Painting the Traditional Way
– Part 5 –
After painting the background surrounding the figure in the last post, it’s time to begin the final glazing stages on the painting.
This is the final part of this blog on painting a Woman in a Tropical Pool. If you missed the start of this figure painting, check out out Painting the Traditional Way
– Part 1, where I begin with priming and toning the canvas.
Finishing a painting usually takes longer than expected. This is the part of the painting process where I’m stepping back a lot to check from a distance, and spending a lot of time tweaking until I feel that it’s right.
Mostly the process consists of lots of scumbling and glazing.
As you can see in the picture above, I added colour to the philodendron leaves with semi-transparent layers of sap green, cadmium lemon yellow, cadmium green light and titanium white.
You are still able to see some of the warm browns underneath the green from the underpainting.
I also gently scumbled a layer of cool transparent white in parts of the background to make it recede and create spacial depth.
What is scumbling and glazing?
Both scumbling and glazing are two techniques where the paint is applied thinly enough so that the proceeding layer of dried paint is able to show through.
They are most commonly used when oil painting, but scumbling is also particularly useful with acrylics, and glazing with egg tempera.
What is glazing in oil painting?
Beautiful and luminous effects are achieved when applying glazes. A thin transparent layer of paint, usually made slightly more ‘wet’ with the addition of more oil or medium, is applied to the dried painting underneath.
It is a wet over dry technique, and it’s important to make sure your painting underneath is absolutely dry before you start glazing. Otherwise it will become a total mess.
The effect is that light travels through the transparent layers of paint, is reflected off the lower paint films, refracted through again and creates a glow.
Glazes are usually added at the last painting stages over the opaque painting layer. By adding more oil-rich glazes near the last stages, the ‘fat over lean’ rule is maintained.
Glazing is generally a darker transparent colour over a lighter colour and is therefore perfect for creating shadows.
What is scumbling in oil painting?
Scumbling is similar to dry brushing, where you brush your paint thinly over a dried paint film. Usually it is the opposite of glazing because you use a lighter, more opaque pigment over a darker surface.
And usually no medium or oil is needed because the action of brushing it out thinly, disperses the paint enough so that it appears semi-transparent.
Because of the vigourous scrubbing action of brushing it out, it’s important to make sure the proceeding layer of paint is absolutely dry. Also, I use old messed up brushes for this technique.
It is a dry on dry technique and the secret is to use very little paint and to brush it out thinly, so that the painting beneath can still be seen.
It’s great for softening edges, creating atmospheric effects like clouds or spacial depth. Having scumbled in the ‘dead layer’ from the previous post over the woman’s body, you are still able to partially see the anatomical structure of the underdrawing.
Scumbling a lighter, slightly opaque pigment on top of a darker area of the painting, will bring out a cooler tone in that base colour.
The prismatic effects of painting in layers of glazing and scumbling can only be achieved in this and no other way, because of the physical properties of light being refracted through the different layers of pigments. For further reading, see Glazing and scumbling in oil painting by David A Leffel.
The effect of painting in layers (indirect painting) with glazing and scumbling and other techniques, creates a painting that is usually more subtle and complex in tones and hues than the direct painting style.
Direct painting, also called alla prima painting (Italian for ‘at the first’) is where the painting is created in one sitting, without allowing layers to dry in between, and usually is purely opaque.
Usually the direct style is much looser and may be a technically vigorous with bold brushstrokes, less refined detail, and more ‘flair’. But it lacks the glowing luminance of glazing in layers.
The history of scumbling and glazing in oil painting
Before the invention of oil painting by the Flemish artists Jan and Hubert Van Eyck in the 1400’s, the popular painting medium of the time was egg tempera.
This delicate and precise painting method involved many thin transparent glazes of colour on top of each other until the desired chroma and saturation was achieved.
The Flemish oil painting tradition continued with the glazing practices of tempera painting, applying transparent or semi-transparent glazes on top of opaque underpaintings on wooden panels.
Oil dries more slowly and evenly than tempera, which allowed the artists more freedom with reworking their underpaintings and loosening up their style.
The invention of oil painting also allowed greater pigment strength and therefore greater luminousity, higher chroma and saturation.
When oil painting found its way to Italy, the Venetians in the early Renaissance developed it further by painting on canvas instead of panels.
They painted their underpaintings in grisaille (grey monochrome) or verdaccio (greenish-grey), then pushed oil painting further than before by applying techniques such as glazing, scumbling, sfumato (lost edges), frottage (dry brushing) and impasto (thick textured paint).
