I often bore people with long conversations about my use of glazes, without realising they don’t know what I’m talking about. So I thought I’d write a post about this wonderful technique, and how it has transformed my art. It’s not complicated. Glazing is applying transparent layers of paint over another dried layer of opaque paint. One benefit is that highlighted areas retain their saturation and luminosity, and don’t turn chalky, as is the case if you mix colours with white. Shadow areas can achieve a depth of colour you can’t achieve with a simple layer of opaque paint. The disadvantage in using this technique is it relies on some forethought in preparing a suitable underpainting, and that underpainting has to be allowed to dry before applying the glazes. This obviously slows down the painting process.
Note: I use oil paints, and everything I say applies to that medium. You can just as easily use glazes with acrylics, but I’m not qualified to advise on which mediums to use.
Traditionally a “grisaille” underpainting was monochrome, but I tend to add a little colour during this earlier stage. I am careful to keep the tonal value in shadow areas fairly light, as glazes will deepen the final tone. The most difficult thing is anticipating how the glazes will look, especially as I might end up with six or more separate layers of glaze, to achieve the desired effect.
How Glazes Transformed my Art
When I studied at art school, there was no instruction in painting techniques. We were left to experiment and find our own means of expression. I embraced speed of execution and painted in an “alla prima” technique – wet paint onto wet paint. It was fine for landscapes (yes, I used to paint landscapes) but I became frustrated that I could not achieve the effects I wanted when painting portraits and figures. It wasn’t until I resumed painting years later, that I took the time to study traditional painting techniques. It was a revelation. Now I had the tools to create the paintings that I wanted, and it has allowed me to explore portraiture and nudes, which have always been my first love.
Glazing can be spontaneous
Having written about all the methodical preparation required in using this technique, I should add that they can be applied as freely and loosely as you like. The only limitation is the need then to allow each layer to dry. But if use an alkyd medium like liquin, or just add some to a traditional glaze medium, it will speed up drying times considerably. Technically you should only use transparent or semi-transparent paints with glazes (transparency/opacity is marked on every tube of artist oil). You can use the same technique with white or opaque colours, but it will give an entirely different effect. One example would be using a thin glaze with zinc white to paint the bloom on grapes.
If you like the effects achieved with glazes, you will find that all the paintings in my gallery pages have been painted using this technique.
Have you ever thought about commissioning a nude portrait painting?
You’re not that unusual if you have. I receive plenty of enquiries about such commissions. In fact, almost half the commissions I have worked on were for nude portraits, and I am sure I would receive many more enquiries if people didn’t feel slightly awkward asking about them.
The simple answer to the question “can you paint me nude?” is yes. I don’t see much distinction between a nude portrait and a more conventional portrait. The preparations for both are much the same. I like to arrange an in-person sitting if possible, during which I will make several drawings, trying out different poses. Once a pose has been selected, I will take a reference photo, and use that along with the drawings to create a painting.
I can have sittings in my studio, or am happy to travel to the client’s home. That’s often the best option, as the sitter is more likely to feel at ease in their home environment.
It often turns out that the best poses are not planned for, but can happen by chance. The light might fall on the body in a particular way; a fleeting expression might say more about you than a carefully prepared pose. By having a three hour sitting, we’re more likely to happen upon that one elusive pose that says what you want to say.
The most important step is finding out what the sitter wants from the painting. Everyone has a different reason for commissioning a portrait – nude or conventional. Understanding why you want your likeness painted will help me decide how to paint you.
Is a nude portrait the best way to boost your self-esteem?
Last year I was contacted by journalist/author Radhika Sanghani who was writing a feature on women who have commissioned naked portraits of themselves to celebrate their bodies. It was something she had personally done, and she was looking to be put in touch with women who had done the same. None of my customers wanted to be contacted (possibly because the story was destined for the Daily Mail), but Radhika managed to finish her article, and you can read it here: Is a nude portrait the best way to boost self esteem I found it particularly interesting reading three different stories for why people had commissioned a nude portrait of themself.
Can I paint your nude portrait from photos?
It might be impractical for you to have in-person sittings. In that case I can paint from photos you provide, but they will have to be of adequate quality. I am happy to advise; it is possible to have a preliminary chat via Zoom-call, where I can give advice about the pose and lighting. Expensive cameras aren’t necessary. It is more important to avoid lens distortion and to get the correct lighting. Both are achievable with a good phone camera.
The most exciting thing about painting portraits is also the most daunting thing: there are such endless possibilities for how to paint someone, it’s a challenge knowing where to start. It might help looking at examples of nude portraits, by myself and other artists (photos or paintings), just to get some ideas.
If you are thinking about commissioning a nude portrait, feel free to contact me with any questions. I am always happy to chat, with no obligation. Embarking on a portrait commission is a collaborative exercise between the artist and the sitter. It should be both rewarding and enjoyable, and can be more affordable than you expect.
