Learning How to Paint in Oils by Elaine Ostroot

Posts tagged ‘color wheel’


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!