Painting the Traditional Way
– Part 3 –
The Dead Layer
After completing the underdrawing in charcoal, and going over the lines with a burnt sienna imprimatura, it was time to refine the anatomy and work on the ‘dead layer’ or underpainting stage.
Step 4: Refining the underpainting (the anatomy)
In the next step, I started refining the underpainting a little.
Using burnt sienna, raw umber and some ultramarine blue, I refined the drawing of the woman’s anatomy, paying special attention to her spine and scapular, the trapezius muscle of the back, the buttocks and the arm muscles.
By building up the bone and muscle structure of her body, I wanted it to look more realistic and accurate.
Once I was happier with the way the underpainting was looking, I started on the ‘dead layer’ of her face.
Step 5: The ‘Dead Layer’
What is the ‘dead layer’ in oil painting?
The dead layer is a traditional oil painting technique where the artist builds up the higher tonal values of the painting by adding white over the underpainting.
The lighter values are more opaque and more thickly applied, whereas the the darker areas are more transparent and more thinly applied allowing more of the underpainting to show through. In the darkest areas (for example in the woman’s hair), no white was added.
It is a useful step to build up the tonal values (the lights and darks) without having to worry about chroma or hue (colour).
By using a light value (lots of white), layers of glazed colour can be added afterwards on top of the white, causing the colours to refract more deeply and appear more glossy.
This was the typical Flemish Painting technique of the 15th Century. It’s called the ‘Dead Layer’, because the faces always look so ghostly white, or zombie-like in this stage.
“Grisaille” is the term used by the Academic French artists for the traditional way of creating an underpainting in monochrome.
Instead of using only white, I warmed it up a little with some permanent rose, red ochre, burnt sienna, and gold ochre.
Painting over the burnt sienna underpainting this way allows the previous layers to show through. You can still see the pink ground and the sienna underpainting underneath.
I tried to build up the forms using these halftones of opaque lights and semi-transparent mid-tones. By blending with a soft filbert brush, I could soften the effect of the harsh lines of the drawing and start building up the illusion of rounded, palpable flesh.
During this session, I ran out of time unfortunately and didn’t complete the right arm. I also had some paint on my palette, so I just brushed it onto right-hand corner of the painting.
Working on the background
When I was able to come back to the painting in a few days time, I completed the right arm and painted the birds in a basic middle layer of red and blue. I also streaked my left-over paint in the empty spaces of the picture:
I decided to that I needed to get more work done on the background, as I knew that it would influence the subject in many ways, particularly in the way that I wanted to do the edges of her body.
By painting the background first partially, I would have more control over that.
Secondly, I needed a clearer vision of what I wanted in the background because that would influence the subject in the sense of spacial composition – how she walked through, lived and breathed within the scene – and also in terms of light and colour.
How I painted the shadows and highlights of her body would be entirely influenced by what was happening in the environment around her.
So I cut some Philodendron leaves from the garden and put them in a vase with water on my table. With some raw umber and a touch of Liquin and white spirit, I took a long-handled fine brush, and drew the outlines of the leaves directly with the thin paint. I scumbled in the shading with a soft bristle brush.
I love the green/brown transparent hue of raw umber as an undertone for foliage.
I took the rest of my raw umber paint and used it up around the lower part of her body.
Next time, I’ll show more work on the background and see if I can get more work done on the woman’s body and the water.
Check out my figure paintings here.