Final Stages of a Figurative Painting
Painting the Figure – Part 4
Figurative painting has become the main ‘body’ of my work. This painting is part of my Siren Series, where I depict a female figure in isolation before the sea.
If you missed the last blog, I started working on painting the skin tone. In this chapter, I complete this figurative painting with several stages of glazing.
What are two different techniques for figurative oil painting?
Artists who paint the figure in oils can usually be divided into those who paint in the wet-in-wet or direct painting method (alla prima), and those who use the layered, or indirect painting method.
With the direct method, the painting is completed in one sitting. It is stylistically very different from the indirect or layered approach, because every brushstroke is applied while the painting is still wet.
With the indirect method, the painting is build up layer by layer, where each layer is allowed a substantial amount of time to dry before applying the next layer.
There are many other aspects and choices for artists regarding figurative painting, such as realistic or abstract painting, but I’m speaking mainly of techniques here and not styles.
Usually though, technique and style go hand in hand. One’s style is based on the techniques, tools and materials that are used. But for the purpose of this blog, I simply want to talk mainly about the painting method I like to use the most — the classical painting method of painting with many layers.
I prefer painting in layers usually because it is much easier to control the subtle colour and value shifts across the form of the human body.
This method makes much use of the technique of glazing.
Glazing in figurative painting
Many artists talk about glazing with oil paints, but what is glazing exactly?
I’ve talked about glazing before in many of my other blogs and videos. But glazing is basically applying a thin, transparent film of oil paint in successive layers, allowing each glaze or layer to dry in between.
This painting was fairly challenging because most of the sitter’s body that we see is in shadow. Therefore the shifts in values within the shadow side of her body are very subtle.
Areas like her left shoulder, left leg, right knee, and top of her right foot are in more direct light which is coming from the sky overhead. So the figure is essentially rim-lit with light.
Glazing takes a bit of practice, as well as a bit of patience. But it’s quite simple once you get the hang of it.
It takes patience and planning because you need to give it plenty of time to dry in between layers. Which is why most people prefer alla prima painting for quick results.
Pigments for glazing
While glazing this figure painting, I used mostly gold ochre, permanent rose and burnt umber, sometimes a burnt of burnt sienna, ultramarine blue and Payne’s grey.
Some pigments are more conducive for glazing than others. If you look at a tube of commercial brand oil paint, you’ll see a small square or black block on the label.
If it is an empty square, it means that the paint is fairly transparent.
This means that the particles of pigment are fairly loosely spread in the suspension of oil, and light can more easily travel and refract through the paint, giving it that characteristic glow.
If the square has a diagonal line crossing through it, it means that the paint is semi-transparent, and therefore a little denser.
If it is a solid block, it means that the particles of pigment are more tightly packed in the oil suspension and therefore the paint is more opaque.
You can however add a bit more linseed oil to an opaque paint to make it more transparent.
But if you start adding too much oil to a mixture, you could run into paint film problems later on.
Glazing issues with oil painting
If your paint starts beading on the surface of the canvas, it’s a sign that you’ve used too much oil. In that case, wipe it off with a rag, and use a bit less.
Some artists like to add resins to their glazing mediums such as copal, mastic, dammar, venetian turpentine and a host of others. The resin allows the fresh paint to ‘stick’ to the dried layer and minimizes beading up. It breaks the surface tension and adds glossiness to the glazes.
But I prefer to stay away from resins and most other concoctions in mediums that seem to have infiltrated the world of oil painting since the days of Joshua Reynolds. Even the need for solvents in oil painting is a complete myth.
(I’m in the process of creating my own refined linseed oil in the style of the Old Masters and I’ll do a blog and video on it soon.)
Resins cause all sorts of problems for the longevity of an oil painting. You can read more here if you’re interested.
If I find that the paint is beading, I gently rub the canvas to break the surface tension slightly. Then use only small amounts of linseed oil with my thin transparent glazes.
Therefore, I always keep an old rag handy. Both to wipe excess paint or oil off the canvas, and to constantly be wiping excess paint off my brushes while working.
(I also clean my brushes in a small pot of linseed oil while working and wipe off the excess.)
Glazing in the final stages of the painting
I keep a notebook wherein I write down my thoughts or plans for a painting. After every session, I write down the next steps so that I’m not lost after a few weeks of drying time.
Painting in this way takes patience and one must adhere to the fat over lean rule.
‘Remember the fat over lean rule!’ is often thrown around in art classes, but what does it mean? In a nutshell, it means that every layer that you add to an already dry layer in an oil painting, should be slightly ‘fatter’ or oilier.
If you apply a ‘lean’ layer, one which has too much solvent like turps or mineral spirits, or not enough binder in the pigment such as oil, the effect will be a bit like when mud cakes hard on your face. It cracks and flakes off because your skin is more flexible. The mud has dried into an inflexible layer.
So the oiliness keeps the paint film more flexible. Too much oil though, and your paint will struggle to dry. You’ll get a gloopy mess and wrinkling!
It dries through oxidation, not evaporation, so it needs air to dry! The layers beneath may never dry properly even though it feels dry on the surface.
That’s why I allow at least a few weeks between layers when I’m glazing with linseed oil. To make sure the surface is ready for the next glaze.
I also try to use no more than 2 – 3 pigments at a time when glazing. This keeps the colours purer, and allows me to control the intensity of the glazes.
The colours I used for the skin — gold ochre, rose and burnt umber — served beautifully for warming up the cold flesh of the previous layers.
I always love nearing the end of a painting, especially one that I’ve spent a lot of time on. I stand back often, and use long-handled brushes to give myself distance as well as more mobility with the brushstrokes.
This is when it all comes together. And I probably spend more time looking at the painting and thinking, than actual painting.
I stand back and check the painting in a mirror. Just to make sure it looks alright in reverse too.
You can see in the video how I painted the sky, as well as touched up all the shadows on the figure and the sand.
That concludes this figurative painting series. You can check out more of my figure paintings here.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask below.