Painting the Figure – Part 1


This is actually part of my Siren Series which I am breaking up into figure painting demos of the various stages.


The Vine Charcoal Drawing

To start with, I did a charcoal drawing of my lovely model from life on a large sheet of paper. This helped me to get a general sense of the composition, and of what I was seeing, before committing it to the canvas.

I redrew my sketch on a large canvas toned with a middle value of yellow ochre and white.

It’s usually easier for me to redraw something I’ve already drawn before, because I’ve already got my mind around the values and shapes from the first drawing.

And usually the second drawing is better anyway.

I drew some light lines across the canvas where I made use of an Old Master technique – dynamic symmetry. This is a wonderful composition technique using geometric and mathematical design to enhance the balance, flow and symmetry of a composition.

I wasn’t happy with the hands and feet, so I had to redraw them a few times.

But that’s what’s so great about vine charcoal. It wipes off very easily.

Check out Painting the Traditional Way: The Underdrawing for more info.

I also made an earlier video about the charcoal drawing stage.


The Imprimatura with Raw Umber

The next step was the imprimatura stage, where I went over the charcoal drawing with raw umber. I didn’t bother this time to use fixative on the charcoal, or to ink the drawing first as some artists are told to do.

Instead I mixed a little medium (of 2 parts odourless mineral spirits and 1 part refined linseed oil) and added only a few drops to the umber to slightly improve the flow.

I used cheapish bristle brushes because I knew the rough texture of the canvas would wear them down pretty quickly. And in this stage, I paint quite quickly and scrub my brushes a lot to get paint coverage.

One can’t go too crazy with using too much medium, because this is the first painting layer (or imprimatura in Itallian), and if you want strong paint layers, it’s best to adhere to the fat over lean rule and keep your initial paint layers fairly lean (as in don’t use a lot of oil).

I also used a rag to wipe out areas where I wanted to spread the paint a bit thinner and allow it to be more translucent and lighter in value.

You can read more about the imprimatura or watch the video here.


The imprimatura with raw umber.


The Grisaille

I usually like to use a grisaille stage when painting the figure. This is basically a monochromatic underpainting to help determine the values and forms. ‘Gris’ means grey by the way.

I squeezed out some titanium white straight from the tube, and scumbled this over the brown underpainting, using very little medium, if at all, in this stage.

I’ve been using Joe Joubert’s Handmade Paints which I absolutely love. This high quality paint is made in the traditional method, and this titanium white contains no zinc oxide which causes all kinds of paint defects in commercial brands of artists’ paints.

Anyway, you can read more about the grisaille or ‘Dead Layer’ stage in a blog I wrote.


The Background

Then I painted the background. The end.

Well, I just decided to mix some cadmium red light, yellow ochre, raw umber and white, and used this to create a warm background and foreground. This helped to set the scene, placing the figure in a seascape and immediately gave the scene atmosphere, space and greater temperature differences in the colours.


Why painting from life is best

At this point, I had mostly been painting from the drawing I’d done, and from a photograph I took.

Painting solely from photos can be dangerous, as it’s tempting to try and copy every little nuance and detail. Besides this, it’s also quite difficult to see exactly what’s going on, or get accurate colours or values.

The photo is quite limited in how much visual information it provides, especially a digital image from a computer screen.

To fill in the areas lacking in  information, I had to rely on my own anatomical knowledge and imagine the forms and think carefully about the values.

Ideally, I would like to have a few more live sessions with the model during the course of this painting.


In the next video and blog post, I talk about painting the halftones. Hope you enjoy!


Check out my figure paintings here.




One thought on “Painting the Figure – Part 1”

  1. Thank you, what a great video! I must say I like that portrait of the woman in front of the chest of drawers/writing desk; even if you aren’t heavily invested in it, you’re making something really lovely there! The main piece that you’re working on is beautiful too, and I admire your ability to work from a drawing/memory/photograph and keep the sense of immediacy.

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