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.




6 Responses to “The breathing in the painting”

  1. decorartuk Says:

    I’m impressed!

    Will I sound stupid when I say that I like your version more than the original? So be it. When I look at the two together I can see that it’s a copy, but it has its own hmm… lets say soul. Your lady is so vibrant and so alive, the origina lady looks a bit “flat”, if you know what I mean.

    I’m not sure if your aim was to produce a brilliant copy or just to try painting a nice portrait (I haven’t read your previous post yet), but all I can say is – well done! K.

    • Thanks, K for the compliments. Interesting, the flatness of the original might just be the quality of the photo. The photos of my versions also vary with the light and exposure.

      My aim was to produce a good copy, partly because I liked having the photo around so much, I wanted to see if I could make a painting I liked as much to hang here. (The original is slightly out of my price range- 115,000 euros. Ahem.). And I’ve never painted a portrait in oils before, so that was an extra challenge.
      cheers, S

  2. Your process has shown me the intense patience, attention to detail and yes, getting into the painter’s mind. You are a wonder, Sarah. What an extraordinary achievement.

    • Sarah Zoutewelle Says:

      Annie, thanks. I’m glad someone is getting something out of these posts because I love sharing the process. I thought only other painters would benefit, but if what I share adds to anyone’s understanding of what it is like to paint, then it is worth it.

  3. Evert van Dijk Says:

    What an experience must this have been.poeh! Patience, Sharp looking,trying and trying. I am asking myself,how was your breathing, your hartbeat, bloodpressure in painting this. I admire your courage! I always say to my students when they study a copy: realise it s only a copy, or a copy of a photo. Go and see the original. — Looking at a painting- even as it is calligraphy- i ask myself painted he this work upsidedown,as for instance Jeroen Krabbe always does. My greatest problemen should he in doping this: the consistency in rythm,in moving, in breathing in relation to my heartbeat. Thank you Sarah we may take part of your experiences.
    Evert van Dijk

    • Thanks Evert, for your thoughts. Yes, I know Jeroen Krabbé often turns his work upside down, I’ve looked hard at his paintings and wondered about that. They work so well right side up, I can’t imagine how he did it!
      I turned this painting upside down a few times to try to detach from the area that is an ‘eye’ or a ‘mouth’. And you’re right, I need to see the original. Actually it is being kept very near to where you live, so I might be able to combine it with a visit. Will keep you posted. Sarah

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