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.




Tulips and fruit

Tulips and fruit, oil on canvas,  40 x 50cm  (16’x 20″)

This one was a challenge with the various subjects and the rivers of cloth, but I am basically happy with the result. I’ve been working on two in this series simultaneously and this is the second one. The first one is much larger and at the moment is getting a bit too stiff and caught up in details. That’s the challenge when working with patterned cloths- how to indicate the richness of colour and texture as well as the movement of the folds without becoming stuck in rendering just the surfaces.

I liked the boldness with which the cloth in the foreground is painted.  I took some tips from my 37 minute paintings (an exercise from Robert Genn’s workshops) and just got on with painting what I saw in a general way without going back much to smooth and model. I am learning through doing that the trick lies in suggesting, not drawing with the brush as if it were a pencil. Personally I am not at all attracted to super realism, I love seeing the breathing in the painting.

I am happiest about the luminosity of the whites on the right hand part of the painting, and the general glow. My work is getting much closer now to what I sense it wants to be, which is saying that the technique is finally catching up with everything else. I am starting to feel a more natural rhythm to the brushstrokes and am understanding which brushes to use when. Also I am discovering the infinite colours that can be mixed  for shadows. For example, for warm shadows, raw sienna and permanent rose with just a touch of turquoise to cool down the orange. And to warm it up again for ares catching a bit more light, some cadmium red light.(See the shadows on the cloth near the vases).

I mentioned when I posted the underpainting that I wanted the darks to lead into the painting. This was kept in mind.


Tulip time

April 18, 2014

third stage of acrylic underpainting

halfway through the third stage of acrylic underpainting, showing the neutral background and grey values

At the moment I’m working on two paintings at the same time. I have another one of the same subject as above at a further stage of development, but I just started this one today and wanted to record this part of the process in case it is of any help to other painters.

The subject is deliciously complex, with two patterned fabrics intertwining on a background cloth, with 3 vases of tulips. In the above picture, there are actually 3 stages of underpainting shown.

  1. First is a neutral light blue coat, (ultramarine and white with a good amount of heavy gel mixed in). I chose this colour carefully having learned from my work in oil pastels that the background colour can make certain colours glow and kill others dead. See in the example below, how the pinks and oranges come to life on the blue paper. In the painting I’m working on, there are some hot greens and vibrating turquoises that I want to keep alive, as well as the oranges and pinks of the tulips, so the neutral greyish blue undercoat will allow that.Tulip and lily fantasy
  2. The folds of cloth with the pattern following them is so complex that I needed to establish values and contours before I started in with the oil colours. So I mixed some cobalt blue and burnt sienna into a dark grey and sketched in shadows and folds.
  3. After that, I mixed some bright colours with gel to form transparent glazes (so I didn’t cover up all my previous work getting the contours!!), and painted in fun colours, keeping complements in mind. Oranges layered over that acid green will make the tulips dance off the canvas. And the purply pinks will glow here and there through the green leaves, giving them depth.

    Acrylic layer ready for the first coat of oils

    Acrylic layer ready for the first coat of oils

I enjoy painting the oils over a supportive layer of acrylic colour, unexpected things happen, happy accidents of one colour against another, or letting the background colour show as a contour to give a subtle painterly effect. From previous paintings, I’ve learned to put the darkest colours where my lightest values are going to come. So that dark browny purple behind the middle tulip vase is actually waiting to receive a beautiful honeyed orange light. The blue cloth on the left will, in the end, be hot pink, gold and blue. It takes patience to work this way, but doing it like this is also a way to familiarise myself with the subject before I start applying the oil paint, so that stage proceeds with more confidence.

I will be following the dark values on this painting, something I haven’t done before, usually I let the lightest point lead the eye into and around the composition. But it happens that in this one, the darkest areas lead into the painting in a nice curving path that the eye can follow easely (pun intended, sorry). 🙂








flock of felt birdies

flock of felt birdies

Crafty corner time! (Goodness, however will I keep up my image as a professional designer and serious painter by showing my small handmades?) Well, not my problem, I don’t see them as separate from my other work.

This group is sold out. I’ve found that selling works for me if it is to my immediate friends and other small local circles, like classes etc.

I wanted to share part of the process of making these little sweeties because it is something that evolved while working on these and might be fun or helpful for others.

During all my hand work projects I always felt bad about the waste of little bits of pure wool felt, silken embroidery threads and snippets of wool and acrylic yarns. I kept as many scraps as possible, but inevitably the tiniest pieces would get thrown away. Well, I just started putting them in a jar because the colours made me feel happy. And when they accumulated, the penny dropped, and whoopee, I discovered I  had ready-made stuffing for my brooches.

