technique. I’ll be showing the whole process soon.