Learning How to Paint in Oils by Elaine Ostroot

Posts tagged ‘artist’

Portraiture – Part two

We now have Bruce’s portrait in a value study.  Now on to the color.  We start at the farthest thing in the picture and move forward, one plane at a time.  First the wall.  Rather, the picture on the wall.  We’ll paint that in a fairly loose fashion.  We’re not interested in too much detail.  As this photo shows, I’ve changed only the color of the flag.  I want observers to notice that it is a picture of a golf course, but I do not want it to take center stage. 

In a portrait the “star” is the person.  All my choices are centered on that idea.  The wall color – cool –neutral, a nice” background” color.  The first thing I want you to see is that face.  That will be the warmest color and placed in that really cool spot called “the center of interest”.  (We’ll talk more about that when we get to “Composition”.)  So my choice for the wall will be a neutral pale green.

Don’t worry about the frame on the picture.  We’ll take care of that later.  (After it dries I will tape it off and paint the frame

I was washing brushes and was looking in the mirror (the mirror is on a hinge and facing the easel) as I usually do to check out my work (mistakes are somehow easier to see reversed in a mirror) and – yech! This just will not do! Bruce deserves better than this pea green soup.  I was NOT happy.  What to do? I did not want a safe blah painting I wanted pizzazz!  So, I fixed a cup of coffee and went out and sat in my favorite chair on the deck and waited for inspiration.  I hadn’t taken two sips of coffee when I got it – red!  I went into the studio and picked up a couple of books by artists I remembered had used red as a background in a portrait.  I’ve be at this for a long time, and I “see” the painting finished before I put on the first brushstroke, but, for some reason, the green didn’t “jell”.  I need to use the red to fit this painting, so, not too warm.  I remembered I had purchased a tube of Daniel Smith’s burnt scarlet and here was the perfect opportunity to try it. This color would cool the blue red I intended to use and I knew the green would take down the chroma (remember when we went through this very thing in the post “Chroma” – we added green to red to reduce the intensity of the red).  So – I scraped down the excess green color and went back to work.  Now look at the result. We have successfully fished Bruce out of the pea green soup, I like it! (I hope he does)  Don’t hesitate to change something if you don’t like it.  It’s only paint.

Now the chair.  It looks white, but it’s a soft creamy ivory.  I place a quarter-sized dollop of white on my palette.  I add a little raw sienna to the white adding a little at a time.  We simply want to knock down the stark white to a creamier color.  I’ll separate a smaller pile to add a little more sienna to which will deepen the color a little bit more.   I’ll separate another small pile from the first color and add a small amount of cerulean blue and raw sienna for the shadows.  The oak trim on the chair will be done with raw sienna, burnt umber and a little cad yellow for the lights.

The chair has a pattern that will be hard to see using the photo but I want that pattern.  The chair takes up a large portion of the painting.  I do not want a boring chair.  So – how I achieve that is to take my brush and tap the very end of the brush into the lighter paint and tap it onto the chair fabric.  Soften it by lightly brushing with a soft brush to meld the paint into the fabric and to knock down any ridges.  So now look at our result. 

We have all of the background painted (the frame on the golf course will need some highlights, but we will do that later when it’s dry).   Next time we will paint Bruce in Portraiture – Part Three.



Since this is what I do the most – it was hard to wait to write about portraiture. Since this is going to be an extensive post, I’ve decided to divide it into three parts.  So, this is part one – taking the photos, layout and drawing, toning the canvas and value study. Our subject is Bruce, an avid golfer and a computer guru.  I like to try to put into a portrait something alluding to the person’s interests.  It says more about who this person is.

 Remember, this is a one- time- only individual, a person that carries the image of God, unique, never to be seen again.  So – I never approach a portrait without prayer first.  I need all the help I can get.  I have seen the results if I do not spend just a few minuets in prayer.  The best compliment I have received about my portraits is “it looks more like him than that photo!”

