As seen in The Artist’s Magazine’s March issue, Dan Thompson walks us through his oil demo with a deep concentration on grisaille.
FROM GRISAILLE TO COLOR
by Dan Thompson
1. Open grisaille: I had the honor of painting Jack in Studio Six of The Art Students League of New York. This was the room of Kenneth Hayes Miller, a portrait/figure artist who taught at the League from 1911 to 1951. I set forth a process of reacting to Jack’s pose by selecting a watery combination of dark/light oil colors and articulating marks that one could call “place holders.” Because I must work from something, I need some form of design presence to materialize on the linen so that it may be refined. This method of beginning, which I call “open grisaille,” minimizes tonality meant for stating darks; the canvas tone functions as the de facto light.
2. Closed grisaille: With the addition of a lighter value, I find it possible to access eye-catching characteristics that aren’t predominately shadows. It’s important for the painter to engage with both sides of the tonal range, to steer visual flourishes from within shapes. The higher-key lights also shift my painting from the impression of total flatness to one where corners of the form and figure materialize. I looked for specifics related to this: Jack’s shoulder landmarks, his sinus eminences (two prominences above the brow) the zygomatic (cheekbone) prominence and his alar cartilage (cartilage on the lower third of the nose)—all fundamental concerns of the planar head were here articulated through light/dark accents. This is called “closed grisaille.”
3. Early color masses: I began laying out mixtures on my palette to represent color masses, such as skin in light or skin in shadow. These were intended to add temperature and mood to the piece. Jack’s pose and body language called for something strong, smart and bold. The blue background served as a color anchor while I mixed combinations for his shirt, hair and face, and created an overall light effect, which was meant as an initial layer. I tried to bounce the focus of my eye from place to place in order not to stare into things and “think” the color instead of seeing it; I further hoped that my marks of grisaille placement could invite color adjustments without one phase of the painting turning against the other. I always strive for a complementary system.
4. Color refinements: As I developed the color, I saw that I needed to relate the shadow on Jack’s face to the surrounding blue. I also wanted his shirt to fill out most of the lighter end of the range. I try to compose the color before I start a painting (using the backdrops and clothing) so that when the color refinement happens, colors close in on one another more naturally while allowing me to emphasize certain areas. With this portrayal of Jack, I was most interested in his facial features and expression. This moment in the process was thereby an attempt to carve out the context for finishing Jack’s portrait.
5. Abstraction, rhythm and interconnections: I studied with a great painter named Cedric Egeli, who used the phrase, “too human, too soon.” Those four words have made such a difference to me. In this image of the evolving (or devolving) piece, I searched for abstraction and rhythm, and I studied the interconnections of the features. I find working the total figure to be meaningful, which here translated into observing and painting Jack’s ear as a striking contribution to his unique facial expression. The way he sat, his posture, motivated me to undertake a concerted effort to convey his singular vitality.
6. Consummation of technique and feeling: As I neared completion of the demonstration, I hoped an echo of Jack’s strength and steadfastness would be evident. The lift in his mouth and the shade in his eyes gave me something almost contradictory; I tried not to stand in its way. Since my brush awakened, I’ve trusted it as a substantive contribution to the authenticity of painting from life. In Working Portrait of Jack, it appears to have brought out some of my instinct for form, which is where the textural magic can happen
Surface: Fredrix Blue Label prestretched linen
Oils: See Thompson’s Palette (opposite)
Medium: Kremer walnut oil
tools: Robert Simmons Nos. 2–6 filberts and Nos. 2–8 Signet egberts; Silver Brush Nos. 2–8 Grand Prix filberts, and No. 4 Silverstone filbert; da Vinci Nos. 2–10 Maestro 2 frescos; Holbein No. 2910 palette knife (similar to Blick No. 50 RGM)