A question of values

This was my Painting Weekend! - when the boys go to their dad's and I have an uninterrupted few hours in the Panda House. The feeling of waking up on a Painting Weekend is a little like waking up on Christmas Day when you're a child. The day ahead holds the promise of the particular smell of oilpaint and white spirit, and sheer joy of having potentially the creation of a masterpiece at hand, or the solving of a particularly difficult passage.

I have a commission to paint a portrait right now of an extremely beautiful young lady from a photograph. I began the portrait last week and for some reason - I do this periodically - decided to go against the method that I always use myself and try something new.

Like many artists, I can't start with a white canvas in front of me. The paint wouldn't sit very well either, as so many pigments are transparent in nature and the white would just show through. So I tend to paint a mid-colour wash on the canvas, then a rough outline of what I want to paint, establishing the values (the lightness, or darkness).

So why did I decide to do something else? I had seen a step-by-step guide to painting grisaille portraits in oil on Pinterest, and I tried to copy it. Basically, you paint an exact version of your picture in tones of grey and white (what you get resembles a white marble statue), and then when that is dry, you 'glaze' colours over that structure with a translucent mixes of paint and glazing medium. It's meant to give a luminous effect, which I thought might help me to show the porcelain, youthful skin of the young lady.

So, with great excitement I began work yesterday morning to glaze my grisaille. I felt excited at first, that is, but as the day wore on I became uncomfortable. Because the grisaille version is executed in detail right at the start, it's the opposite way to how I normally work, where you work from something quite rough and hone it, often deliberately leaving complementary areas of roughness. That is what gives my paintings their character and energy, despite being painted from photographs.

As the day progressed I had the flat feeling inside that while I had produced something that was technically competent, it didn't have and couldn't have the life and feeling that my usual paintings have. And once you get that flat feeling inside, it's really so hard to carry on. I've done this before: I've tried to copy what works for other people but I really ought to have confidence in my own method. It works for me. Then the light began to fail and I felt miserable: I'd wasted my Painting Day. Yes, I'd found out what I shouldn't be trying to do, but at what cost?

The portrait will be painted over; I will begin it again. In my method.

In a 'Grisaille' painting, you create a perfect image right at the start. It has to be perfect because you are simply glazing veils of colour tints on top of it. But to me, that's not painting!

This is not the portrait I was painting yesterday but it shows how I start off with a very rough rendition of the light and dark values.

It works for landscapes too. The colour I have used here is a wash of Raw Sienna and then I've made a dark mix of Burnt Umber/Prussian Blue to show where the darest parts of the painting will be. After this it's simply like colouring in.

#grisaille #failure #paintingweekend #glazing

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