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Transferring the Portrait to Canvas


Start the portrait with a line drawing on the canvas.

Start the portrait with a line drawing on the canvas.

A stretched canvas prepared with several coats of acrylic gesso, each sanded smooth before the application of the next, provides the surface for our painting.

The above line drawing was traced from our preparatory drawing and transferred onto the canvas ready to start the painting. A hard 2H pencil was used to outline the image on the canvas in order to prevent any smudging of the lead which would show up as a dirty mark beneath glazes of colour. You often get smudges when you use softer 'B' grade pencils.


Underpainting the Portrait


Underpaint each area of the portrait with flat color.

Underpaint each area of the portrait with flat color.

The first task in painting our portrait is to complete the underpainting of each area of colour in the picture. The underpainting is the local colour applied to individual sections of the portrait: e.g. the flesh, hair, jacket etc.

The form of the image will gradually be rendered by overpainting each section with transparent and opaque glazes. Therefore, the colours of the underpainting must be brighter than the colours you envisage in the final result as they will become darker when overpainted.

The basic acrylic colours used for the underpainting of our portrait were:

  • a mixture of phthalocyanine blue and titanium white for the background.
  • permanent sap green for the jacket.
  • yellow medium azo for the waistcoat.
  • titanium white for the white of the shirt and eyeballs.
  • burnt sienna for the irises of the eyes.
  • a mixture of ivory black and Prussian blue for the hair and the pupils of the eyes.
  • a mixture of unbleached titanium, burnt sienna and scarlet red for the flesh.

Mixing Acrylic Paints

Although you can simply use water to thin acrylic colours to a suitable consistency, it is best to add some acrylic medium to maintain the durability and elasticity of the paint. Acrylic medium comes in bottles of gloss and matte medium to meet a range of surface effects. You need to experiment with various mixtures of paint, medium and water to create the type of glazes that suit your painting technique. Some artists will patiently build up many thin glazes of paint to achieve a specific result, while others want to get there fast and use thicker mixtures.

In our portrait, the underpainting is built up in thin flat layers of colour mixed with equal amounts of gloss and matte medium. This gives the overall paint surface a neutral sheen. One of the advantages of painting thinly is that you may still be able to see some of your drawing beneath the surface. This often depends on the natural opacity of the colours you choose. However, if you lose some of your image, don't worry as you still have your preparatory drawing to refer to. It is in the nature of most painting to regularly lose and re-establish areas of the work.


Painting the Background


Use graduated tones for the background.

Use graduated tones for the background.

The underpainting of the background was done with several thin layers of an opaque light blue whereas the overpainting of the tone was built up from darker glazes of pure colours: Prussian Blue, Ultramarine and Cobalt Blue. Several blues were used to give the monochrome background an added depth of colour. A small amount of Titanium White paint is carefully blended around the edge of the head to increase its contrast with the background.

NB. The background should be painted over the outline of the portrait so that no gaps remain once the figure is completed.

The artist decided to use a graduated blue tone for the background for several reasons:

  • blue is a colour that naturally recedes into the background.
  • its strong tonal contrast dramatically illuminates the figure.
  • the graduated tone suggests a depth to the background that extends beyond the perimeter of the portrait.
  • blue is also the national colour of Scotland, the home of Robert Burns.


Background Painting Technique


An actual size detail of the background painting.

An actual size detail of the background painting.

Technically, the background was probably the the most difficult and time consuming part of the picture to paint. The artist attempted a gradual transition of light to dark tones. This could have been applied more evenly with an airbrush, but the artist wanted the texture of the hand painted marks to unify the painting technique across the picture. The graduated effect was achieved by using small sable brushes and carefully stippling layers of transparent dark blue glazes over the light blue underpainting.

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