Underpainting Stage for a Self-Portrait — ‘Nigredo’ 

by Damian Osborne



In this self-portrait oil painting, I start with a charcoal drawing, then make my own oil paint from bloodstone for the underpainting stage of the painting.

This is a self-portrait oil painting called ‘Nigredo’. It comes from a pretty dark place.

Nigredo is the first stage of the alchemist’s journey. The putrification. Annihilation. Blackness. The breaking down of the old self.

It’s been a period of great disruption and instability.

This painting is an attempt to clear an internal space from all the tossing, boiling voices and emotions shouting to be heard in my head.

I think of Nigredo as pulling the plug on all the drama and going into the silence of darkness. A kind of death if you will.


Polaris and Crucifixion, charcoal in sketchbook, Damian Osborne
Polaris and Crucifixion, charcoal in sketchbook. Some of the concepts I’ve been coming up with relating to ‘Nigredo’ in my sketchbook. 


How do you begin the underpainting stage of a portrait painting?

I first sketched out the basic concept of the painting I had in mind in my sketchbook. This helps to have a clearer idea for the composition or other elements before attempting the painting.

Then I redrew it (with slight changes) on a primed wooden panel.

I begin with a charcoal drawing on a traditional chalk gesso panel, such as was used in the Flemish School.

I make my own gesso panels which have the perfect ‘tooth’ for drawing the underdrawing stage in charcoal.

See Making Your Own Canvas Panels for Oil Painting if you want to know how to make your own. 

I usually use vine or willow charcoal for the lay-in drawing because these charcoals are fairly soft and mistakes can be wiped away easily with a finger or a dry rag.

In this case, I used a soft B Nitram charcoal for the drawing. To sharpen the charcoal, I just use a piece of sandpaper. 

Where I need darker, more confident lines, I use a charcoal pencil (which is basically compressed charcoal in a wooden casing). These lines are a bit more difficult to erase, so I use a piece of ‘Prestik’ putty (similar to Blu Tack) as an eraser.

To sharpen the charcoal pencils, I use a craft knife and a piece of sandpaper.


Drawing the portrait with charcoal on a gesso panel before the underpainting stage.


Can you oil paint directly over charcoal?

Yes of course! I don’t bother to use a spray fixative because I like the way the paint mixes with the charcoal. And I don’t actually trust the slippery layer of sheen the fixative creates.

At this stage, my canvas panel is quite absorbent and the paint dries quickly.

Once I’m happy with the charcoal drawing, I go over the lines with dark oil paint. (In this case I used my own pigment called ‘Bloodstone Black’.) But one can use any lean earth pigment such as umber or burnt sienna. 

I create a kind of  monochromatic ‘grisaille’ effect, using the white of the gesso board for the lighter values. Using the transparency of the paint to its full potential, I applied thicker paint for darker passages, and more thinned out paint for lighter areas.  

See more on painting a grisaille underpainting in oils.


Painting in oils directly over a charcoal drawing.


Making my own oil paint from Bloodstone

I made my own oil paint from bloodstone (a very symbolic stone for this painting), for the underpainting stage of the portrait.

Bloodstone is an interesting stone. Also known as ‘heliotrope’, it appears as a dark green chalcedony quartz with red flecks of hematite (iron oxide). The green colour is due to chlorite, hornblend etc. See gemdat.org for gemological information about Bloodstone.


Bloodstone before crushing into pigment.


Bloodstone was particularly symbolic in the ancient times and believed to have many magical and healing properties. The red flecks represent the blood of Christ at the crucifixion.

Bloodstone seems to have a strong metallic or iron smell when crushed. It also has a slightly an oily or soapy feel due to the chlorite. It’s a very hard and sits at about 7 on the Mohs hardness scale. So it’s not easy to get into a very fine pigment.

To crush the rock, I used a heavy mortar and pestle which I made from a large steel tube. I also used a motorised ball mill which I made myself.

And then I used a process of levigation, which is basically separating the finer pigment with water and gravity.

It’s an arduous process. I further ground the pigment finer with a granite mortar and pestle. Grinding the pigment too much, means you begin to lose the green chlorite pigment and it becomes more grey. 

Grinding the stone in water results in a brown oxide caused by the hematite in the stone rusting and turning brown. So different processes or grades of grinding result in different shades of pigment. 

Once the greyish pigment is mulled with oil, it becomes a transparent, greenish black (or brown if the iron content has oxidised in water).

Using a glass muller and a heavy granite slab, I used my own hand-refined linseed oil for mulling the paint.

Check out Making Your Own Refined Linseed Oil (Like the Old Masters) to learn more. 


Mulling bloodstone pigment in linseed oil with a glass muller.


It makes a beautiful, transparent dark paint, perfect for glazing subtle shadows. Due to the high quartz content (SiO2) it has a slightly weaker tinting strength. But this means it’s perfect for low key, delicate passages, especially in skin tones.   

The video above shows the paint mulling process, so check it out!

Moving on to the next stage of the portrait painting process, I continue with the underpainting layers and mix up my own colours for the verdaccio and skin tones in Final Stages of a Portrait Painting


Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions, please comment below or email me. 


Check out my latest series of works The Sirens.


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