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St. Therese of Liseux







I. My subject for this time is the author of the autobiography "The Story of a Soul" – St. Therese of Lisieux, a carmelite nun who died of tuberculosis in 1897, only 24 years old. The reference photograph is in black and white (for obvious reasons); therefore the colors will have to be invented. As I aim for the look of a colored photograph this will probably not be a problem.

As this is a rather small painting (25x30cm) I feel more comfortable starting off with a line drawing, instead of a crude blocking in of sculptural masses. Here I have already blocked in the shadow areas. Before switching to oils (this is in acrylics) I aim to make the underpainting in grisaille (black and white) and then finish it off with colored glazes and a few patches of opaque oil paint. Except for the use of modern acrylics, this is pretty much the method the renaissance and baroque masters would have used, and is much reminiscent of the way an old school colored photograph would have been made.

2. I then apply a crude glaze of burnt sienna, still in acrylics, over the entire painting. This is to produce a warm vibrant base for the cool grisaille to rest upon (or so I think). Of course, there is some debate about the preservability issues concerning the use of an acrylic underpainting for oils. In my opinion, there is no real danger. There are paintings done this way painted fifty years ago that show no signs of degradation, plus the quick drying time of acrylics is of great advantage when working with multiple layers. This is especially true considering layers which are basically just washes of pure pigments. These are laid down in seconds and there is no real reason for waiting days in order to continue.

My usual habit is to use quick drying egg tempera for these early stages, but as I am working on canvas this time, I choose acrylic which is more suitable for a flexible support. Always use egg tempera on a rigid surface. It dries very hard and will eventually crack on canvas. (Sure, you could use an egg-oil emulsion, which dries flexible, but is not nearly as quick drying as acrylics.)

3. Some more refinements in pure black. This is basically still just drawing, and still done in acrylics, only a couple of seconds after the quick drying wash.

4. Now I introduce some white pigment (titanium white, still in acrylics). The brightest part of the white fabric can already be opaquely painted. Even some impasto is fine. If you put it on clever enough, not only does it give a strong color base for the oils to go on top of, it might also produce some nice textural effects.

5. Mixed with black, laid on top of the wash of warm burnt sienna, the titanium white produces a cool bluish grey in the veil of the saint.

6. Up until now my plan has been to create an opaque, black and white, grisaille face underpainting. I now change my mind and proceed with a sort of optical grisaille (although technically speaking it is not a grisaille), consisting only of white pigment in varying degrees of transparency, leaving the wash of burnt sienna showing through, except in the brightest, and therefore most opaque, areas. The ground of burnt sienna and black is dark enough for this to work.

I also choose to make the optical grisaille not in wet glazes (or "velaturas", which are glazes containing white), but in dry scumbles. This means scrubbing opaque paint over the tooth of the canvas with a light touch, or with a brush that is not fully loaded. This produces a more vibrant effect. As the values are produced in the eye, and not in the actual paint layers, the effect is literally more "optical".

The primary reason for the change of plans is the realization that this kind of painting, small and compositionally "simple", might run the risk of appearing too flat and uninspired with a "dead" underpainting for the face. I want some vibrato to show through in the final layers. As some parts of a layered portrait always will preserve some of its transparency (especially in the shadows and midtone areas), an optical grisaille seems like the smarter way to go.

7. Just a simple wash of yellow ochre over the face and the white fabric. I felt the face underpainting was too pink, plus some yellow shining through in a white fabric is always nice. Although barely visible on a photograph, it will eventually produce a natural and warm effect in the areas where it is allowed to show through.

I find working in transparent layers, reducing the truly opaque areas to an absolute minimum, produces a greater depth in the painting. The backside is it leaves less room for improvisation. Since more or less every stage will show through at the end, one should know what one is doing. Still, there is always room for creativity. Sure, I have changed my plans, but I can do this precisely because the previous layers always were done with future visibility in mind.

8. Okay! Time to switch to oils! But let us not rush straight into wild alla prima painting and ruin the whole thing! No, as we will be concentrating on the face for a while, we first apply a thin glaze of orange over the saint's head. The pigments are yellow ochre and english red, in a roughly 50/50 transparent mixture. I use pure powdered pigments mixed with linseed oil.

9. Using my regular palette of yellow ochre, english red and mars black, I start sculpting the face using glazes and semi-glazes. For now, I avoid the use of white; I want to save the lightest, most opaque areas for the very last. In general, when painting realistically in layers, white is poison on your palette, except at the start and at the very end. Especially titanium white will milk up the rest of your paints faster than you can say "chalk". That is why I instead choose to use ... chalk!

Pure, powdered chalk actually has the advantage of becoming semi-transparent when mixed with oil (mixed with other mediums it behaves pretty much as a "grainy" white, opaque pigment). This means two things: You can actually brighten a color without lowering its chroma, plus you can create glazes that are lighter than the underpainting, without having them appear "cooler", as velaturas (glazes with white) normally do.


Depending on your level of insight, this might sound either trivial or incomprehensible, but if you have some experience painting, these simple facts should make your heart pound way faster! Usually white pigments will not produce a "brighter" version of the color you mix it with, but merely a more pale and washed out hue. As white is the "coolest" color on the palette (not blue), such a hue applied transparently over a warm underpainting will result in a velatura that looks cooler, actually more "blue", than might be intended. (This is an effect in its own right. Venetian renaissance masters like Titian used it a lot.)

10. The final touches. Some glazes in the shadows and some opaque paint in the brightly lit areas, now with titanium white in the mix. The face definitely appears less "orange" here, and it is, but the major shift of hue is actually due to the picture being taken under better lighting circumstances, in more natural light, making the cool tones more apparent. And there it is – the saint in color. Wait a few months and varnish.


(PS. Excuse the cat hair in the bottom middle. At least that one came right off. Otherwise my paintings consist of 10% oil, 40% pigment and 50% cat hair.)

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