The Artist and the Art Model: A Symbiotic Relationship (and a Demo)

Applying what he’s learned from classical studies in Italy, Justin Hess uses handmade oils and the sight-size method to make timeless paintings. “A Symbiotic Relationship” originally appeared in The Artist’s Magazine (November 2012). Read on for this free demonstration of the figure/oil painting A Second Glance (below; oil, 35½x39½).

Justin Hess_art model_oil painting 9

A Second Glance (oil; 35.5×39.5) by Justin Hess


A Symbiotic Relationship
By Justin Hess

A model once jokingly commented on the faces I was making while I was concentrating on my work. As artists, we tend to get caught up in the moment while trying to depict accurately the subject matter at hand. It’s easy to overlook the intimate relationship with our model that’s created from spending so many intense working hours together.

For A Second Glance, I set out to represent the symbiotic relationship between the model and artist. The model was studying me indirectly through the mirror with the same intensity with which I was studying her. With her stare, she claimed the environment as her own and infused her strength and grace into a painting that, essentially, she helped to create.

The inspiration for A Second Glance came from a few different sources, one of which was the Italian painter Giacomo Grosso (1860–1938), who did a painting of a reclining nude on a bearskin (Nuda). I had purchased the sheepskin that the model is sitting on at a small outdoor market in Norway while I was there teaching a workshop. I enjoy an environment of mutual professional respect between the model and me in contradiction to sexual tension, which is what I see in many contemporary nude paintings.

Justin Hess_art model_oil painting, palette

Palette: colors in top row, right to left: lead white, Naples yellow light, yellow ochre, vermilion, Venetian red, alizarin crimson, ivory black, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue; mixtures in bottom row, right to left: three foreground values, six fleshtone values, two hair values, three background values

.Figure Painting Demonstration:

Justin Hess_art model_oil painting, preliminary figure sketch

1. Preliminary sketch: The idea behind the preliminary sketch is to translate the concept into an image. I try to work out the pose mentally or, with the aid of a mirror, by putting myself into the pose, so that I’ll have a better understanding of what I want when the actual model arrives. This is also a good way of working out the composition in relation to the size and profile of canvas that will suit the project best.


Justin Hess_art model_oil painting, figure color study

2. Color study: The purpose of the color study is to mix accurately color values that are specific to the subject matter and its environment. The goal is to achieve a general impression of what the finished painting will look like. I can use this study as reference during the actual painting.


Justin Hess_art model_oil painting, Sight-size setup and block-in

3. Sight-size setup and block-in: In keeping with the sight-size method, I set up my canvas directly next to my model in order to create a life-sized painting. But sight-size doesn’t have to mean life-sized. The farther the canvas is brought in front of the model and toward the painter, the smaller the painting will be. A general rule you may adhere to is to mark your viewing point at a distance three times the greatest dimension of your canvas. Leonardo wrote, “When you draw from nature, stand three times as far away as the object you are drawing.” For this particular painting, my viewing point was about 9 feet from the canvas because the greatest dimension of my canvas was about 3 feet. Before I paint, I create a charcoal drawing to determine the general placement of the composition and the overall shape of my subject. I try to keep my lines straight and clear while avoiding detail so changes are easier to make.


Justin Hess_art model_oil painting 5, preserving the block-in

4. Preserve the block-in: I preserved the finished block-in drawing by going over it with raw umber thinned with turpentine, which was dry by the next morning. Then I wiped the canvas clean of all charcoal so as not to dirty any colors I would apply.


Justin Hess_art model_oil painting, block-in with paint

5. Block-in with paint: I often only use the colors mixed in the color study to do the painting block-in, thus keeping the whole painting harmonious and lower in key. I usually try to cover the entire canvas quickly so that any compositional or proportional errors will be easier to see.


Justin Hess_art model_oil painting, building form

6. Build form: While constantly checking my drawing, I slowly put in more information. It’s important not to be too committed to the original drawing and to make changes, if necessary.


Justin Hess_art model_oil painting, key the painting

7. Key the painting: At this stage, I key the painting, meaning that I find the lightest light and darkest dark in the picture. In this case, the sheepskin has the lightest value and the model’s hair has the darkest. These two extremes define the limited (relative to nature) value range that I’ll work with.


Meet Justin Hess
Justin Hess studied for three years at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy. Upon graduation he spent three more years in Florence teaching painting and material preparation, first at the Academy and then privately. He has exhibited works in Australia, Europe and the United States. He’s represented by W.H. Patterson in London; Galerie Michael in Beverly Hills, California; and John Pence Gallery in San Francisco. His book, Controlling the Creative Process, about using traditional methods to prepare paints, canvases and frames, is available at

Drawing the Nude from Life with Costa Vavagiakis
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Click here to view a preview of “Drawing the Nude from Life: Costa Vavagiakis.”


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