Paint a Portrait Like a Renaissance Old Master
Creating a Portrait in a Classical Style
There's something about the classical portraits of the Renaissance era that still holds great fascination and awe for today's art lovers. Yet the techniques used in creating such works of art are reasonably straightforward and easy to apply, as long as you work methodically and with precision. Here I will present a step-by-step guide as to how I turned a photograph of one of my favorite rock stars, Stewart Copeland of The Police, into an Old Master-style oil painting.
The techniques I used were a combination of those I have learned from a number of different art instructors and realist painters who have studied the methods of the classical artists in great detail. I particularly use some of the verdaccio underpainting techniques taught by Frank Covino, which are especially effective for achieving lifelike, realistic flesh tones.
The Reference Photo
A Good Portrait Begins with a Good Photograph
Here was the original reference photo I used for the painting. It came from an old Police fanclub magazine, a photoshoot where the band was posing in different traditional Asian costumes. I have always loved painting complex fabrics and materials so this picture seemed as though it would be a lot of fun for me to work on.I knew from the beginning I wanted to get rid of the original background pattern behind Stewart as it would look much too busy in a painting. I also decided to crop the image to fit pleasingly onto a 16"x20" canvas board before proceeding on to the drawing stage. I did this using photo software on my computer, where I also stripped the color out of the image so I would have a pure black and white value reference with which to work.
Charcoal Sketch or "Underdrawing"
Planning the Portrait Painting
I used the traditional "grid method" of drawing to begin my painting. This method helped me resize the original 8"x10" cropped photo to a 16"x20" canvas board, maintaining the proportions as accurately as possible. Although the drawing would be completely painted over, I tried to be as exact as possible in starting to place facial features, light and shadow areas in charcoal. The canvas surface had previously been prepared with acrylic gesso mixed with marble dust, to make the surface more absorbent and durable.Once I had the main features placed, I carefully erased as many of the charcoal gridlines as possible and blended the charcoal with a bristle brush.
Gray Scale View Finder: A Valuable Tool - Learn To See True Values when Drawing and Painting
When working on your initial charcoal drawing or on a monochrome underpainting, a gray scale view finder such as this is a great tool to have on hand. Learning to see values properly is one of the most critical skills an artist needs to learn in order to accurately capture realistic images in paint, pencil or other mediums.
Initial Opaque Coloring
Building the Basics for the Portrait
Although I often paint a complete monochrome value study over my charcoal drawing, for this painting I decided to go directly to color except for the face. Part of the reason for this was the image had so many very vibrant colors that I wanted to preserve their qualities and not subdue them or have them dampened by the underpainted colors. Another reason was I had just taken a class on painting the costumed figure at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where my instructor did not utilize highly developed underpaintings, so I wanted to try his approach. Developing your own painting style often means experimenting with and trying the techniques of others, to figure out what works best for you.
Before proceeding, however, the entire drawing was sealed with several coats of fixative spray so the charcoal would not mix with the paint. I used Cadmium Red, Burnt Sienna, and Ivory Black to opaquely paint the red plume of feathers, and a lightened version of these colors mixed together for the background. I also used Ivory Black to begin covering the darkest area of the jacket and lightly glazed over the hair with Burnt Sienna to test the color.
Sealing the Underdrawing - Fixative Spray is a Must When Painting Over Charcoal
You don't want your oil paint to mix with the charcoal underdrawing. Therefore a product like Krylon Workable Fixatif is a must to seal that drawing, and it will not interfere with the application of oil paint on top of it.
Establishing Basic Tonal Values
In the next step, I began working on the costume and the hat's metal accents. These I blocked in opaquely with a mixture of Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, Cadmium Orange, other earth tones and Titanium White to create varying values and colors. At this point I was ignoring most fine detail and just trying establish a base tonal value. By doing so, even at this early stage, a sense of depth and volume begins to take shape.I also added another layer of opaque paint to the background, lightening it somewhat on one side to create more of a sense of shadow on the other side.
In all stages of the painting process, I used Windsor & Newton's Liquin as my painting medium, which helps the oil paint dry faster and spread more evenly when applied in both thin glazes and thick coatings.
Flesh Tone Verdaccio and Finer Details
Beginning Monochromatic Work on Facial Details
This next image illustrates two steps in the painting process underway. First, details were gradually added to the metal decorations on the costume, now that the base colors had been blocked in. Then, I also began to tackle the face but in a monochrome underpainting known as a "verdaccio." For the verdaccio I mixed Mars Black, Greenish Umber and Titanium White for a series of ten tonal values. The goal of the verdaccio is to establish the values and facial details as accurately as possible, so that in the next step all one has to do is worry about color.
By tackling these aspects of the painting in such a methodical manner, it was much easier to achieve a reasonable likeness. In fact, I refined the verdaccio over the course of several days to make sure there was both a thick enough coat of paint in place over my charcoal drawing and that it was truly as accurate as possible.
The Perfect Verdaccio Paint - A Great Oil Paint for Verdaccio Technique
Although some artists mix their verdaccio by combining Mars Black and Yellow Ochre, I prefer working with already prepared Greenish Umber paint. This makes mixing a series of verdaccio values quick and simple, and the greenish umber hue is just about perfect for creating a good undertone for most flesh tones.
