Oil Painting Demo | Artist Paul Fenniak

In this oil painting demo, Paul Fenniak explains his intuitive painting process for his mysterious narrative paintings. 

Birthday, a painting by Paul Fenniak from oil painting demo

Birthday (oil, 48×60) by Paul Fenniak

Canadian artist Paul Fenniak uses a combination of techniques and procedures that he modestly claims most experienced oil painters employ as well. This may be true, but the series of moves that Fenniak brings to bear during the different phases of creating a work is a reminder that “techniques and procedures” probably have as many permutations as there are artists. The results of his array of working habits are complex images representing moods and states of mind that find their human subjects—and those of us looking at their painted world—peering into the mysteries of contemporary life.

About the Painting Birthday

By Paul Fenniak

In Birthday I tried to get across something of the unbridgeable gulf that exists between people and the desire to close that gap. The painting is divided into two parts by the plume of smoke which stands as a kind of barrier between two (psychological) realms. Each person attending this celebration is, in a way, on his or her own; the man with the sparkler is particularly isolated behind the smoke. (The viewer is separated as well, “pushed” out of the space of the picture by the lampshade). I wanted to suggest that the figure in brown with the purse—although her face doesn’t betray it—has a longing to cross the “barrier.” She’s stuck on one side, but her shadow isn’t. It has “made the crossing,” as it were, and takes its place next to the man’s shadow.

Demo: A Process of Intuition and Experimentation

By Paul Fenniak

Before applying any paint for my piece Birthday (oil, 48×60), I photographed each of the models separately and loosely worked out a general composition in a sketchbook. Then I sketched a very loose charcoal drawing onto the tinted canvas.

Step 1 of oil painting demo for Birthday by Paul Fenniak

1. Lay-in Washes for Overall Impression: I began with a quick all-over lay-in using washes of thin paint over a reddish-brown tinted ground (still visible in the head on the left and the legs of the seated figure). I applied some impastoed white in areas I knew would be the brightest lights. At this point I wasn’t concerned with precision; the main thing was to get an overall impression.


Step 2 of oil painting demo for Birthday by Paul Fenniak

2. Glazing, Palette Knife and Detail Work: On the left-hand area of the wall, I used a palette knife to lay on a thick, blue-white layer using fast-drying Cremnitz white and ultramarine blue. Once this dried, I glazed the area with burnt umber (I also used a warm glaze over a cool underpainting in later stages). Next I worked up the white T-shirt in a thick layer and then developed the two main heads in some detail (when I paint, if I feel the heads are OK, I’m motivated to continue with everything else).  With a heavy heart, I then began the painfully detailed dress pattern with thin paint and a small, soft brush.


Step 3 of oil painting demo for Birthday by Paul FenniakL

3. Laying In and Glazing: At this stage I wiped a brown glaze over the lampshade and laid in the seated man’s head in rough, crude colors, with a view to going over it again later, during which time I could scrape down to this layer. I laid in his legs and feet and gave his shirt a bit more definition.


41 of oil painting demo for Birthday by Paul Fenniak

4. Sculpting Head Forms and Experimenting: I decided to reposition the seated figure’s head to a profile so that the line of his eyes leads to the landscape. At this point I was primarily concerned with getting an interesting, slightly distorted shape with impasto in the lights, so I sculpted basic head forms with minimal regard for color. Also I was trying out different head poses for the second figure from the right, using loose charcoal drawing on top of dry paint.


Step 5 of oil painting demo for Birthday by Paul Fenniak

5. Underpainting, Scumbling and Experimenting: I began the modeled underpainting for the right-hand figure’s shoulders and arms. Making sure to leave some of the glaze visible, I scumbled gray-white onto the yellow-brown glaze that was on the lampshade. I also defined the second female figure’s pose (second figure from the right) a bit more, working from imagination and scumbling a thin, dark brown. The white impasto collar helped give me a clearer sense of an “anchor” for the head. I tried to use a Rembrandt self-portrait as the basis for her face. The light was right, but ultimately it introduced an unnecessary historical reference, so I wiped it out.


Step 6 of oil painting demo for Birthday by Paul Fenniak

6. Overpainting, Refining and Repainting: From left to right: I developed the shadows on the wall with palette-knifed ultramarine blue and white, again glazed with burnt umber. I softened edges in some areas. I painted the lower part of the T-shirt in detail, showing reflected light from the as yet unpainted sparklers. I painted the far-left figure’s arms in reddish ochre hues with green-gray patches, fairly thickly in the right arm and thinly for his left so it would recede.  I also painted the seated figure’s shirt in more detail emphasizing blue hues in the shadow with orange-brown accents.  In the lights, I dragged a thin titanium white overpainting on top of the textured dry Cremnitz, which had been glazed yellow-brown. Then, here and there, I scraped or sanded the overpainting to bring up ridges of Cremnitz impasto. I rendered the head in similar fashion, with reds and oranges added. I painted the trousers in neutral tones, then glazed them with Rembrandt brand asphaltum for the yellowish hue.  I took photos of a shoe lit with bright light (to simulate the light from the sparklers) for use as reference for the sole. I decided to repaint the female’s head (second from the right) from a photo of a friend posed in roughly the same way as the Rembrandt self-portrait.  Then I painted thickly the legs on the right-hand figure in muted tones but with reddish and violet accents around the knees.  Here again, I painted in layers — thin transparent and translucent layers over dried, glazed impasto. I introduced yellow highlights and defined more wrinkles in the patterned dress. The white flowers in shadow, I gave a blue tinge; in the lights they’re accented with titanium white mixed with a bit of yellow.


