Next week, The New Yorker Magazine will run a portrait I did for art director, Chris Curry, of an Australian billionaire and one of the richest people on the planet, Gina Rinehart. Chris supplied the reference shots and asked that I paint it like the portrait of Neil Young I did for The Rolling Stone last year. It was my first time working with both her and the magazine and I was very excited.
Along the way, Chris changed course, and asked that I follow along. I did, a bit confused, but as a professional, I had to be able to accommodate. I felt that the sequence of working on this assignment would help illuminate many of the items here for this “10 Things…” post. Rock bottom basics to keep in mind for painting in oil.
Do whatever it takes to get the image to the surface.
Draw it freehand, copy images, project, trace, draw from life, or scan and paste it down…doesn’t really matter. Keeping the life in the painting is the hard part. Seal the drawing so you don’t lose it. As you paint, you’ll slop over lines. Since it’s sealed, you can wipe pigment off to get back to your sketch. The basic drawing is a guide, not a floor plan.
Value first. Color next.
Spend some time mixing color. Practice copying color from life, then copy color from photos. You’ll quickly learn what colors make up the color you’re trying to mimic. All color is value. Learn to discern a 10% value from a 50%. Value first, color next.
Keep colors clean.
Don’t dive into deep colors like ultramarine or Alizarin crimson without using copious amounts of white to lighten them. Use these rich colors in small amounts, adding slowly until you get the color you need. Too much too fast will get you mud. Even so, the idea is to work your way up through the muddy colors, using them as underpainting, until you lay on fresher, cleaner colors on the top layers.
Still mixing dull, mud colors? Then go buy a bunch of premixed subtle colors and only mix them with other similar valued colors. Remember though that mixing any color with just white will generally give you a pasty flat color. Most rich colors are mixed from several pigments.
Yes. Use black.
Black exists in Nature, much to the chagrin of quite a few instructors. You just don’t want to use it to grey colors for skin tones, shadows, etc. Then you really will get muddy. If you want to make black exciting, mix other transparent colors into it. You’ll get a fabulous range of blacks. But you have to learn to use black. You learn through patience and practice. Look for places to use it judiciously.
And yes, it’s ok to use flesh color. Did you think that was cheating? I bet you did. What goofball, besides that little voice in your head, told you that? VALUE first. Flesh color is just another value to use for painting skin, and clouds, and sky, and snow, and a bunch of other stuff. What…don’t look at me like that.
Know your brush.
Always notice how much pigment is clinging to your brush. If it’s gobbed on there, you’ll need to shift your stroke to use it appropriately, without leaving awful trails of thick pigment in the beginning layers. That only leads to more ugly. You’ll feel it after a while…second nature. As for the amount on the canvas, the old adage, “Thick over lean” is still pertinent.
Find your surface.
Don’t worry so much about what the right surface is for permanence. Worry about what feels right under your brush. Paint for you, not the world. What feels good to you will advance your skills. You can change it all up later.
Avoid straight white, pretty much whenever you can. Sure, mix it a lot with other colors, but when working up to those highlights everyone loves so much (because they make the surface of the painting seem almost 3D, which is awesome…) resist the temptation to put down a highlight too soon. Wait until you get to those last layers of paint for that. When you do, always mix some pigment into the white. Always. Straight white is hardly ever applied except in the brightest sun-bouncing-off-glass affect. Don’t do it.
Not kiddin’. Talking to you. That’s right. You know who you are.
Not so fast, pal.
I paint fast. I’ve painted fast for years. I didn’t get fast by painting fast. That’s like saying you get good at the violin by making your fingers move really quickly. Think musicians practice fast? The brain records and then insulates the nerve fibers that get used sloooooooowly. Speed comes after much, much slow practice.
Place your strokes. Design your strokes. Lay them down slow and deliberate. Record how that feels. Memorize. Do it again. Plan the next stroke. Mix the right color. Lay it down slow, deliberate. Do that 60,000 times and you’ll know what you’re doing when you speed up.
We are not chemists. We are artists. We paint. We don’t ponder molecular structures. Keep it simple. Just put the doggone pigment down. It’ll still be there in your lifetime. Don’t waste time worried whether or not it’ll be there for all future generations to admire and adore. Spend time painting and making sure they even care to preserve your work in the first place.
Besides, they’ll have fantastic methods for preserving things in the future. Don’t sweat it. Unless you’re painting on grocery bag paper like I used to do. Don’t ask.