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A Portrait of “Janine” in Oil With Acrylic Underpainting
One of Three Tips & Techniques - 2006 contest Winners
Written by Jennifer Ettinger

Preparation of Canvas for Painting: For portraits, the size of the canvas I use depends on the composition of the image. With commissioned portraits the size of the canvas is determined by the client and by how much of themselves they want to have portrayed.

The shape of the canvas is in proportion to how I want to portray the model. For example: Is the model sitting down or standing up? Do I only want to paint the model’s head and shoulders? What part of the model do I want to have as the centre of interest on my canvas?

I use both live models and photos as references and take my own photos of the model to use when the model is not available. Once I’ve determined the proportions of the image to portray on canvas, I do an underpainting in acrylic paint.
1. Underpainting in Acrylic Paint:
For an underpainting mixture, I used warm hues such as burnt sienna with 50% matte medium to 50% tap water to paint washes over the entire canvas. I also started to envision the proportions and composition of the painting and began to form the outer lines of the head and shoulders with heavier washes of burnt sienna.

This gives the underpainting a faint outline of the actual subject.

One of the reasons I use an acrylic underpainting is that it takes less time to dry then oil. Also, a tinted underpainting makes the tonal transition between values less abrupt.

2. After the acrylic underpainting dried, I used vine charcoal to draw a heavy outline of the outer structure of the face and all dominant features. I used variations of line sizes: thick to define outline and the darkest angles, thin to show secondary shadows and important but smaller tonal transition areas, and then faint marks of charcoal as a reminder to me that there is a transition of light occurring in that particular area. I used a kneaded rubber eraser to take out unnecessary lines.

3. Composition - Relative Distance: In “Janine” I started with a dominant feature such as an eye. Once I had that feature placed correctly, I then measured how far everything was in my drawing relative to the size of that eye. For example, if the model’s eye is 1” wide, I measure the distance to the next feature I want to draw, say the bridge of the nose, which might be 2”. When relating this measurement to the canvas, I draw an eye 2” wide. I now know that on my canvas, the distance from the eye to the bridge of the nose is double the 2”, which then equals 4”. An important tip: All features that you draw are relative in distance to each other.
4. Using an acrylic mixture of Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre and Titanium White (which can give either a dark or light green depending on how much Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna is added), I followed the charcoal lines of the portrait. I gradually painted in the secondary and tertiary lines using more water to create a fainter line. After the acrylic paint dried, I wiped the excess charcoal off the canvas with a damp cloth.
5. When the dark lines were painted, I used Gesso to paint white highlights to correct compositional problems and used the Gesso as landmarks on my canvas to guide me to where the light strikes the subject.
6. I choose background hues based on how cold or warm I wanted the atmosphere of the painting to be. At this point, I started to use oil paint and combined it with mineral spirits – as I built up layers of oil I began to add small amounts of linseed oil to the oil paint. The rule of “fat over lean” starts to apply.
7. I painted the background in reds and oranges and added a small amount of white on the left-side of “Janine’s” face which optically made that section of the painting come forward. I started out with thin layers of oil paint, gradually increasing the thickness of the layers until I am satisfied with the result. Sometimes I wait a day so that the paints are less fluid before I add another layer of paint. Background colours can change a portrait considerably. I always try and work the entire portrait so that my painting becomes a type of sculpting: adding and subtracting where I think is necessary to pull the composition together. I often step back from the painting so that I can see if I am keeping to the “truth” of the portrait; the truth being my own unique interpretation of what I want to convey in the portrait.
Tip: When I work at something for a long time, my eyes may not be seeing what is actually in front of me so I take breaks to refresh the “truth” in what I am seeing. Sometimes I take a break from a painting for 15 minutes, sometimes for hours and sometimes for days.

8. In stylized work like “Janine”, fewer values were used which gives the portrait a sharper, bolder appearance. For flesh tones I used “Daler-Rowney” Flesh Tint, “Winton” Flesh Tint and a combination of Alizarin Crimson, Yellow Ochre and Titanium White.
9. I like how “Janine” looks in warm hues and I think of her as a warm person, so I painted the background warm and put warm hued clothing on her.

10. I painted out the heavy outline around her eyes and lightened her green eyes.
11. Once I consider a painting complete, I sign my name, not in a pre-set place but in accordance with the composition of the painting.
The biggest tip I can suggest is that as an artist, you have fun and experiment with any and all types of techniques and ways of painting. By process of elimination and adaptation, you will find a unique way of expressing how you see the world.