Here is my worktable surface, it pleases me how harmonious the colours of the washi tapes, scraps and Papaya mailing stickers are, oh and the crochet work in the background. I tend to stick to these kinds of warm pastels. Far left you can see my scrap collection jar.



work surface

Here is bluebird in the process of getting his innards.

getting filled

getting filled

And here he is ready to send to Sandy, my dear friend in Canada who will be his new mom.

‘Tweet’ (remember when that used to mean, bird word)!?

Bluebird with fancy toes

Bluebird with fancy toes

Grouped by colour

Grouped by colour

An artist friend whose blog I follow was interested in other’s methods of reconstituting dried up watercolours. (Do check out Richard’s blog, he paints wonderful watercolours and writes intelligently and inspiringly.)

Years ago I went through my watercolour supply and separated out perhaps a hundred dollars worth of tubes of dried paint. I then cut apart each tube and with a knife or wooden stick, scooped the sometimes sticky pigment out into the stackable plastic pots pictured, I added a bit of water, then I labelled each one. It was  very messy and took a long time but it was a worthwhile and profitable job.

I use them just  like I use my travelling watercolour box with the little squares of colour, just moisten the brush apply it to the dried watercolour and brush the paint on to the paper normally.

I had a good time with the labels. I wanted the pots to look like they were found in some old drugstore or antique shop. I took some paper I’d treated with coffee to age it, then drew the red lines and lettered the names of the colours with a very small (Mitchell 5 Italic) calligraphy pen.

Stackable containers

Stackable containers

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This is an answer to Kristina’s comment on Oil pastels and oil painting

Do have a go.
I work only on coloured charcoal paper, mostly dark- Cansons or Ingres about 200-300g weight. Lighter paper won’t hold up as well under strong application of colour or scraping.
And the colours completely die on white paper in my experience. I want them to glow.

Actually, I received a gift of a basic Sennelier set not long ago and it isn’t bad. Here is a link for a photo of the box http://www.dickblick.com/products/sennelier-oil-pastel-sets/#photos

There are some colours I can’t live without, though. You could choose from these depending on your own needs:
88 Sap Green- (a cool sagey bluegreen)
46 Olive green- (muted dusty green)
206 Moss Green- (a bright yellowy green, lights up on the page)
207 Ash blue- (very very light, I use it to lighten other colours to soft grey tints)
219 Celestial blue (Close to the light blue in the set, but more body)
40 Barite green (my favourite greeny turquoise)
82 Bright turquoise

8 Bordeaux (lovely rich aubergine, couldn’t do without it for shadows and depth)
27 Purple (nice magenta)
216 Perma violet (good basic purple)
202 Geranium lake light (good deep rosy pink)

232 Terra cotta (warm brick colour)
240 Light English Red (lighter versio of terra cotta)
20 Yellow deep (cadmium deep)

And I’ve always loved using their irridescent Red Copper 115. Those are usually stumps in my set. Their metallics are so good and this one just shines on a dark blue background. It also adds wonderful light flecks when used over other colours- see Gerard loved all flowers,  and Moon Music.

You’ve got me all inspired to do some tutorials on oil pastels, because they are the medium I’m really at home in. And there are so many ways to use them.

Don’t let all this info overwhelm you.

Here’s another suggestion for a basic set to put together yourself:
1 White
220 Permanent intense red
22 Gold yellow
20 Yellow Deep
200 Mandarin
213 Veridian Green
206 Moss Green
46 Olive green
219 Celestial Blue
237 French Ultramarine
203 Delft Blue
216 Perma violet
8 Bordeaux
202 Geranuim Lake
34 Burnt umber
23 Black

Brush holder (made by Rende)

In the previous post I wrote about avoiding the use of solvents that could be harmful to breathe.

One area where I haven’t been able to avoid using these is in cleaning brushes. But I do have  a few tips for how to reduce the frequency of use.

First of all, I’ve learned through my own experience, that to keep colors pure and clean, I use a different brush for every color group. That means a different brush for yellow and a nother for red. But I still might use the red one for orange. And the brush for blue could be used for a medium but also a dark blue.

I might have 8-10 brushes in use for any one session. If I had to clean them all between sessions, I would have stopped long ago.

Storing paint filled brushes between sessions

What I do is leave just the bristles and metal part (ferrule) standing in water. My husband the woodworker made me two contraptions which hold the brushes in place at the right level in the water. (The design for them originally comes from my first art teacher and beloved passed mentor, Abe Weiner.) Rende and I worked on adapting it to my needs, see photo. Basically it consists of a wooden collar around a glass jar and some clothespins.

