Painting in Layers for a Complex Scene
by Ephraim Rubenstein
This step by step demonstration is an excerpt of Ephraim Rubenstein’s feature article “Life is a House” in the January/February 2014 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Click here to read the full issue, and click here to become a subscriber!
For Abandoned Row Houses, Richmond, Virginia, I started in the top corner of the central roof, with the green “trash” trees and vines, the delicate Prussian blue sky, and the rich brick-red of the buildings. This trio established the whole key of the painting. The tops of the buildings have an ornamental entablature that has this wonderfully elusive, faded gray-green-silver note, a ghostly patina difficult to capture.
Even though I generally paint alla prima, there are times when the visual complexity of a subject demands that one paint in layers, particularly when the subject has multiple visible planes stacked one in front of the other. For example, I worked alla prima as much as possible for this painting, but some areas have as many as six or seven layers. The lowest section of the house near the “For Sale” sign is extremely complicated, so the layers had to be painted in order, from back to front. I have zoomed in on and photographed that area for this step-by-step demonstration.
1 and 2. The lowest layer of the painting is a turpentine wash underpainting, which I decided to do in sap green. I think I felt the presence of the vines and the threat they embodied more than I realized.
3. I then started to block in the shady dark green underside of the tree in front of the sign. First I established the darker tones in the center, then worked up to the lights. This gives the trees and bushes some dimension.
4 and 5. In the next layer, I painted the lighter upper branches on top of the shadows and the cool blue shadow of the tree on the sign. I often “oil out” a dry, lower layer by brushing a little medium over it before I paint into it. That way the paint feels as though I’m painting wet into wet.
6. Next, I painted the grass in what was left of the front lawn, as well as the base color of the stone. I didn’t use a glaze here; the paint had to be opaque enough to cover completely whatever was below.
7. Then I put in some of the bushes, the vines on the stone wall, and the chain-link fence on top of that. The fence was a challenge; I thinned out the paint to make it fluid and struggled while painting the parallel rows as there is a fine line between them looking sloppy and mechanical.
8. Finally, I painted the topmost layer (of the multiple layers), the live and dead vines on the chain-link fence. My medium consisted of almost straight linseed oil plus a little damar varnish to help things dry faster. Remembering to respect “fat over lean” is important in avoiding cracking.
These two subjects, the “abandoned house” and the “house of well-being,” have acted as emotional poles—metaphors for loss and abundance—between which I have oscillated, depending on the circumstances of my life.