Learning How to Paint in Oils by Elaine Ostroot


Photos are wonderful!  I do not know any other thing that has been as helpful.  I could not go to Kenya, but I had friends and students that did.  Another pair of good friends traveled a lot and I was the recipient of many of their photos from Mexico and Central America.

There are a few problems we must keep in mind.  The camera “sees” differently.  It flattens objects.  It distorts.  The shadows are usually too dark and it records EVERYTHING.  An artist friend said that the only problem he had with photos is learning what to leave out.  If it doesn’t contribute to the painting or what you are trying to say in the painting, leave it out.

  So in my new series of paintings about Native Americans, I will use Edward Curtis’s photos as I would a photo I took myself – selectively.  I will begin by showing you the photo I am using and detail how I plan to use it.   I will lighten the shadows on our chief’s face and open his eyes a little more.  I will put an evening sunset behind him; the lightest yellows low, gradually deepening to orange and rose colors ending with the darkest around his ceremonial bonnet.  I will change the stick with the scalps – I will make it a Calumet (a “peace”  pipe).   I will also remove the shadow on his hand.  I will also edit out the curve of the cape below his bonnet as well as the metal buckle on the saddle blanket. 

Curtis “staged” a good many of his photos.  He acquired a sizable wardrobe of clothing, bonnets and other artifacts to assist him.  The man was an artist – I have no objection to his methods, but I don’t have to use all of his details in my work.  If you copy a photo exactly – what are you saying?  You are “saying” what the photographer said.   Where is your input?  I want to “say” something different.  I want you to look at that wonderful face.  I want you to see the nobility of a God created creature, created in His image.  I do not want you distracted by a bunch of “details” that do not contribute to that goal.  Curtis had a different goal – so do we all.  Choose your goal for your painting and stick with it.  Don’t let someone else’s idea change your plan.

 We begin as I always do by selecting the size of the canvas.  I think a 24 x 30 will do nicely.  I want this painting to be the centerpiece of the series.  This size is large and it will command attention.  Now I will take a smaller photo and place my grid on it and the canvas and do the drawing (just as we did in “Portraiture One” post back in October).  I will not use a toned canvas for this, as I want the white of the canvas to help illuminate the  colors.  I will start with the sunset, my pallet will consist of white, lemon and cad yellow, cad and permanent red and maybe some quinacridone rose (quinacridone colors are relatively new and worth trying out – so far I like them and this particular rose is beautiful).

I plan to show you a different method from the one in “Portraiture One, Two and Three”.  In those posts I did a value study.  In this painting I will paint the face and figure directly.  I will paint the entire painting with an underpainting.  I will start with a “local” color.  To get this color, I usually squint my eyes to obscure the details of light and shadow.  What’s left is the basic color of the object.  Since we have no color in this photo I will simply use what I think the local color would be and paint that in.  It will look like a poster with a  little shading, but hang in there we will model all these objects with light and shadow.  This is simply another way of organizing a painting.  I will get the sky and some of the local colors and take photos as I go so that you can see the steps.

  I will add more shadow and this will shape the body under the buckskin.  I will add the pipe and it’s decorations.  I will also shade and model the feathers and our chief’s face.  I will do this with opaque color and with glazes.  A glaze is a color thinned with Liquin.  Take a small amount of color with your knife and place it on your glass pallet.  Now add a small puddle of Liquin next to it.  With your brush in hand, add the Liquin to your color – a little at a time – until your color is almost transparent.  This is a glaze.  For the face I will shadow it with raw sienna and burnt umber mixtures.  For the feathers, I will use burnt umber and ultra blue mixtures.  For the buckskin, I will use raw sienna, white and burnt umber with a little cerulean blue added in to gray the mixtures.  I will further model all these objects with lighter mixtures of the local color to shape them and to add interest.  My last step will be to add the lights and highlights.  This is my plan.  We will see how it all works out.

First, the basic block in – the sky and the local color of the chief and the objects around him.  

 OK,  now the real work begins.  Modeling the face – get rid of those dark shadows.  I want a clearly defined face.  Those dark shadows on our chief’s face make for a good photo – but I want to focus on the person, so we will use much lighter shadow colors.  As we’ve done before, start with three mixtures, using raw sienna, burnt sienna  and burnt umber.

I will step down the values, using white, just as we have done before, untill I have at least three distinct values.  I will work with these, mixing them as I go to paint our chief’s face.   I will also add a little permanent red to some of the mixtures to bring a little color to our chief’s face.

I have found that using raw sienna instead of yellow ocher to skintone mixtures adds a little grayer tone to hispanic and indian peoples.

I will now start to model the figure’s bonnet and buckskin clothing and start the process of finish work.  This is going to take some time.  So I will show you the painting as it is now. 

There’s much more work to be done.  I will continue and post as I go.  Next time – finish work!

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