“Man and Woman” is a painting that I thought was finished over ten years ago. I’ve suffered years of nagging doubts, and a real reluctance to show it publicly, such that I finally decided to rework it. It was only going to be a small amendment, but in the end I had to repaint the entire surface.
It’s debatable about how much the revision is an improvement. The poses are almost identical. Some people might prefer the earlier version. That’s irrelevant. I feel that the later revision is much closer to the painting that I tried to produce in 2009. Although the original version was no doubt true to the reference photos I was working from, I don’t think it captured a true likeness of the female figure.
I should explain something about the background to this painting. My partner had just passed away after a long illness, and in a splurge of activity I set about working on a series of paintings that recorded my lost partner and our relationship. Most had been planned while she was still alive (I had taken reference photos and made preparatory sketches), but sadly her poor health meant I was unable to work on them at the time. This was the last of that series, and for some reason it was the only one I was unhappy with.
The problem with resuming work on a painting after such a long time is that my painting technique has changed over the years. I still start with a monochrome underpainting, but my palette of colours has changed considerably, I use different mediums, and my use of glazes has become more restrained. Nevertheless it was an interesting exercise. The photo below shows a lighter palette in the revised painting.
Another interesting aspect of this exercise is that I no longer have the original reference photos. Much of the work on my late partner’s face was done from memory, which would normally have been outside my comfort zone. One area where my painting has changed is that I am less beholden to reference photos, and feel more confident to wander off track. I believe that I have achieved a better likeness here by doing just that. In writing this post, and looking at photos of the two versions side by side, it does feel like a lot of work for only a small change. But it was worth it. I feel happier showing it now.
Edit: “Man and Woman” has since been shortlisted for the LGC Art Prize 2023 A recent post about the competition can be found here: LGC Art Prize
I have collected some case studies of recent portrait paintings, detailing the decisions that had to be made in planning each painting. I hope they might be useful to anyone thinking about having their own portrait painted.
Portrait Case Study 1. The Blue Dress
Size and pose: This is quite a large portrait, at over 100cm tall. Given that we quickly agreed on a large canvas, it was then a choice of choosing between a full length or 3/4 length pose. We worked through a variety of standing and seated poses, finally agreeing that this seated position looked best. We paid great attention to the placement of the hands – trying to avoid them looking awkward, while also looking interesting in the final painting. Apart from adding greater visual impact, this size canvas does allow for working in greater detail on the whole figure and on the clothing.
Style and clothing: We were limited by the chosen date for the sitting being a blazingly hot summers day, so a loose summer dress seemed the most comfortable option. It wasn’t the first dress pulled from her wardrobe. We considered quite a few options, and in the end agreed that this dress looked nice on her and would add some interest to the painting.
Setting: Ordinarily I liked to have sitters pose in their home environment. Apart from being more comfortable, the decoration and furnishing of a room often says something about the sitter. In this particular case the sitter had just sold their old home and was staying in rented accommodation, awaiting a move to their new home. So this bland Airbnb flat certainly didn’t say much about the sitter, but it was a suitably bright and blank backdrop. I chose to include some of the fire surround just to add some visual interest, and to help set the sitter in space.
Props: The items in the background (shoes, book, flowers) were added later, and weren’t part of the original brief. As I worked on the painting, I felt that there was a lot of dead space in the background that wasn’t doing anything. I also was not fully aware during the sitting what a pivotal time this was in the sitter’s life, and I felt I should include something (spring bulbs) to suggest the fresh start the sitter was experiencing. The boots and book are indicative of her great interests. I could have thrown in lots more, but I did not want the props to distract from the figure.
If you have any questions about commissioning your own portrait, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. My email is on the Contact page
Portrait Case Study 2. Renaissance Garden
This is not actually a commission, but was painted as a portfolio piece – a painting that I could show to prospective customers and take along to art fares. In the event, it was snapped up by a collector shortly after I finished it, so now I only have the photos to share with you
Canvas Size: I chose a 50cm x 40cm linen canvas for this painting before I even started. It’s quite common to start a commission with a decision about the canvas size. It might be to fit in with your budget (larger paintings will incur more costs), but more often it’s because most people have limited space to display artwork. This particular linen has a very nice surface for portraits; although the weave is still visible, it’s less intrusive than cotton canvas. The smoother surface allows for more detailed work.
Pose: I worked through quite a few different poses with the sitter. She had a wonderful calm demeanour about her, which I wanted to capture in this painting. Having already decided on the canvas size, I was limited in my selection of poses. A full body pose would have meant her face would have been quite small on the canvas. I find this size ideal for a head and shoulders portrait, being large enough that I can introduce quite a lot of detail in the face. We went through different poses with arms crossed, or the model sitting. In the end I chose this standing pose. The model had such excellent posture, and that wonderful poise, that I wanted to try and capture it with the simplest of poses.