You can leave brushes this way for a week or two, but I still check them from time to time if I’m not getting to my painting, just to see that they are still soft and the water hasn’t evaporated too much.

Note: When ready to resume painting, wipe the wet brush off with a rag first.

Cleaning brushes

Note: March 2014 It is 2 years down the road since I wrote this post. I now hardly use any solvent to clean my brushes. I do keep a bottle of used Balsam Turpentine Oil or another minimally harmful brush cleaner and dip the dirty brushes in that to start with, I wipe the worst residue of paint out on newspaper, then all the rest is done with soap and warm water. Takes time, but works well.
I also periodically take a stack of newspapers and cut A-4 ( or 8 1/2 x 11 “) sheets in one go with a steel ruler and sharp matte knife. They are handy for little clean-up jobs during and after painting, like cleaning my razor scraper when I clean my glass palette.

I love my materials, this is a large part of the joy my art gives me, so I care for them pretty well. When the painting is done, or if I’m getting too many brushes in those jars, here is what I do.

I wipe the water off, then wipe the oil paint off as much as possible. I keep rags and a roll of toilet paper for this. Then I take them downstairs ( I don’t do this in my studio because I don’t want the fumes in there) and take out the Balsam Turpentine Oil.  See previous post. Or you could use any brush cleaner. There are increasingly more safe and environment friendly ones, so try to get those.

Now, I have 2 jars, one is for the first dirty wash (previously used). The second is for the clean rinse and is new and clear. Depending on the size of your brushes, each one could fill to a quarter to a third of a normal jam jar.  Long, slender jars work well too, you don’t have to use as much to get a layer that can cover the brush bristles.

I swish the brushes in the dirty wash and rub them out on layers of newspaper until there is as little paint left as possible, I repeat if needed. Then I wash them in the clear balsam turpentine oil and stroke them out again on new newspaper.  I may dry them further with toilet paper.

Then I have some special honey hand soap I wash each one separately with in hot water. I rub the brush on the soap as if it were paint, and rub it around on my palm until I”m sure all the paint is out.  Then I run under hot water and dry, then shape with my fingers, and they are all clean and happy again ready for a new painting.

The honey soap I got at a garden fair and I love treating myself and my brushes to its extremely soft texture and mild fragrance. This soap is handmade and very pure. Commercial soap is fine, but I wouldn’t suggest using one with built-in hand cream, it might leave a residue.



detail of 'Yellow jars'

I thought I’d share some of my discoveries as I journey further with oil painting. Maybe they will spare others having to invent everything from scratch as I’ve had to do. These posts will be filed under the new category ‘Tips & Techniques’.

I’ve been drawing and painting on and off in various media for most of my artistic life (since around the age of 6, please don’t ask how many years that is 🙂 ).  But in the last year I’ve have been working most intensively with oils.

I’ve worked with oils before, and one of the things that always stopped me from progresssing with this delicious medium was that I didn’t want to be constantly breathing in dangerous vapors from turpentine and other solvents. (Water soluble oil paints were also not an option because I really do prefer how oils handle.)

Brush cleaning breakthrough

A real breakthrough was the discovery that oil dissolves oil paints. For awhile I simply used cooking oil and then hot water and soap to clean my brushes. But that was really messy and not that effective.
This problem was solved with Balsam Turpentine Oil. It is a natural product, I can’t tell you more because the label is in German. But it smells a bit milder than normal turpentine. The company that sells it is AMI- Art Material international. I have no idea if they are on the web or even still in business.

I used to use this as a thinner to improve the flow of paint,but it still has fumes so now I use it exclusively for cleaning my brushes. And I do this in a well ventillated place far from my studio. More on the procedure later.

Medium for thinning your paints breakthrough

Then I discovered Zest-it Clear Painting medium, praised be! (no they aren’t paying me, though they should!!)! Their motto is ‘Safe solutions for artists’.

OK, Zest-it is made in the UK, and has solved all my problems of fumes while painting. It is based on lemon oil and also contains linseed oil.
(I don’t use straight linseed oil because I find it gets sticky and the paint dries too slowly.) Zest-it is gorgeous to use and also speeds up drying. I understand they have a brush cleaner too, but I think that could get fairly expensive in use.

I pour out a tablespoon in a tiny glass bowl and dip into it while painting. It doesn’t smell at all, well only faintly of lemon. Yum. A little goes a long way- I’ve been doing well with a 250 ml, around 10 euros, for at least a half year- still have half a bottle left.

So I paint in oils without having any harmful solvents in the studio at all.

More about cleaning brushes in another post