Student Post: Melissa Henry
25, March 2009 § 5 Comments
This semester the returning painting students are meeting with Jane Pack for a weekly seminar where we are delving into the work and style of Velazquez. We are learning a tremendous amount about both the process of how he painted and his techniques. Our long-term goal for the semester is to produce a replica of his masterpiece ‘Las Meninas.’ Through learning step-by-step about his painting methods, we will each do our own portion of the painting ‘in his style.’ There is a lot of preparation to do before that point, and we have begun with learning how he went about creating a portrait. Using this method, we are painting one of his portraits ourselves. I chose to replicate St. Paul from his painting of Saint Anthony the Great and Saint Paul the Anchorite.
Velazquez worked with the strategy of starting from a ‘middle ground’ and building up from there by adding darks and lights. I began learning about this method of working last semester and I am beginning to really understand its benefits. It is a way of working that allows the artist to be economical with his use of layers, paint, and brushstroke. For me, it makes the various steps in creating a painting more manageable because as Jane says, you break down a complex subject (like a face) into various layers, and in each layer you deal with a separate issue.
Velazquez began his portraits with an underlayer of paint, or ‘imprimatura.’ I used yellow ochre mixed with a bit of black. When dry, he would make a rough sketch of his subject with dark brown paint (I used raw umber). This should be loose and to get it correctly modeled, I used a rag to constantly wipe out and mold the shapes in St. Paul’s face. I was intimidated at first but this method of blending, wiping, and re-applying over and over allowed me to get a facial form that I was happy with. In a way it took the pressure off of getting it just right the first time. And since it is the first layer, any mistakes can be fixed in succeeding layers.
In the next stage, we “heightened with white” like Velazquez. Jane taught us how he would mix chalk with his pigments to get a certain silvery-opaque quality. We are adding zinc powder to our white to help quicken the drying time, which is very slow for titanium white paint. I applied an ochre and white combination instead of straight white so that I can bring up the darker tones more gradually. I found this step of “heightening” very enjoyable. The major ‘decisions’ had already been made when I used brown to sketch out St. Paul’s face and shape his features, so in this stage I was building on top of the framework I had laid.
On top of this white, Velazquez would apply a layer of glaze to bring the tones back closer to the base color. He would repeat this process of heightening and glazing back down, using different colors of glaze within the earth palette (yellow ochre, a red pigment like burnt sienna, black, and white) to achieve a rich skin tone. I too did this, and found that my slow buildup of the canvas gave me time to contemplate and think about the process, planning out several steps in advance. Working in many layers allows me to get a feel for the subtle nuances of the forms and their shadows. In the process of heightening with white, I began noticing little details that I hadn’t seen in the initial sketch, like the indentations within cavity of the eye socket. I also added some ‘positive paint’ into the wet glaze. This gave St. Paul’s face more body and form. I found that I also had to go back in and darken select areas and add more white to brighten other places. In the final step, Velazquez would put the finishing highlights in with thicker paint. Looking at close-ups of his portraits, we can see the movement of his brush and how he used brushstroke to model his figures with incredible skill. I added some last touches also, and when I put in the highlights of the eyes, it made St. Paul come alive on the canvas.
Aside form Jane’s class, I am working on other paintings with Jun’s painting class. for the first painting, I chose to take a quirky spin on the traditional still life setup. I had the idea of poking fun at the traditional ‘fruit still life’ by mimicking a police lineup and hanging my subjects on the wall under harsh spotlight, as though they are suspects for committing a crime. Fittingly, the spotlight is an artist’s lamp. I had fun with this idea and I tried to create a dark and dramatic painting yet have it be silly at the same time. For this piece, I knew the lamp would be a challenge so I began by sketching it out, first with a loose gesture drawing, and then with a more detailed sketch in which I carefully examined the tones and reflective qualities of the different parts of the lamp. Doing this sketch helped me tremendously. I had the image of the lamp, it’s proportions, and the shapes of its reflections already worked out in my head, so I was more confident depicting these qualities in paint. Completing a detailed pencil sketch of challenging objects before tackling them in paint is something I am definitely going to more often.
I love painting vegetables and I found it enjoyable to build up in layers much like the Velazquez portrait I am working on. I used many layers of glazing with burnt sienna, black, blue, and green to get a sense of depth in the shadows. Last semester I learned a tremendous amount when I replicated Vermeer’s Woman with a Balance and I applied those lessons to this painting. I wanted a similar sense of atmosphere and space so I used a light scumble over a dark ground and applied subsequent layers of glaze on top of that.
Coming up in Jun’s class we will be looking into reflections, literally. I am going to study the complex reflections on glass objects which will be a great challenge and I am looking forward to it. Stay tuned…