Style and clothing: I asked the model to select her own clothing, giving consideration to how she wanted to be portrayed. She arrived wearing a colourful headscarf and loose knit jumper, which suited her well. The jumper provided a nice contrast in textures, which worked well in the finished painting.
Background: I initially planned this portrait with just a plain background, but I quickly realised there was a timeless quality about this model, which got me thinking about Renaissance portraits; where they might sometimes introduce a section of landscape in one of the top corners. This was a useful device to add depth and perspective to the composition, while also adding colour and visual interest to the painting. I was more interested in the latter, and how a serene vista would complement the model’s calm manner. I also wanted to demonstrate how alternative backgrounds can be easily introduced into a commissioned portrait.
Props: No need for props with this portrait. The smaller canvas didn’t lend itself to being cluttered with objects. With similar commissions of this size the sitter has asked that they be painted wearing a particular piece of jewellery, which was of sentimental value.
Painting technique – Glazes and underpainting
The photo above shows the painting at three different stages. I had already worked out the composition on paper, with preparatory drawings. The underpainting is painted with a monochrome or very restricted palette. Once I was happy the tonal values were correct, I introduced colour into my palette. The final photo above shows the painting just before I add the colour glazes. It’s a traditional technique can add a wonderful luminosity to the highlights, and a depth of colour to the shadows that simply cannot be achieved with other techniques.
This was a challenging commission. It taught me a lot about ballet, and also about specific problems in painting “action” poses. I was approached by a ballet teacher who wanted a portrait of herself in a recognisable dance pose. Being a lifelong admirer of Degas’ wonderful paintings of ballet dancers (here’s an example at the Met), it was a commission I couldn’t refuse. I was concerned that my studio would not be big enough. Although fine for portraits, I felt it might feel cramped if she started throwing her arms and legs around. Despite my suggestion to have the sitting at her dance studio, she preferred to come to my studio.
Problems holding a pose.
The first problem I encountered was that it proved difficult to hold any dance pose long enough for me to produce a useful drawing. Gestural charcoal sketches were okay, but the more detailed drawings I like to produce were not possible, and the sitting became quite a challenge for the both of us. I can see why Degas favoured pastels. As soon as I had enough sketches, I suggested my client should run through her repertoire of ballet poses, and I would start taking photos. She looked through the photos every now and again, and we would adjust the poses accordingly. Apart from the different poses, we also tried different outfits. In the beginning the tutu was my least favourite outfit and I couldn’t see it making it to the final painting. By the end of the sitting we had lots of photos of various ballet poses carried out in three different outfits. My client checked through them, pointing out any where the pose was not up to standard, and then I undertook to work up some sketches from the remaining photos, offering some alternative layouts.
A choice between two poses and outfits
I couldn’t find the original sketches, but did manage to find photos of these later oil sketches. We had already eliminated alternative poses, and I offered my client two slight variations of this pose. Although I hadn’t been keen on the tutu at first, by this stage I felt it looked the better outfit, and made for a more balanced composition. Also the pose on the left looks that little bit more dynamic.
What did I learn? Ballet instructors are very demanding about their dance positions being spot on. I got into trouble with some wonky arms in my first sketches. Second, although I’m very happy with how the painting turned out, I still feel that it would have added extra visual interest if it was set in a dance studio. Finally, if I’m presented with a similar dance challenge in future, I would forgo my usual preparatory sketches, and would instead video the sitting while taking photos. I think that would be a more useful record than my charcoal sketches. I have started to use video even with my traditional portrait paintings (especially when the sitter can’t pose in person), as it can sometimes give a better sense of what the sitter really looks like.
If this article has given you the inspiration to commission your own painting, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me – use the email address on my Contact Page.
A recent visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam compelled me to rework an old painting. It was the Rembrandts that did it. I painted my self-portrait “Halo” during a particularly difficult time in my life. I had become the carer for my terminally ill partner. People praised me for my fortitude, but I was aware of a disparity between how people saw me and how I truly felt. Deep down there was an awful darkness; a sense of despair. I tried to recreate this sense in a painting, but wasn’t completely successful.
Anyway, fast forward to March this year, and I had a splendid time visiting Amsterdam and studying the Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum. Although there’s a very good selection of Rembrandts to be seen in London, I was captivated by the examples in Amsterdam – some really fine late Rembrandts. I could stare at them for hours. I marvel at the detail he could suggest in the shadows, with such economy. And there was such a sadness in those eyes. In looking at these wonderful paintings by the great master of portraiture, I felt a desire to revisit one of my earlier self-portraits: “Halo”.
I didn’t undertake many changes. Basically I added a few more layers of glaze, but this time I was a bit looser in the application and removal. It is easy to fall into the trap of becoming too precious when applying glazes. It’s the final stage, and the underpainting might have taken many hours to complete, so there’s an obvious reluctance to mess it up with a sloppy final layers. But looking at those old Rembrandts, what struck me is the spontaneity of the most beautiful passages in his paintings. He wasn’t afraid of messing them up.