Woman in Fur Hat


I. Grounding the canvas (50x70cm) with a warm grey hue, I plan to make a portrait of a handsome lady wearing a black dress, a knitted white muffler and a white fur hat. I begin with a charcoal drawing, which I then fix with black acrylic paint. Afterwards I wipe the surface clean of the charcoal smudges, until I'm left with a nice, sharp line drawing.

(As I was merely documenting the process for myself, the initial charcoal step is excluded. Some other steps might also be skipped in the series of photographs. Also, the photos are not of the greatest quality. There is a lot of glare. Still you should get the basic idea.)

II. I then cover the entire canvas with a thin wash of burnt sienna. This is to produce a warm tone that eventually will show through in the thinly painted areas (in real life the wash was a lot "warmer" than appears on the photograph). As this is a portrait done mainly in transparent layers, restricting the opaque parts to a few brightly lit areas, eventually this simple wash will give the entire painting a warm, golden glow. As the underpainting of the face will be done in grisaille (black and white), the warm ground also produces a contrasting tone to the cool grays of the grisaille. This makes it a lot easier for me to see what I am doing.

I also allow the brushstrokes to remain visible. This will create a more vibrant effect in the end. I always think of Rubens when I do this. He used a similar technique (far more effectively, of course), even in these initial stages using the direction of the brush to become an integral part of the whole composition. Sometimes he painted them vertically, sometimes horizontally, and sometimes, like here, diagonally. I choose this direction simply because it is the angle of the light.

III. I emphasize the form with thin layers of burnt umber, sculpting with values made up of more or less transparent glazes. Although this step might seem simple enough, this is what will maintain the three-dimensional structure of the subject under future glazes of "flat" color. At least for a while. Apply enough glazes and it will be lost. Of course, you eventually will have to sculpt the form more clearly anyway. But this gives you a rigid ground.

This is still in acrylics. I tend to use pigments I never use in oils in my acrylic underpaintings – most often dark earth colors, umbers and siennas. When switching to oils, I will proceed using my standard palette of four pigments.

IV.  I now move on to the grisaille underpainting of the face. This basically means sculpting with values, using a black and a white. Notice how "cool" it appears on the warm ground. Always keep temperature in mind when working in layers, otherwise you risk ending up with an unnatural result. What eventually will be warm benefits from a cool underpainting, what eventually will be cool will seem more "rich" with a warm underpainting. Also bear in mind that the temperature of shadows, midtones and highlights should follow a certain order in the endresult. Warm shadows should be contrasted with cool highlights, and vice versa. (Warm shadows and warm highlighst will result in a "muddy" looking painting; cool shadows and cool highlights will look "chalky" or "milky".)

Once you understand the principles of a grisaille, it is quite simple. You essentially paint a black and white version of what will eventually be the final result. This allows you to initially concentrate on value (the steps from dark to light) instead of color. Value is basically what makes a painting look realistic, not the actual color. As long as you combine correct value with correct temperature you can paint the flesh green and still end up with a result that feels lifelike. Some portraits by Velazquez are painted with nothing but black, white and red. Due to accurate values, and the clever use of cool grays, the result is astonishingly convincing. My own "Study in Black, White and Burnt Sienna" is of course no Velazquez, but the point should be clear. Keep your palette simple.

V. Some more refinements of the grisaille, now including the arms. Notice how I restrict the grisaille to the areas of flesh.  This time I want to preserve the transparency of the rest of the painting, all the way down to the warm ground, without any cool layer in between. Although the face eventually will be done mostly in warm midtones, flesh has a lot more "cool" tones in it than one might think, especially in the areas where the skin is closest to the bone.


Also, the likeness is far easier to achieve when initially only concentrating on value. Using multiple glazes over a grisaille underpainting might seem like an advanced technique (and in some ways it very much is), but actually it is the perfect method for a beginner. By separating value from chroma, it does not only produce wonderful results, it is also a great way of learning how to think like the old masters of realism thought.

VI. There are multiple steps captured in one image here. By now I have switched to oils. I have laid in the background in broad, "circular" strokes, leaving the thinnest area around the head. This allows the light of the warm wash of burnt sienna to optically produce a naturally glowing "halo". I have also laid in a wash of transparent yellow over the hair, plus a very thin glaze of flesh tone over the face and the arms. I use my regular palette of four pigments – mars black, english red, yellow ochre and titanium white. I also mix up a pile of chalk (straight with linseed oil), both for transparency and bulk.

Minus the chalk, this is basically a variation of the so called "Zorn palette", though its use can be traced all the way back to the cave paintings. These four colors are basically all you need for a portrait. The cool, "bluish" hues are created with grays contrasting against warm orange browns. Surrounded by the right colors, pure grey can look very "blue". Look at Rembrandt's "Landscape with a Stone Bridge". Do you think there are blue pigments in the sky? There are not. It is pure grey scumbled over a warm brown, surrounded by golden, orange hues.

VII. The brightest part of a painting is usually the most opaquely painted. In this case it is the back of the hat, which I lay in with pure white, thickly, not worrying about the degree of transparency. Darker values will eventually be made with glazes here. Some gradations into these warmer and darker values will be made by glazes of pure chalk (which basically acts as a warm, transparent white).


Otherwise, pure white is actually the coolest pigment on your palette – especially titanium white. As the shadows are warm the brighest highlights must be cool, for a realistic and contrasting illusion of natural light. One might think this idea is some kind of an invention by the impressionists, but it is actually one of the most rigid rules of the old masters. Due to a much more sophisticated and subtle use of value, temperature and chroma, it is just not as "in-your-face"-apparent in older paintings.

VIII. Okay, now for the "ugly" stages. For a while, you are inevitably destroying the grisaille values and therefore the structure of the face, thus changing the likeness. Do not worry – when starting to apply more opaque paint this has to happen. It is very easy to start thinking you have ruined the whole thing. Boldly move on. You will fix the values and correct the likeness as you plunge on towards the finish line.

IX. Correcting the big value planes and some of the likeness, still keeping the masses flat and simple. I am trying to keep the whole thing lighter in value than it eventually will be, as most of the finishing touches will be done in glazes, which always darkens the value.

X. Horrible glare, but basically still just some minor adjustments in the flesh areas. I have also laid in a white wash over the muffler, allowing the warm ground to show through in the shadow. I will then continue creating the texture of it with chalk impasto, almost sculpting it in relief. This will later be glazed with browns of varying degrees of temperature, wiping the glazes off in certain places.

XI. Here the texture of the muffler is clearly visible along with the glazes over it (lightly wiping them off allows them to remain in the "valleys" of the paint layers, keeping the tops and ridges of the impasto bright). The whole thing is then finished off with glazes and a few touches of opaque paint in the light areas. The fur of the hat is basically just a few touches of chalk with varying degrees of titanium white in it, allowing the burnt underpainting to carry most of the form here.

The face, hair and the arms are done in dark, brown glazes with a few opaque highlights (though not light enough to appear "cool"). Lastly, I apply a very fine scumble of white and chalk to subtly sculpt the body underneath the – up until now – very flat black of the dress. And that is pretty much it. Wait a few months and then varnish it.