Kate Sammons: Oil Painting Process

Artist Kate Sammons works outward from a focal point to render a convincing portrait or still life in graphite, charcoal or oil. Here she shares her process from concept to finish.

Self-Portrait, Taking Flight
(oil, 12×18) by Kate Sammons

1. The Idea
When I choose a subject for my paintings, I’m thinking of what kind of story or mood I want to create, the aesthetic I want to explore, practical concerns about whether I can find the right subject and the right environment.

Sometimes a burning idea just pops into my head, or I’ll remember something from a dream. I’m attracted to symbols, myths and magical themes. Always though, I hope to convey a sense of personal perspective and a universal element that will strike an emotional chord with the viewer.

2. The Composition
At this point I work out my creative designs. I address lighting, perspective, focal point, the right pose, expression and gesture, additional details like incidental objects that may act as symbolic references, value and color decisions, rhythm and repetition, proportion, harmony and contrast, among other things.

There are a variety of ways that I might visualize this: creating several traditional artistic studies; using computer photo editing programs to compose a photograph; or setting up an actual scene in real life.

3. The Reference
I like to work with only one reference if possible, getting this image as close to my creative vision as I can. I work either from life or from a print or monitor depending on the parameters of the project (ie., the time frame; whether the subject is available to sit still; space and equipment; and overall expense considerations).

Also sometimes I work from both a print and life reference, and sometimes I include a artistic study into my references as well. In these cases I work from several references, but I’m always careful to organize and be very clear about what I’d like to take from these sources.

4. The Cartoon
This is the measurement stage in which I create an exact line drawing on the appropriate size support that I’ve chosen. It doesn’t look like like Disney, but I get a basic contour and the large shadows shapes of the picture. The measurements can be made from several different methods: Comparative measurement is useful in life painting situations when I’m standing far away from the model; grid and sight-size measurements are useful when a life drawing setup is very close and the objects are aligned along main axes.

A tracing transfer is a very efficient way of measuring if I’m working from a photo; however, this isn’t a substitute for knowing how to accurately measure and observe. I use dividers and rulers as tools for careful measurements.

5. The Modeling
Modeling is a disciplined, careful process for me. Generally, I model from dark to light, trying to respectfully consider every detail of information presented by my reference. It’s both a process of discovery and interpretation, as I observe the smallest shapes and forms faithfully, while constantly making decisions about how to best represent them.

This is a very technical stage in which I’m focused on a limited set of goals, and my concerns are abstract—about value, shape, color, and how I can achieve those characteristics in the best and most interesting way.

This stage of the painting takes the longest amount of time. I paint as much detail as I can see during this stage, confining myself to one small area and getting it right before moving onto the next. I work from one section and proceed out from that section, not jumping from one area to an unrelated one across the canvas. Instead of painting in several layer stages, I slow down my painting process enough so that I take on only just the area of the painting that I can work to completion in one day while the paint is still wet.

6. The Finishing
Finishing for me is about subtlety. Besides putting in subtle texture and lighting effects, I look for how I can make my drawing more three-dimensional, more believable and more unified. Also, I consider the surface quality of the entire drawing and use very light rendering strokes to smooth out the surface so it appears polished and smooth. Finally, I make necessary edits so that the artwork still communicates the that first inspired me.

To learn more about Kate Sammons’s artwork and to see a step-by-step demonstration, see the June 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
For the June 2011 digital download issue, click here.

Representational art in all its forms has been a lifelong enjoyment,” says Kate Sammons, “particularly work that has an intensely personal and passionate feel to it.” Sammons offers classes through her Los Angeles studio and teaches drawing at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art. Her award-winning work is represented at Gallery 1261 in Denver and the Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale and has been exhibited at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Butler Institute of American Art in Ohio and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Indiana, as well as many other venues. Learn more at her website: www.katesammons.com.


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