Christopher Pierce, who is featured in The Artist’s Magazine (June 2011), shows step-by-step how he created a life-size figure painting in the tradition of two famous artists: J.S. Sargent and H.S. Tuke.
I wanted to do a grand painting in the tradition of two artists I respect—J.S. Sargent and H.S. Tuke. With a very large canvas of 84×50, I chose to use the sight-size technique in the manner of J.S. Sargent, reproducing my subject in exact one-to-one scale as my eye saw him, without using a grid. This process necessitates maintaining a constant vantage point from which the real-life model and painted subject appear the same size. To accomplish this, I placed my easel to the side of my model. The model himself is one of H.S. Tuke’s most often painted subjects, a young man in white trousers. Below is my step-by-step progression for creating For Alex: Homage to J.S. Sargent and H.S. Tuke.
1. An initial study gave me an idea of the general composition and appearance of my subject, Alex, in white pants. Using only sepia let me work in paint minus the complication of color. I rejected the look of long pants and had Alex roll up his trousers, which is more in keeping with H.S. Tuke’s paintings.
2. I then did a study of Alex’s head and torso, mainly to solve any skin-tone and color problems. This also helped me warm up to the sight-size process.
3. With vine charcoal, I started drawing using the sight-size method. Making a few drawings and paintings was invaluable for getting a correct likeness.
4. Finally, I was ready to start working on my linen canvas. With a thin wash of burnt sienna mixed with French ultramarine, I filled in the darks on the head and refined the features accurately. Those two colors allowed me to control the warmth or coolness of the wash. With this step, I had a basis for my paint values.
5. I continued the wash down the left arm and the torso, but the facial likeness was the most important part of the painting so I worked mainly on the head at this point. Since I had previously done a study of the head and torso, I knew what skin colors to use. I knew I’d probably go back into the head several times to refine values so I used a medium with even parts of turpentine, stand oil and Venetian turpentine. This mixture will not dry for a week or two, which gave me the luxury of painting wet-into-wet for several days.
6. At this stage I started working seriously on the torso and arms to establish tonal values and color. I was especially conscious of keeping the painting fresh by painting only one brushstroke at a time. I tried to match every stroke with the color and value I saw when looking at the model.
7. I had to paint the white pants in one session—as Sargent would—because the folds would never be the same again once the model took a break. The resulting look is fresh and alive. If I’d taken more time, I would have scraped off the paint and started again, creating an overworked look. Freshness is mandatory. At this stage I used only nos. 11 and 12 filberts.
8. I filled in the background and worked meticulously on the hands and feet, continually checking proportions and accuracy. In fact, I rechecked proportions every time I started a painting session. In a full body portrait, a good likeness must include the entire body.
9. I filled in the rest of the canvas and decided to change the shape of the vase slightly and to have it run off the canvas. This worked better with the figure. I also decided to paint the vase darker than it appeared in actuality so it would not detract from the main figure.
10. I switched to a more interesting, darker tapestry over the pedestal, and I further darkened the vase and finished its highlights. I also strengthened the shadows of the pedestal, figure and vase. Here you see the completed painting For Alex: Homage to J.S. Sargent and H.S. Tuke (oil, 84×50).
My palette: flake white, cadmium yellow, cadmium red scarlet, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, cerulean blue, French ultramarine, burnt sienna, yellow ochre, naples yellow, ivory black.
Learn more about Christopher Pierce’s painting process at www.christopherpiercestudio.com and in his feature in the June 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
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