 I work from photos for obvious reasons.  Photos don’t move, and most people simply do not have the time to “sit” for a portrait.  You should be aware of your camera’s limitations.  A camera “sees” differently that our eyes do.  It flattens everything, it makes the darks way too dark and the closest thing to the lens is exaggerated, like noses and hands.  So – you should not stand too close to your subject.   A reasonable rule is at least 8 to 10 feet away (camera on a tripod).  My digital camera has a “moderate” telephoto option on it, which makes it doable.  Standing that far away and using the telephoto option, I can get very usable pictures of my subject. 

 On to our portrait of Bruce.  Here are the photos I will work from.  I will also work from an enlargement of just the head.  You will see this photo taped to the light beside my easel.  What this does is to add a bit more light to his face and enables me to see the details. 


The first array of photos shows the start of the painting process   I’ve narrowed it down to a 4 X 41/2, which translates to a 20 X 24.  Note where I’ve chosen to place the bottom of the portrait.  You do not want to end at a joint.  It looks better to end in between the knee and the foot.  Now we will tape the photo to a small piece of stiffer paper or mat board.  We now have the dimensions marked out of our portrait. I have placed a piece of glass, 8 x 10 with the edges taped over the photo and marked off the photo both vertically and horizontally.  I have divided up the canvas similarly as this next photo shows.  It looks like a tic tack toe game.

 The next photo shows the drawing.  We are looking for something close to a line drawing.  You do not need a lot of detail here.  Just placement of the essentials, eyes, nose, mouth hairline etc.  I have used a dark pen so that you can see the results.  Start at the top – in the first square you see anything start your drawing.  Copy only what you see in that square.  Then go on to the next square copy each square until you reach the bottom.  You did it!  You now have a completed drawing.  I will transfer this drawing, using a transfer paper, to the canvas.  You can draw directly on the canvas but I did not want the layout lines showing, as I often use glazes for my backgrounds and the lines are hard to erase.  If you do it this way it will help to place a book under the canvas so that you can use pressure to get a good transfer.)  The next photo shows the transferred drawing.  Let me add this; many artists blow up the photo and trace the basics.  Some use an opaque projector.  I am not trying to teach you how to draw; I hope you have that covered.  I really do not care how you get the drawing on the canvas.  I choose to do it this way.  It’s an old tried and true method.  If you learn this method you will be able to use it to layout anything.   Now we need to spray the drawing with Krylon matte spray (the satin will work too).

The technique I am going to demonstrate to you is not new.  It’s an old one but it solves a lot of problems.  Put a little Liquin in a cup (empty plastic fruit cups work fine).  Dilute it with a little odorless turp.  I use a three Liquin to two turp ratios.  Mix up a nice cool blue gray.  Paint the entire canvas with a dilute (add more of the Liquin and turp mixture to the paint) paint mixture.  It does not matter if it’s not even.  I use a rag to thin out the paint on the canvas.  What we are after is a light blue gray surface.  Note the next photo.  I have immediately wiped out the lights of the portrait.  Now we will let it dry.

 It should dry in about 8 to 10 hours.  When it is dry we will work on the values.  This method solves all our “value problems”.  This will enable you to see the values without color confusing the issue.  The old masters did this routinely for the same reasons.   

The next photo example will show a change.  I placed Bruce in this format because I wanted to add a picture behind the chair he is sitting in.  As he likes to golf, this will add a dimension to the portrait as it shows at least one of his interests.  Start with your darks.  Apply a thin mixture of paint with Liquin to create a glaze.  Not too thin, we want a fairly dark mix for this value.  This is the darkest value in the portrait.  Mix a little more of the Liquin mixture into your paint to create a thinner glaze.  This mixture we will use to create the shadows.  If your shadowed areas become too dark, dab at the area with a rag to lighten.  Keep working at this until you are satisfied with all the values.  The next photo shows the completed value study.  Do not worry if your value study isn’t perfect.  Mine never are.  What we have is a start.  A very good idea of what to do next.  We know where are darkest values are.  We know what our shadows will look like.  So – good enough.

We’re halfway there!  Congrats!  Stand back and take in what you have accomplished.  Your value study will teach you more, at this stage, than anything else I can tell you.  Doing the work is your “teacher” You can do this technique with any subject.  Now we will let the painting dry thoroughly, at least two days.  Then it’s on to color!


