Figure painting from life, Session 1 of 3

October 10, 2014

The brief is the human figure, in a recumbent pose echoing the traditional odalisque, painted from life in oils in nine hours. That can translate into a single painting across three sessions or even a different painting for each session.

Privately, my personal dilemma is to distill the processes of last week’s 30-hour figure painting at the Julian Ashton Art School in less than a third of the time.


I turned up to class with an average-sized stretched canvas, toned in a sand colour (Art Spectrum Colourfix Primer, Rich Beige). This primer It does terrible things to inferior canvas texture, but let’s no go there. I resolved to work no smaller than 16×20″ and that got the thumbs up.

The model fortunately has similar skin tones to last week’s model, so that’s a plus. It means I can stick with Van Dyck Brown in the (warm) shadows (where the myth of shadows being always cool came from I don’t know) and I can work up the skin tones in Ivory Black, Van Dyck Brown and Burnt Sienna. The flesh lightest-lights are not white at all, but not unlike the sandy-coloured imprimatura. I don’t have to spent time working with cool blues and red cheeks to render North European skin. I can work with as restricted palette as I like, which means I can more or less replicate what I was doing last week, “thinking” monochrome with only suggestions of colour.

Week 1 of 3

In the first three-hour session, I telescoped what I did at Julian Ashton’s over two days: preliminary pencil drawing, working up some sort of cartoon, transferring that cartoon to the canvas and sketching in some of the basics of the figure and context. The imprimatura went down well and there’s an expectation already that I’ll keep some of that showing right through to the end.

Amid the mayhem of colleagues’ settling in to the task, I stuck to two preliminary drawings in the first hour. I laid out colours on my palette in that time with the half-hearted expectation of getting any painting done in this first session. Realistically, I couldn’t get away with not doing any painting on this first session so satisfied requirements of roughing up an oil “sketch”.

The primary aim of the preliminary sketch ought to be to establish Large Interesting Shapes. This I haven’t done. I worked as large as I could to fill the 16×20″ stretched canvas on hand. Ideally, it wouldn’t be stretched but loose canvas, tacked and masking-taped to a board, primed with Raw Umber and White. I resorted to a red chalk because I needed to “see” the shapes in the red bed sheet. Towards the end of the first hour, a mirror was in place behind the model, in homage to the Velázquez odalisque which was today’s exemplar or inspiration.

The mirror in the background proved particularly interesting because a painting colleague was in its reflection which I would love to retain: Life imitating Art. But those shapes in the mirror will have to be blurred somewhat to give a sense of aerial perspective. The diagonal lines in it will make a nice foil to the foreground figure if I can carry them off.

Changes in pose are always a distraction which need to be ignored to preserve one’s sanity. The model is, after all, still settling in to the pose which would normally take a whole day or even two.











From Drawing to Oil Sketch

Come break-time at 3pm, I went away to grid up the second sketch and transfer it to the canvas. Now normally this would be a pencil sketch that I was 110% happy with in terms of observational accuracy, interesting large mass shapes and with a functional, compositional structure. None of those things actually ring true on this occasion, but we cut our cloth as best we can.

So I had sixty minutes to get some paint on the canvas. No time for medium-less glazing using Van Dyck Brown! Ideally I would have left the figure completely alone – no paint at all on the imprimatura. I relented and laid down something approximating three tones.

You’ll notice there is none of the sought-after, cherished ‘unity’ across the flesh: the flesh surface is broken in the best 20th-century tradition. There is no clear distinction between the figure and ground, another 20th-century mis-step. The geometric shapes throughout lack interest and integrity. Above all the observational drawing is seriously lacking. Let’s not mention the model’s right breast.










A return to the Drawing

This ‘oil sketch’ allowed me to buy some time to do another pencil drawing in the last twenty minutes. The third pencil sketch is starting to move in the right direction in terms of observational accuracy. Too little time to check vertical and horizontal plumb lines (note one of the most important from her left shoulder to hip)! Last week I spent ten hours on the foundational pencil sketch and it was still wrong. Unfortunately in this setting, I can’t get away with spending two out of the three sessions just on the drawing, despite the obvious need.










Because the paint was so thinly applied today (I was pulled up on one occasion for applying paint too thinly and with too much odourless solvent), I was able to carry it home safely. I need to compare today’s effort with last week’s work, noting in particular the size of the areas of painted flesh so I’m not working so slowly I need really small brushes. I’ll try to get away with as much as possible using small flats and brights.

Conclusion and Moving Ahead

I spent today working how much ‘freedom’ I had to paint in the way I wanted. It looks like I’m able to pursue my ultimate and over-riding concern for getting down flesh tones accurately and not worrying too much about anything else.

It’s important not to be too precious about the outcomes of the first session. Drawings can easily be dismissed or discarded because one is ‘getting one’s eye in’. Today’s work will go into the process diary for comparison with progress made during subsequent sessions. It’s a mere “training run” compared to the “marathon” to follow.

Plans for Weeks 2 and 3

Week 2 – flesh mid-tones

This is about turning up with another pre-prepared and painted canvas, ready to work on flesh mid-tones. I won’t paint over last week’s oil sketch and I won’t destroy it. It will simply be “filed away” as part of the process diary as part of the larger assessment process.

Ideally instead, this means turning up with a piece of decent canvas, tacked and taped to an A2 board (slightly larger than today’s 16×20″ stretched canvas), with an imprimatura of acrylic Raw Umber+White, with a decent drawing in place, full of Large Interesting Shapes, with the areas around the figure painted monochromatically in Van Dyck Brown (using no solvents or mediums), showing no brush marks and retaining the canvas texture.

This means spending lunchtime before the class mixing some suitable darkish flesh mid-tones on the palette from mixes of Ivory Black, Van Dyck Brown, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre and White; I can probably get away with not using a mix of Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine. The first hour will be spent making adjustments to the drawing (the ‘re-drawing’ process) as required, followed by half-an-hour on darkest flesh mid-tones. The 3pm break will be a “complete” break away from the painting, followed by a final hour spent on mid-tones up to but not including any lightest-lights, as well as the Large Interesting Shapes arising from the soft furnishings and mirror reflection.

Week 3 – lightest-lights, soft furnishings, mirror reflection

Hopefully, I won’t have to abandon the efforts of Week 2 and turn up to class with a third pre-prepared and painted canvas. The first hour will be spent any final adjustments ot the drawing (the ‘re-drawing’ process), applying thick opaque paint to the highlights, followed by a half-hour on the context. After a “complete” teabreak away from the painting, the final hour can be spent on the soft furnishings and mirror reflection, making sure there is the strongest possible contrast between the figure and the ground.


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