Painting the Figure – Part 1

by Damian Osborne


This painting is actually part of my Siren Series. I have broken up this figure painting demo into 4 parts. So stay tuned for explanations of the various stages. 


How do you start a figure painting with charcoal?

Vine charcoal is the best medium for starting a figure painting because it’s easy to wipe away and make corrections to your drawing. It is also perfect for drawing on canvas.

Unlike graphite, it is soft, and does not create the typical graphite sheen that starts to ‘ghost’ underneath the paint layers as the painting ages and becomes more transparent. Charcoal mixes easily with oil paint and is perfect for the underdrawing stage.

To fix the charcoal underdrawing, you can use a fixative. But I prefer to create an imprimatura, or go over the lines with lean umber or sienna oil paint usually.

This brown underpainting is Flemish underpainting technique called the brunaille

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.

For a ‘handy’ trick, you can make yourself a home-made charcoal drawing stick so that you can stand back and draw from a distance. Thus suffering less from proportion issues. 


How do you paint the imprimatura over a charcoal drawing?

Technically, the imprimatura is the Italian term for the first painting layer. So artists use this term when toning the canvas ground, sometimes over a drawing, sometimes not. 

I like to think of the imprimatura as a semi-transparent, lean oil paint layer that ‘seals’ the charcoal drawing. Although, traditionally, artists would go carefully over the charcoal lines with nut or bistre ink. 

What I’m doing here could also, maybe more accurately, be termed a brunaille, whereby you simply go over the drawing with umber or similar earth pigment. Many artists use also use Van Dyke Brown, or burnt sienna.

It’s important to not use too much medium, because as the first painting layer, it is advised that you keep your paint fairly lean and thin.

It’s best to adhere to the fat over lean rule if you want to maintain the strength and proper drying process of your paint films.

Earth pigments such as ochres, umbers and siennas are perfect for painting the imprimatura.

They are generally warm in hue, transparent, quick-drying (umber dries within a day usually), have strong film properties, are cheap pigments, and absorb oil very well, which makes them perfect for maintaining the fat over lean principle. 

They make a perfect foundation layer for the more oil-rich paint layers to come. 

In the next step, I went over the charcoal drawing with raw umber. I didn’t bother to use fixative on the charcoal this time, nor 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.

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.


The imprimatura or brunaille with raw umber.


How do you paint a grisaille underpainting in oils?

The grisaille is basically a monochromatic underpainting, usually in greys, which helps determine the values and forms. ‘Gris’ means grey in French, and was a typical technique from the French Academic painters before Impressionism. 

The grisaille in figure or portrait painting is often called the ‘dead layer’ as the subject has no colour.

Painting a grisaille really simplifies matters for the artist who uses the indirect painting method.

By painting in layers and allowing drying in between, the artist can focus on different aspects of the painting.

Whereas, direct, wet into wet, or alla prima painting, means that the artist needs all their skills to tackle everything (drawing, values, colour, edges, brushwork etc.) at once. 

When painting the figure, using a grisaille stage helps to control the shadows, half-tones and light areas. And thus create convincing three-dimensionality of the body’s forms, features and muscles. 

Usually a grisaille is made with black and white to create a series of greys of different values or light and dark tones.

You can lay out a row of different values on your palette, depending on as many as you feel comfortable working with. But it’s easier to work with fewer value ‘steps’ and keep things simple.

You can also scumble with just white over a dark imprimatura or underpainting, and thus create your grisaille monochromatic underpainting without using black. 

By varying the thickness of the semi-transparent or semi-opaque white layer, it is easy to manipulate the values and create realistic forms this way.

This technique creates some interesting cool half-tone colours depending on what colour your imprimatura is. These effects are due to the transparent nature of oil paint. For further study, see Grisaille Painting: Definition & Technique from

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.

Here’s a different take on using the grisaille or ‘Dead Layer’ stage in another painting tutorial I wrote. So there are many options when using a grisaille.


The background

Then I painted the background. The end. LOL!

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!


Please let me know in the comments below if you need help understanding these painting techniques. 


Check out some more of my figure paintings here.


Latest posts by Damian Osborne (see all)

2 thoughts 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.