Self-portrait grisaille, from a Huntsville selfie

Painted this last night, based on a selfie I took on my phone in the summer of 2015 when my wife and I were in Huntsville, Alabama for a NASA internship she’d gotten.


This is my third go at self-portraiture in oil paints; I did two last year as well, all based off of photos because I haven’t yet figured out a setup I’m happy with for mirror + lighting + easel to work off my own reflection from.

I’m happier with this so far than I am with my previous two, based respectively off a selfie and off of a delightful blue-hued polaroid candid taken by Tamas Kadar during a meetup at XOXO 2016:

From a selfie at home.

My first oil self-portrait.  It was both pretty exciting to put it together and basically chock full of proportional and tonal problems since I was pretty actively making it all up as I went.

From Tamas’ snapshot.

This was my first experiment in monochrome, and you can see I was playing around with using a palette knife to lay in the white background.  I like the idea with this one but not very much the effect — the more muted blue haze of the original polaroid has a dreamy glow that this totally fails to capture, and again I find the proportional problems with it pretty distracting.

On to the new one, then:

Pencil outlines on canvas.

I started with a detailed pencil sketch on the canvas for this painting. With the previous two I’d done some sort of sketch to start as well, but not with the same care: for the first, just sketching in thinned-out paint with a brush on the canvas which several “starting painting” guides had suggested but which turns out not to work well at all for me; for the second a pencil outline but one I rushed a bit and declined in my desire to get going to stop and fix even when proportions were already seeming off.

This time I took my time, probably an hour or so building it up and reworking lines and redrawing detail bits.  Having done a similar job for a current work-in-progress painting of my cat Freyja was very satisfying and nudged me in the direction of doing so here as well, and it’s starting to feel like a good way for me to work.

I’m still not satisfied with the proportional relationship between the original photo and the drawing, but it’s a lot better and more careful in this outing and I’m happier with the results so far because of that.

Using a monochrome palette.

The grisaille was executed using Burnt Umber mixed with varying proportions of Titanium White, and nothing else.  No black in the mix; it’ll be easy to deepen the darkness of the darkest bits later, and the unmixed brown is already fairly striking on its own, so just fading it up with white was fine for this.  You can note (especially in the hair highlights I added late in the process) how mixing in white dulls the vibrance of the brown, though; I laid down thinned but unmixed Burnt Umber for my hair and eyebrows before doing the rest of the details and it’s the most lively feeling part of this current state.

In the patchwork reading about oil history and theory and practice I’ve done over the last eight months, I’d come across the idea of grisaille painting a few times but it hadn’t clicked for me until recently as I started to read up in more detail on glazing techniques.  Used loosely it can mean just a monochrome painting (whether literally greyscale or using a color as the core pigment), so both this and the previous blue one fall into that bucket, but there’s more specific style and theory ideas tied to the word as well.

The idea of specifically doing a grisaille in grey or neutral colors as an underpainting is the interesting thing to me, now, and where I’m planning to go with this one.

By using an essentially colorless first pass to establish the form of the painting as well as the values (basically, levels of brightness) of the whole composition, you can create a foundation for further work without having to juggle color mixing in the process and all the additional logistical issues and (literal, optical) value judgements that can come with mixing colored pigments.

And with that grisaille laid down, you can return to the dry underpainting and add color with transparent glazes.  That is, not by literally obscuring the underpainting with opaque paint out of the tube but by thinning the new colors with additional linseed oil, mineral spirits, etc. to create a translucent layer of color that lays over and takes on the values of the underlying paint.

This idea of using thin layers of transparent paint to blend optically wasn’t even on my radar for oil painting when I first started; imagine my surprise to find that it’s a fundamental technique in centuries of oil painting!

Author: Josh Millard

I manage and help moderate the community website MetaFilter, where I go by "cortex"; in my spare time I get up to all sorts of creative nerdery on the internet and in Portland, Oregon.

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