Perfecting the Details Before Adding Flesh Tones
Here you can see how on a second application of paint, the verdaccio of the face is much more refined. It is always tempting to want to rush into color, but being slow and methodical in the underpainting stages such as this one will pay off well in the final product. I also continued to work on the costume details, moving slowly right to left (since I am left-handed and this made it less likely to smudge my work when using fine-detail brushes.)
Each step in this painting process was only begun after the previous layer of paint was fully dry. The idea was to build layers of paint and color, opaque and transparent, without them mixing on the canvas. This is why use of a quick-dry medium such as Liquin was so important.
The Flesh Tone Palette
Limited Colors to Achieve Brilliant Results
Verdaccio underpainting gives flesh tones a unique richness, as can be seen here as I have just begun to apply color over the greenish umber underpainting. My flesh palette contained Cadmium Orange, Yellow Ochre, Raw and Burnt Umber, Red Ochre, Titanium White and Ivory Black. I played with the application of color as necessary, trying to follow a guideline of not mixing more than three of these colors together at any one time. This rule helps keep the colors strong and from turning muddy and gray. In areas of shadow, such as where the hairline meets the side of the face, I was able to even simply apply a thin glaze of Umber over the verdaccio, allowing the green and brown to create a perfect dark flesh tone hue.
I also started darkening the background to give it more of an Old Master feeling.
Cadmium Orange: A Flesh Tone Essential
Although expensive, Cadmium Orange is a color I recommend as an absolute must in a flesh tone palette. Only a very small amount is necessary, mixed with Titanium White, to create a good basic light skin tone which can then be muted or darkened with Earth tones such as Burnt Sienna or Yellow Ochre. Invest in a good tube of Cadmium Orange (Old Holland is some of the finest) and you will see the difference in your flesh tones immediately.
Completion of Basic Color Application
Building the Realistic Illusion
At this stage of the process, the entire painting had been covered with at least two layers of color paint. I could then move on to refining details further with color glazes, highlights, and minor corrections if necessary to improve the impression of near photographic realism. I tried to blur the edges of the costume and hair into the background to emphasize a feeling of depth and volume. One trick of classical painting is to realize that the camera over-sharpens and flattens images compared to real life. So to avoid the dull look of "photo-realism," an artist has to understand how the eye, opposed to the camera lens, truly perceives the world around us.
The Major Impact of Background Color on the Portrait
Something was bothering me about the painting overall, and I realized it was the background. Most Renaissance portraits feature the figure against a dark background, so I decided to apply a heavy glaze of Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna over my earlier efforts. This helped the central figure "pop out" of the painting considerably and give it even more of an Old Master feeling. If I had not liked the look of the glaze, I could have wiped it away quickly, as the layers beneath the glaze were set and fully dry.
Flesh Tone Adjustments and Detail Work
Glazing and Opaque Highlights
The influence of the background on how the central figure appeared was evident in how much lighter the flesh tones looked after I darkened the background. I toned this contrast down with some further glazes and opaque color applications to the face. Details throughout the painting were refined with further glazes of Ochre, Indian Yellow, other colors and some opaque highlights to pop out the shine of the metal ornaments.
For Safe Brush Cleaning... - Keep Your Tools Clean and Fresh with Turpenoid Natural
I like Turpenoid Natural for cleaning and conditioning my oil painting brushes. It is natural and non-toxic, making it perfect for home-studio use. It simply rinses out with water and can even do a good job of reconditioning old brushes which were caked up with dry paint or otherwise damaged.
Finishing Touches for my Classical Portait Painting
Completing the Final Details
The painting was finally finished with some last details around the eyes, and glazes on the background to blur the edges more and create an illusion of depth. Once the painting was fully dry, it was varnished for protection and to give it a unified gloss finish.All told this painting took several months to complete, as it was so demanding of concentration and detail work that I frequently took breaks away from working on it to tackle some simpler projects. Breaking up the painting process also allowed me to keep going back to the painting with "fresh eyes" and see things to adjust and correct that I had missed in earlier work sessions.
Subject Meets Portrait
In Which Stewart Copeland Today Meets With His Image From Yesterday...
I was thrilled to be able to get a print of the painting to Stewart Copeland himself during The Police reunion tour in 2007. I even offered to present him the original as a gift but he insisted it deserved to be "hanging in the Louvre" someday. As it now stands, it hangs in my living room and is one of my few paintings with which I refuse to part. But if you'd like to see some of the artwork I do have for sale, please visit my personal art website Nicole Pellegrini. There you can order prints, related merchandise, and view more of my portfolio of paintings.
Further Reading on Classical Painting Methods - One of the Best References on Traditional Oil Painting Methods
Many of the painting techniques used here, such as the verdaccio underpainting, are explained in great detail by Frank Covino in this wonderful book. Although out of print you can usually find a used copy for sale on Amazon. It is worth tracking down as it is one of the finest volumes on how to achieve the look of an Old Master painting using a methodical, easy-to-follow approach.
Frank Covino Books and Videos on eBay - Learn more about my painting methods
If you can't find a copy of "Controlled Painting" at a reasonable price on Amazon, check eBay. You may also find some of Covino's other excellent books and DVDs for sale.
Sockii's Art Tutorials on Squidoo - Want to learn more? Check out my other tutorials on HubPages
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Please let me know what you thought of this tutorial and if you would like to see more step-by-steps through classical painting techniques from me in the future.
© 2011 Nicole Pellegrini