Oil Painting Step-By-Step | Monochromatic and Color Underpaintings

Max Ferguson, featured in The Artist’s Magazine, provides a step-by-step demo of an oil portrait painting using monochromatic and color underpaintings.

Oil Painting Step-By-Step | Monochromatic and Color Underpaintings

By Max Ferguson

Woman in Mirror by Max Ferguson | oil portrait painting how to

Woman in Mirror (2011; oil on panel, 10×10) by Max Ferguson

While I prefer to work from life, with most of my subject matter, that’s somewhere between impractical and impossible. I generally begin with photographic studies, which are a jumping-off point—the final painting is radically different from these studies. Next comes the drawing stage—the dress rehearsal. I shift elements in and out, moving them around the drawing like chessmen. I’m impatient. I’m always so anxious to start painting. If I did sketch more, I’d probably save myself a lot of trouble!

In my oil painting Woman in Mirror (above), I dealt with several spatial planes: the woman, the wall and mirror, and the reflection of the room. This small painting forced me to work very close, and it forces the viewer to stand close. It seems that the louder and larger the works of my contemporaries grow, the quieter and smaller my paintings become.

Below you can see the major steps of my process as I worked on this painting.

Woman in Mirror by Max Ferguson | oil portrait painting how to

Drawing Transfer
1. After completing a cartoon, I coated the back of the drawing with a thin wash of half ivory black and half burnt umber. I then let the wash dry for about an hour. Then I put the drawing against the panel and went over all the lines with an HB pencil. This transferred all the lines to the panel in the same way carbon paper would. In this image the lines have been transferred to the panel.

Woman in Mirror by Max Ferguson | oil portrait painting how to

Monochromatic Underpainting
2. The next stage involves roughing in the piece with a thin underpainting done in burnt umber, black and white. Here the monochromatic underpainting is about halfway done.

Woman in Mirror by Max Ferguson | oil portrait painting how to

3. Here you see the completed monochromatic underpainting.

Woman in Mirror by Max Ferguson | oil portrait painting how to

Color Underpainting
4. Next came the color underpainting. Here I’m just beginning the first layer in color on the skin.

Woman in Mirror by Max Ferguson | oil portrait painting how to

5. I usually complete the color underpainting in two layers, each becoming more detailed. Here you see the completed second layer of the underpainting in color.

Woman in Mirror by Max Ferguson | oil portrait painting how to

Oil Painting, Complete
6. Here you see the completed painting (also at top) of Woman in Mirror (oil, 9×8).


Max Ferguson’s works hang in numerous museums, including the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas. He’s represented by the Gallery Henoch in Manhattan. Visit his website at www.maxferguson.com. See also his feature in the September 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

Click here to order a print version of the September 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

Click here to order a digital download of the September 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.


Free artistsnetwork.tv preview
See an award-winning artists’ approach to oils. Click here for a link to a free preview of Expressive Oil Painting with George Allen Durkee from artistsnetwork.tv.


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