The final painting stages
In the final stages, I did a lot of back and forth painting of the woman that wasn’t strictly linear. I worked more on the background, the birds, the waterfall and the surrounding water at the same time as working on the woman’s body.
I added shadows and coloured glazes and built up interesting effects of colour over several months of painting.
How to use the verdaccio technique (a bit differently)
The verdaccio is the traditional Venetian technique of painting a greenish underpainting so that the flesh appears more translucent.
This method is usually done in the beginning stages of the painting as part of the initial underpainting and is usually semi-opaque with the addition of white.
But one can also apply the verdaccio in subtle, cool-coloured, transparent glazes in the latter stages of the painting. Then you can scumble the warm lights on top, and, again, build up the darks with more glazes.
This effect, of adding the verdaccio as an olive-coloured glaze, creates an interesting and cool halftone, which is complimentary to the subtle warm pinks and yellows of the flesh tones.
For more about colour temperatures and complimentaries when working with halftones, check out this chapter of my 4-part figure painting series: Painting the Halftones, Painting the Figure – Part 2
While painting the figure, I decided to glaze a greenish-blue verdaccio in the shadows of her body on top of the ‘dead layer’.
This would create more interesting colour effects for the glazes and scumbling I had in mind to come, as well as tie in the colour harmonies of the shadows and the surrounding cool green/blue environment the woman was immersed in.
For the verdaccio glazes, I used a mixture of ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, transparent gold ochre, raw umber and terre verte.
I wrote a whole in-depth blog and made a video on Painting the Verdaccio, which explains the traditional method of the verdaccio and how to mix the pigments according the the Old Masters’ methods.
I worked on little details like glazing colours over her face and ear. You can see how it’s starting to look transparent in some areas and more opaque in others.
Over this dried verdaccio layer, I scumbled in the warm lightness of her skin with titanium white, gold ochre and permanent rose.
After that came many layers of transparent glazes for shadow areas and reflections, and scumbled opaque highlights. This is when I’m painting mostly by instinct and taking my time, not thinking of any steps or formulas. The painting starts coming alive.
The hair, for example, required many glazes of colour, getting darker with each layer.
Why you should check your artwork in the mirror
Checking your painting in the mirror helps to give your brain a fresh way of seeing. By flipping the painting in ‘reverse’, you’ll be able to pick out any glaring proportion, tonal, and composition problems.
With this trick, you can quickly reset the eyes, and see if the painting is working as whole, and not become overly distracted with details.
Our brains quickly become accustomed to seeing and ‘correcting’ spacial and proportional elements so that we can make sense of them.
There’s the famous story of psychologist George Stratton who wore glasses that turned everything upside down for 8 days. Eventually, his brain was able to recalibrate so that the world looked normal.
The same thing happens to our vision when we’re stuck working on the same painting for many hours or even days. We stop being able to see the weird proportion errors because our brains trick us into seeing it as though it looked normal.
Which is why a mirror is so handy in order to quickly flip between the normal and reversed image.
You can also flip the painting upside down, or take photos of it with your cell phone and view it as a small thumbnail or on the computer. You can use your phone as ‘black screen’ or an actual dark mirror, to check that the values are working.
One of the most important habits any artist should maintain, is stepping back and viewing your artwork from a distance as often as possible. This is especially important in the last stages of the painting.
Sometimes I don’t work on the painting for weeks. Besides letting the layers dry better, it’s also good to give your eyes a break. And then stand back and study your work. Just spend time looking at your painting.
As the painting neared completion, I kept checking it in the mirror. I check the proportions, the spacial dimensions, the colour harmonies etc. I also squint my eyes a lot to check the values and contrast.
As I’m glazing and scumbling over the flesh of the figure, adding ripples and reflections to the water and adding transparent shadows to the leaves, the parrots and the rest of the painting, I am constantly checking colour temperature, depth of saturation and harmony.
I work across the painting as a whole so that nothing feels separated or jarring to the senses, like it doesn’t belong in the painting.
The completed painting
Finally after all the work, it’s a satisfying moment to apply the last stroke, stand back and pronounce a finished painting.
I always try photographed my paintings as carefully as possible. Using polarized lights and filters to prevent glare, I photograph at night in my studio.
This painting was now ready for postage to Australia. So I removed it from the stretcher, rolled it up and packaged it.
The painting arrived safely in Australia to its happy new owner and I was very glad that it didn’t get damaged or lost.
Thanks for reading my blog series on this painting. If you’ve missed the beginning of this figure painting series, you can go to Part 1 here.
Check out more of my figure paintings here.