At the Florence Academy of Art, there is a strict, traditional process to create an oil painting. Beginning with charcoal on paper, the basic proportions of the model are determined and clear transitions between highlight and shadow are delineated. This preparatory drawing is then transposed (using tracing paper) onto a canvas that has been thinly painted with a mix of oil and distilled turpentine. The tint layer, or primatura, serves to unite the "tone" of the painting and can either be warm or cool. Our teacher, Stephen Bauman prefers to use raw umber for this layer, which is on the cool side, sometimes almost greenish depending on the brand of oil paint you are using. I personally prefer a much warmer color for my undertones, especially for a nude figure in a live setting, so I might have chosen a burnt umber instead, which adds a red-ish tone to the dark brown.
At this stage the painting is only viewed in terms of value, how the shadows and light relate to each other devoid of color, and the painting is "blocked" in with a first layer of oil paint. Then a general flesh color is created to be used for the highlights. The shadows still remain one color, but half tones (transitions) should begin to be perceived with more accuracy and sensitivity. Always "drawing" (re-seeing, re-measuring etc.) while applying these first couple layers is of the utmost importance so that all the quirks can be worked out before serious attention to detail and color begins.
I noticed several major issues with my drawing at this point of the process... her left leg was too long and I had to bring the knee in a couple centimeters. Her lower rib cage had also collapsed (perhaps I had completed that part of the drawing when the model began to tire and was slouching?) so I had to create more space between her breast and belly.
By the beginning of the final, 4th week of the course, we now began to use color. And I finally learned how to achieve luminous shadows! You never mix white into a shadow color because it makes it chalky or dusty looking. If the shadow needs to be brighter/lighter for the form to properly fall in place, pure red or ochre (sparingly) should be mixed into your umber. Where the delicate transitions occur between shadow and light, the color is usually dull, often appearing to be grayish or leached. A liminal color for a liminal space. Another trick to take note of: the darkest part of a highlight will ALWAYS be lighter than the lightest part of a shadow. Keeping the brushes used for lights and shadows separate is a fundamental!
Completed Painting of Sylvia. 85x50cm
Many people have asked me if I learned a lot from the class. The resounding answer for me was yes, but not in the assumed answer to the question. Yes I learned some incredible new technical skills that I will apply in my own process of working... namely how to create luminous shadows and the proper use of hard vs soft line to create depth. The closer the figure appears, the stronger the colors and form should be, the more detailed. But as it recedes, the outlines should begin to blur with the background. Almost like a shallow focus. Otherwise the figure appears to be cut out and pasted instead of belonging to its environment.
But, I also learned more about what I would personally, as an artist, choose to do differently. In regards to subject matter, most of the works I've seen from the teachers and alumni of the Florence Academy of Art, are incredibly academic, often depicting traditional biblical scenes or obviously done in the studio for studying purposes. While beautiful and accomplished, I personally don't feel any connection to the model/subject. They're oftentimes removed, and the intimacy between artist and subject is lost. I understand the "academy" atelier tradition's very purpose is to uphold the techniques of the renaissance masters, but as a contemporary artist I rebuke at the idea of adhering to stories that have no personal or historical relevance to the here and now.
The idea of subject matter has been very inspiring to me and I ache to return to my studio to paint the people, cultures, and places that capture our moment in history and our connections to each other.