What’s so special about north light?  We go on and on about it.  We want windows to face it.  We orient our skylights for it.  Well – it’s steady – doesn’t change much throughout the day – neutral, neither warm nor cool – just perfect for painting.  My studio skylight doesn’t face true north.  It’s a little skewed to the east so in August I have some sun in the late morning.  I have a shade that allows light, but not sun in that solves that problem. 

There is lighting galore for sale almost everywhere.  My studio lighting is florescent fixtures, placed on either side of my skylight.  So on cloudy days I can still paint. There’s much more available.  Check out catalogs or online for all the options.  You will need to know temperature numbers before you buy.  The best light for painting is 5000 degrees  (and up) Kelvin, which equals daylight (as seen from the sky facing north.).

 I know you have seen this written in many books, we, as artists paint the effects of light.  Here are some examples.  These photos were all taken at different times from my dinning room window.  The first photo – early morning sun.  The second – later in the day.  The third – overcast day.  The effects of light are clearly demonstrated. 

When you light a subject in your studio, you will want a source of light that you can clearly see.   In my studio my easel is oriented so that the strong light from the window on my left lights the still life or the person I am painting.  My easel is also oriented so that the light from the sky is over my left shoulder.  We do not want the shadow from the brush in my hand to shade the canvas.  So, light is really important.  Not only light on your subject, but the light you paint by.

 Light creates shadows.  Put an apple on a stand near your easel.  If you are sitting with light from a window with sky exposure, the strong light at the left of the apple will light the top and the left side.  Now look at the right side.  Note the shadow side.  As the light gets further away the color deepens and the chroma isn’t as intense.  Note where the apple meets the right side of the table.  There’s your darkest shadow with the hardest line.  The shadow is called “cast shadow” and it’s always the darkest shadow you will see.  Note how the shadow gets lighter and the edge gets softer as your eye moves away toward the right.  We’re getting a little previous with this, but while we’re at it, please note how the edge of the apple softens as it turns away from you.  What were trying to do here is to learn how to “see”.  Artists have to observe closely.  Your eye must learn how to stay with something you’re trying to observe to catch all the nuances.  After a while, you will get so used to it you’ll be amazed at your change of focus.  You really will be able to focus all your attention. On what you are looking at

 Color is light and light is color.  What you are painting is a record of the patterns and variations of light.  .


Chroma is simply another word for intensity and dullness.  To make a color more intense we will add another color to it.  To dull it we will add another color.  So – set out your palette. We will start with yellow.  Make two piles of lemon yellow (about the size of a penny). Mix up a small amount of purple (red and blue).  It does matter which blue and which red.  Try mixing up different colors of red and blue and note the differences in each.   If you mix all the possible combinations you should have an array of beautiful purples on your palette. Now add a pinhead of one of those purples to one of your piles of yellow.  Note the change.  It is now less intense, but the value shouldn’t have changed unless you have added too much.  Now add a small amount of white to your second pile of yellow.  Note how much brighter the color is.  Observe your piles of yellow.  The original pile  is the tube color; one is a less intense, but the same value as your tube color.  The third is brighter.  Now let’s do the same to your warmer yellow (cad yellow).  Same two piles same size.  Same pinhead of purple,  Note how different these colors are.

 You could do this exercise all day using all the different purples – if you used a cool blue and a cool red; you will get a cool purple.  The same will occur if you choose the warm versions.  You will get different colors of purple if you choose a warm blue and a cool red – a cool blue and a warm red.  These are all beautiful colors and can change the color of your yellow dramatically.

Now, let’s try it with your reds.  Two penny sized piles   The opposite of red (look at your color wheel) is green.  Again, it matters which red and which green.  Warm or cool.  Don’t let all this discourage you.  I realize I’m throwing a lot at you at once.  Just take it in, do the exercises and you will absorb it.  I will start with cad red – then do the same with permanent red.  We will take each color – warm and cool – and do the same exercise. When we’re finished your pallet should look something like this photo. 

