Old Masters Technique

A Mother's Love - work in progress

A Mother’s Love – work-in-progress

Consider how the great masters created their masterpieces. They spent a very long time composing the image sketches. Models were posed carefully to complement the composition with great attention to detail and they had to sit for hours. Even small changes like the position of the fingers on a hand were important. Light was used to accentuate the entire composition and purposely direct your eye to important areas of the image. Careful attention and considerable planning was done to create just the right color palette (overall color scheme) for the painting.

Today, a great commissioned oil portrait requires many of the the same steps used by the Masters. Even though photography has reduced the need for the subject to sit for several hours, much of the Old Masters process is still required to produce a classical oil portrait.

Great portraits still require:

Careful composition. The composition is designed in context with the final display space for the painting. The background and its relationship with the subject is carefully controlled. Proper composition directs the viewer’s eye to important areas of the painting. There are no accidents of subject or background placement in a great painting.

The subject is posed. Here’s where technology plays a role. A series of digital images are taken during the sitting (often more than 100) to help capture the right detail in the right light. During the sitting Sharon takes notes and makes sketches to help plan the overall image and document the color palette. It is also important that Sharon has time to interview and get to know the subject(s). What’s their most natural expression? It’s important to find out how the subject sees themselves.

Excellent drawing skills. A great painting begins with a great drawing. This is where the artist skills are put to the test. If the initial drawing doesn’t look like the subject, the final painting will not be successful. This is why most artists consider portraiture the most difficult of all art forms. Landscapes and still lives can be more forgiving, but if the shape of a muscle in the neck is even slightly off, it’s obvious to the viewer that something about the portrait just isn’t quite right.

Creation of realistic flesh tones. There are obviously many variations in flesh tones, but it is even more complex than the huge range of fundamental flesh colors. Look closely at the back of your hand. Notice that the veins stand out not only due to their closeness to the surface, but because of their color. Generally they are seen as greenish in color. Your skin color is made up of a wide range of tissues that are just underneath the skin. One of the defining properties of the Flemish or layered technique is this ability to produce very realistic flesh tones because it’s not just one color, it’s many colors, layered on each other to produce a similar effect that occurs in nature. When you study an Old Masters portrait like a Vermeer, you notice the complexity and luminescence of the flesh tones – they are so realistic. A classical artist doesn’t mix up a batch of “flesh tone” or squirt it out of a tube. The final effect is created by using a wide range of colors that when properly layered and blended produce the impression of real skin.

Excellent color coordination. A great painting has a great color scheme. The subject and background are coordinated to compliment each other – along with the composition, color is used to direct the viewer’s eye. The painting should also be created to complement its final display location. Sharon is an excellent designer and can work with your decorator to create a composition and color palette that will best compliment any room.

Finally, excellent technique. Sharon has spent more than 15 years researching, studying and developing her technique. This is not generally taught in schools – certainly not in any major universities.

Steps in the Flemish – “layered” technique

Preparation of the ground
The canvas Sharon uses is specifically Belgium Linen which is then coated with several layers of pure white “gesso” which provides the ground for the painting. Sharon generally uses a lead white gesso which guarantees the best archival results.

The sketch
Sharon then uses vine charcoal to do the preliminary sketch on the canvas.

The imprimatura
The entire surface of the painting is washed with an olive color mixture of paint and turpentine.

The umber layers
The shadows are then painted with a umber, usually more than one umber layer is used. Sharon usually does 2 umber under layers. The painting generally looks very monochromatic and flat at this stage.

The verdaccio
Slightly greenish in color, the painting is given depth by applying a full range of values in the verdaccio layers.

The color layers (glazes)
Now Sharon begins to add the color to the painting. Several layers of color are generally used. The final layers are for the highlights and the detail work and impasto is added to the finished work.

The varnish
This final step is applied 6 months after the final color layer to ensure that the oil painting is completely dry. This step improves the overall depth of the painting and also protects it from the air and dust. If, in a hundred years or so, your ancestors think the painting is getting “dull” the varnish can be removed and the painting restored to its original lustre.