Step 7 of oil painting demo for Birthday by Paul Fenniak

7. Laying In, Glazing and Refining: Here I laid in the green sofa with a bluish green so that when I’d apply the yellow-brown glaze (see step 8), it would become a warm green. Dissatisfied with the flat white of the T-shirt, I glazed over it with burnt umber so I could paint over it in the next stage. I finally established a reason for the second female figure’s hand position; she’s about to put her purse strap over her shoulder. This decision allowed me to give specific form to her hand. I deepened the dark tones on the left side of the flowered dress for a greater sense of volume. Then I added a much-needed area of cool color by introducing the blue shopping bag. At this point I painted in the wine glasses from photos with bright horizontal light for reference and then painted them in where needed.  You can’t see it here, but there’s a bit of string on the right, taped to where I established a vanishing point.  The string could then be stretched across the painting to establish perspective lines.


Step 8 of oil painting demo for Birthday by Paul Fenniak

8. Glazing, Overpainting and Defining: Following the general lighting scheme of warm lights and cool shadows, I glazed the sofa’s light areas with warm brown, making sure to leave warm, reddish accents along the edges of and within the blue-gray shadow. This helps to counteract a flat, monochromatic look. I overpainted the T-shirt, adding more detail and a wider range of hues in the whites. Finally I began defining the smoke from the sparklers by using thin paint and soft brushes as well as by rubbing it with my fingers to soften the edges.


Step 9 of oil painting demo for Birthday by Paul Fenniak

9. Accenting, Glazing and Refining: Using small opaque titanium white marks with reddish yellow accents and glazes, I added the sparklers. I also laid in the radiator under the window with ultramarine blue and white to prepare it for a burnt umber glaze. I wanted to produce a gray with more depth than one mixed on the palette and applied directly (see next stage for result). The floor was painted in more detail using a range of reddish tans plus gray-green patches. I then worked up the still life and table in more detail from my imagination and from photos taken in my kitchen.


Step 10 of oil painting demo for Birthday by Paul Fenniak

10. Overpainting, Scumbling, Refining: In the last few days, I added the final lampshade details: a warm tan interior with a cool gray transition into shadow. I overpainted the exterior shadow blue. Using a wide, soft brush over a warm gray underpainting, I laid down a cool gray layer, then applied a brown glaze over the radiator. I added a small framed picture at the top for compositional reasons, scumbling over it with translucent gray-blue to make it recede. I also added landscape details, including a multilayered sky that I scraped and sanded to bring up cool patches among the areas of warm glaze in Birthday (oil, 48×60)



Surface: as heavy a canvas as Fenniak can get that’s still smooth and tightly woven 10- to 14-ounce cotton canvas and occasionally linen, purchased on rolls from Kama Pigments

Oil paints: Old Holland, Rembrandt, Holbein, Sennelier, Kama Pigments and Stevenson (Fenniak prefers Old Holland—always uses Old Holland titanium and Cremnitz whites—but limits use of the brand because of the cost. Kama Pigments and Stevenson are Canadian brands.)

Medium: turpentine and stand oil—a lean 3:1 medium for the early stages and a fat 2:1 medium for the late stages—sometimes with a splash of damar added

Palette: large tabletop glass palette for general use; handheld wooden palettes with dippers (containers for holding small quantities of medium) attached for detailed close-up work

Brushes: often cheap brushes from the Dollar Store or hardware stores—stiff hog’s hair (rounds, flats, filberts, long hairs, short hairs) for thick layers; soft brush (natural or synthetic) for thin layers and glazes

Other tools: palette knives for applying and scraping paint; razor blades for scraping; sandpaper for preparing a surface and for various textural effects; rags for wiping glazes; fingers for softening edges, among other things


Born in Toronto, Canada, Paul Fenniak received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and a master of fine arts degree from Concordia University, Montreal. His work is represented by Forum Gallery in New York City, and he’s participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions. Fenniak has received awards from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts and the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation. In 2008 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation made three short films on his work for its Artspots series. Writing in The New York Times, critic Ken Johnson said of Fenniak’s work: “… there is a genuinely haunting, cinematic monumentality. It reminds one that the narrative as well as painterly possibilities of traditional, figurative representation are still far from exhausted.” Fenniak lives and works in Montreal. Learn more about him and his work at paulfenniak.com.


Introductory paragraph is by Rick Stull. Stull lives in a small cottage in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains.


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