Back to the red.  We’ll start with cad red.  I’ve mixed a little sap green into the first pile.  (I did not want to change the temperature.)  The color I mixed is close enough to the original – larger pile of tube color to see the change.  To brighten the second pile I’ve added cad yellow (adding white would have made that red chalky).  Now the Permanent red.  I’ve added thalo green to it (small amount – this green will take over the world!)  Again, these reds are close enough to the tube color array to see the changes.   To brighten permanent red I’ve added cad red to it.  Ultramarine blue; I’ve mixed an orange (opposite of blue) and added it to the first pile – to see the color change I added a little white to one end of the pile.  To the second pile I added a small amount of white.  Not too much, we don’t want to change the value.  Cerulean blue;  a small amount of orange (I’ve spotted a small amount of tube color for you to see the changes) and to the second pile a small amount of white.

Finally, our greens.  To sap green – cad red, I’ve added a small amount of cad yellow so you can see the change .    I placed a small dot of tube color for comparison.  Add a small amount of cad yellow to your second pile to brighten it.  On to thalo green;  I’ve placed a smaller pile of thalo green with a little of lemon yellow at the bottom to show you the tube color for comparison.  To the next pile I’ve added permanent red and a small amount of lemon yellow, note the difference in chroma between these two examples.  Now add a small amount of lemon yellow to the last pile to brighten.  You will note that I seldom use white to lighten and brighten a color.  Most times white will make your colors chalky.   a similar lighter version will do the job.

To demonstrate why being able to change the chroma of a color  is important, please note this painting that I’m doing for my son.  There is so much green in this painting it could overwhelm this  “wedding cake” of a castle.  So I have varied the greens (cool and warm) to alleviate that possibility.

Color knowledge is probable the most extensive of all the things we must learn to paint in oils.  I say “we”, I include myself in this.  I am still learning.  I think that’s one of the things I love about painting in oil; you can never learn it all – there’s always something new to learn – always something new and challenging to excite the mind – always another thing to add to our knowledge.  Most important, love what you do and allow yourself to enjoy the process. 

Next time:  LIGHT!

Loose Threads

Before we go on to Chroma –

I became aware that I have left out some tips that might help.  Brush washing for instance.  My brush washer is a coffee can with a ¼’ hardware cloth, cut into a square, (corners cut out so that it forms a five sided box open on the end) and inserted into the can.  Put a small hole in the lid or your lid will crack..  When you finish your painting session, wash your brushes using the hardware cloth to dislodge the paint out of the brush, gently please, these brushes are not free!  Wipe them with a paper towel and take them to your sink.  Put a little dishwashing liquid in the palm of your hand and swirl the brush, back and forth and around, working the soap into the brush all the way to the ferrule. Do this at least three times, rinsing the brush in between washings. After rinsing thoroughly, squeeze the brush dry with a paper towel.  Now is your opportunity to shape your brush.  Draw the brush between your fingers to shape it back to its original form. It’s fairly dry, so you can set it upright in a vase or brush holder to dry completely.

What do we do with all that left over paint?  We do not throw it away.  Find a piece of card board, wrap it with Gladwrap, put your leftover paint on it, then put another sheet of the wrap on top sealing it with your thumb and popping it in the freezer.  This will not work forever.  Paint dries, partially, when the oils evaporate.  It’s a chemical thing.  What you have done is to slow things down a bit.  I paint almost every day so this works for me.  If you keep it in the freezer for more that a few days you will find it fairly dry.  It can still be used to help you mix up another batch of color.

I thought you might like to see my studio.  I didn’t always have this large and spacious space. (When I started I had a small space in my bedroom.  The light was awful, but it was my space and I loved it.)  Please note the table beside the easel.  Gerry made this for me.  He made a simple bookcase with a drawer for paint, open on both sides and on casters so I could move it.  The easel He also made out of materials you can buy at any home improvement store.  If you are able to handle wood working tools (or have a handy partner), and would like to make this easel, e-mail me and maybe we can help you construct your own.  The top bar of the easel has a series of nails with double heads.  My mahlstick has a ½’ screw eye in the top end.  That allows it to hang where I can reach it and use it for detail work.

