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I read a Facebook update from David Kassan (http://www.davidkassan.com/) the other day where he’d posted a flawless portrait from a few years ago and in a sort of embarrassed way was commenting on how much he’d learned since! Well I’m not David Kassan, but I’m learning. I pulled out a portrait from a year or two ago the other day… it wasn’t a pretty sight, but that’s encouraging! It means I’m learning and growing as an artist, which is pretty cool.

Anyway, it’s still raining and the boys are home on half-term holiday, which has been fine, as – for the most part – they’ve let me get on with work this time.

Yep, it’s another self-portrait! No I’m not turning into a modern day Rembrandt… some hope. I don’t know why I feel a need to justify that action, but here’s a few reasons why I painted me.

Advantages:

1. He’s free and crucially, available when I need a model.

2. The model doesn’t complain and I don’t have to struggle to communicate what I want them to do. He’s very obliging that way.

3. …well that’s it mostly.

Disadvantages:

1. I have to put up with looking at him for weeks.

2. Everybody else has to put up with looking at him for weeks, perhaps longer if they get left him in my will!

3. You run the risk of being considered a narcissist. Believe me if a better looking model was available I’d use him or her.

So why this subject? I wanted to try a head and shoulders portrait and I wanted to see if underpainting with a kind of grisaille would have any actual practical benefit. Plus I’ve always loved Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier and wanted to do a homage-type-thing. Hals’ moustachioed cavalier is facing the other way, is ornately dressed and painted by a master, mine has a moustache!

You see lately I’ve been struggling to get depth and weight into my work and a crippling fear of intense colour or tone has resulted in a ‘flatness’ in my work. As it turns out the grisaille (black and white) underpainting was a real help!

I’ve learnt a lot from this painting and been surprised by how much I’ve had to challenge preconceived ideas too. I mean the “trees are green” kind of preconceptions. Trees are sometimes green, but when we paint them we find that they actually might include any number of colours like alizarin crimson, Prussian blue or violet! Depending on the light they could be any combination imaginable.

Now I know this in principle, but I was surprised by how much I didn’t put it into practice. The whites of eyes for instance are white aren’t they? In fact it turns out that a mix of cobalt blue, burnt umber, lamp black and white make a pretty good duck egg grey, like they were in this picture. If they were white, then how would the highlights stand out in contrast and if you haven’t got good enough contrast you have a weak image.

White has been a revelation too! A this point anyone other than a painter might be excused if they dose off or their eyes glaze over with boredom. My wonderful wife actually managed to find this interesting… ’tis only the power of love that can work such wonders!

No, white is fascinating! I’ve been using cheap Daler Rowney titanium white, which was gritty and poor, but the new Jacksons (cheap but quality) titanium white is like a new species entirely! It’s smooth, buttery, a little elastic (in a good way) and beautiful to work with. Titanium white has excellent opacity, so it covers other colours well, but it can also flatten colour when it’s used to mix with and can make your colours look a little ‘chalky’. Flake white by comparison is on the warm side of white and is superb for mixing with transparent colours like rose madder for instance. So where titanium white will flatten colour the more you add, Flake white will bulk up the colour while still preserving a little more transparency, which is great if you want to allow some of the underpainting colours to show through a thin glaze of added colour. Zinc white is a good mixer too, but more on the colder side of white and apparently is a little more brittle on drying. Black… well that’s another equally interesting story for not all black is equal!

I’ve also bought a couple of Michael Harding colours recently, chiefly to see in they were worth the hype. As it turns out, they are. They have great saturation, so you don’t need to add so much paint to mixes and they weren’t overly expensive. On the whole though I think it’s difficult to beat the Winsor & Newton Winton student range. They are little less saturated perhaps than Winsor & Newton’s Artist’s range, but considering the price, they are amazing quality paints! Jackson’s (http://www.jacksonsart.com/) own brand oils are also excellent quality paints and they do a brilliant free catalogue that you can sit and read over a cup of tea while you’re literally waiting for paint to dry.

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I didn’t do the whole thing ‘grisaille’, but the areas where I did definitely seemed to encourage bravery in subsequent layers!

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Underpainting

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Finished.

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Detail. As my youngest son put it recently, “you look a bit like a nutter. But you’re an awesome nutter!”. I can live with that 🙂

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