I ordered paint from aswexpress.com yesterday, and found they had color wheels and value charts.  This is all I can think of at the moment.  Please feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions.  I will try to answer them.

value and color

Value and Color

I can remember my difficulty with both of these concepts.  The books I read are the same ones you’re reading.  A lot of words I didn’t understand and ideas I didn’t know how to implement.  So, let’s demystify these terms.  VALUE:  think of nine boxes.  Label them 1 to 9.  Put white at one end and black at the other end.  Now add all the shades of gray leading from black to white in the appropriate boxes. Value is the relative lightness or darkness of a color.  HUE is simply another word for a color family name, for example BLUE.  CHROMA; is the relative brightness or intensity of color. I suggest that you go to your art supply store and purchase a value index card (if you order paint from Daniel Smith ask them to send you one.  It’s free and it is 4” X 6”, small enough to carry around) and a color wheel.  

I’m gong to tell you what I did to implement these concepts.  Go into your closet.  Take out a shirt, pants any clothing item (not black or white).  Take the item to the nearest window with light from the sky (no overhanging green branches or patio covers to change the quality of the light).  Now really look at your item.  My pick is a green shirt.  Ask; what color is it? – Green, what value is it? – Middle, like 5 or 6, how intense is the color? – Very bright green, what temperature? – Toward the blue (cool).  Put your shirt back in the closet.  Go to your easel and mix up that color.  Now, go back and get that shirt and take to your easel and compare your mixture to the shirt.  Now mix up the color till you get it right. If it’s too yellow add blue, (add these modifying colors a little at a time – sneak up on it) too blue add yellow.  If the color is too intense add it’s opposite.  In this case, the opposite of green is red.  If you will do this every day for at least five days a week, by months end you will be very good at it and you will understand color.  You will also learn how to mix color, what works and what doesn’t.

 Now let’s take each color on your palette, learn how to mix it with all the other colors and what the results might be.  I say, “might” because you are going to have to do the mixing.  My little camera just doesn’t have the capacity to show you all the possibilities.

Besides, you would not learn a thing if I did all the mixing. 

We will start with yellow.  Take a half-dollar sized pile of lemon yellow.  With your palette knife, separate that pile into 17 smaller piles.  Now take ultramarine blue and permanent red (a small amount of each, say, a pea sized amount) and mix them together.  Do the same with cerulean blue and permanent red.  Notice the difference?  Do the same with ultra blue and cad red, then with cerulean blue and cad red. To see the difference more clearly, add a little white in the corner of each pile of purples.  What’s this? You ask, I thought we were going to play with yellow.  We are.  Purple is the opposite of yellow and we need these colors to modify yellow.  So – you should have a group of small piles of yellow spread out on your glass palette and 4 smaller piles of various colors of purple.

We begin.  With your first pile of yellow add a small amount (pea size) of cad yellow.  Notice how much warmer that cool lemon has become.  Now add a small amount of cad red to the second pile of yellow.  We now have a cool orange.  Add a small amount of permanent red to the third pile of yellow.  We now have a totally different orange.  Continue down the colors, mixing a small amount of each of your palette of colors into your piles of yellow (one color to each pile of yellow).  We will end with lemon yellow by adding white to one pile of yellow and black to the last two piles of yellow.  (We do not include black in this palette because it’s just too easy to make.  The same is true of browns; I include the browns for convenience.  When we get into portraiture you will understand why.)  To make black (again black comes in cool and warm) take a pea size each of ultra blue and burnt sienna and mix them.  Your black should be warm.  Do the same with ultra blue and burnt umber.  This should be much cooler.   Now add a small amount of each of the black colors to the last two piles of yellow.   What you should have are two very interesting colors of spring green.  (I view black as a “blue” for this reason.)  Look at the array of beautiful colors you have created!  Compare all these beautiful colors to your value card, especially your two oranges.  Note the difference in value   You’re on your way to becoming a “colorist”.

 Do this same exercise with all of your palette colors.  You will learn a great deal about your paints.  When I buy a new color or buy paint from a manufacturer that I haven’t used before, you can bet I will do this exercise with all my other colors before I use it.  The time spent doing this will save much time and tears, believe me.

 You are probably thinking – what good is the value card?  Take your value card in hand and match the living room rug, your daughter’s dress, your son’s hair, the coffee pot, the tree outside your window, and the orange lily in your garden.  Do this exercise often, at least once a day, until you can match the object with a patch on the card effortlessly.  Look outside – you will find a lot of different values in the scene you are observing.  Light against dark, dark against light, contrast, warm against cool.  These are concepts you will be implementing in your paintings.  You need to see these concepts before you can implement them.  I keep my value card underneath the glass on top of the table beside my easel.  I refer to it often to get my values right.

 One more thing before we close this post.  Most of my beginning students put out tiny dabs of color when they are laying out their paints.  They are so aware that their new paints cost money.  Then,  half way through their painting, they run out of paint and it’s almost impossible to mix up the exact matching color.  So, you wind up repainting a good bit of what you’ve already painted so it will match.  No cost saving there.  So, set out at least a nickel sized amount. 

 Next time we will talk about chroma.

A Little Philosophy

Some Philosophy

 There are a lot of ugly paintings out there.  Since I’m not a reporter, I don’t have to paint the ugly, hurtful and sad views of this world.  I can choose to reveal my vision of this beautiful world God has given us to live in.  I realize that I’m most fortunate to be able to live in the gorgeous Ozark hills.  My home is halfway up a mountain with a beautiful view.  We have very little crime here in comparison with a big city.  I do most of my “shopping” on the internet (thank heaven for amazon.com).  I have a wonderful husband who supports my efforts (whatever they might be), frames my work and does innumerable things to make my life easy and very enjoyable (he makes me laugh a lot).  So, I am sheltered and blessed.  Nonetheless, I still do not believe that I am here to paint the uglys of this world.  So I don’t. 

 People seem to be the subjects of most of my paintings.  I started out as a portrait painter.  Now my concentration seems to be more tuned to people as paintings.  There is a difference.  As a portrait painter, my focus was to please the client.  Now I please myself.

It’s much more fun and freeing.  When I do paint a portrait it seems to have more of the qualities of a “painting” rather than a portrait.  Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but that’s the feeling I’m after.

 I am not formally trained.  I started painting in my forties (kids grown, mostly).  I painted a lot.  My art library had over 100 books, these were my teachers.  The little child seen in my first blog is my tribute to Harley Brown.  You will see my husband, Gerry, in this blog as my “John Howard Sanden”.  So, I studied with some really good artists.  I hope I’ve done them justice.  My only claim to teach is the fact that I have been painting now for almost 40 years. I do have some experience.

There is a lot of controversy as to what constitutes “art”.  Harley Brown has some tart words to say in his latest book “Harley Brown’s eternal truths for every artist” (I highly recommend this book).  Robert Vickrey wrote a quest editorial column in The Artist’s Magazine some years ago (November 1987) in which he cries “whatever happened to “Is it any good?” Why has that been replaced with “Is it new?” and “Does it influence other people?

He quotes John Canaday, a critic for the New York Times, says the cult of the new has replaced the worthy. Vickrey calls most of the art he sees as TV dinner art: frozen, emotionless, flavorless.  I admit, a lot has changed since then, but I still see Urine filled glasses with crucifixes in them, urinals hanging in museums and huge tracts of land decorated with “whatever” and calling it “installations”.  I am a committed follower of Jesus of Nazareth and as such, most of this stuff annoys me a lot.  I write this blog to honor Him as well as to pass on the hard won truths I have learned to the next generation of artists that share my delight in our world and want to represent all that beauty realistically. 

 I confess I love realism in art. Not necessarily photo realism.  I love seeing a soft painterly style.  There is a place in “realism” for imagination and vision.  There is enough space in realism for all of us, no matter how we paint, even those of us that use a little abstraction in our work.  Abstract, after all, in most cases is really nothing more that squinting your eyes to fuzz out the details.  I am not against abstract art, I’ve been known to do a few of them myself.  Having said that, I do consider them “decorative ” fun and colorful, but not art.  This is my opinion, there are many artists that would disagree, but they aren’t writing this. 

 So – there you have it – the world according to Elaine.  Next time we will look at Value and Color.