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Recently I had a chance to paint with fellow artists Ted Smith and Howard Rees just outside of Jackson California in the Gold Country foothills. It was one of those days that seemed to threaten rain constantly and yet when the sun managed to break through, the light effects were gorgeous. I snapped a lot of landscape photos for future use and just incidentally took some of my fellow painters. The one below is of Ted Smith.
One evening, while going through my photos looking for painting subject matter I came across the pictures of Ted. I liked the one below, so I played around with cropping and eventually tried my favorite landscape canvas ratio of 1:2 (6×12, 8×16, 10×20, etc). I decided to do a portrait of Ted using that format. Here is the cropped reference photo I used for the painting.
I had a 10 X 20 Ampersand Gessobord panel in the studio. Gessobord is a very fine grained panel and takes paint much differently than canvas or linen. I’ve done a couple of small paintings on it, and I’ve been intrigued by its unusual properties. But I don’t have a lot of experience with it, particularly at this medium size; however, it was handy so I plunged in.
Gessobord is very smooth. There is no grain or texture at all. However it is fairly absorbent so to facilitate easy paint application, I brushed a small amount of linseed oil over the surface, and then immediately wiped it down with a rag, leaving only a thin film. The linseed oil eliminates any ‘drag’ and permits the brush to glide over the surface of the panel. It’s just wonderful to sketch on that surface! Although I was working from a photo, I wanted to proceed as though I was painting from life, so I did not use a grid or transfer paper. I began sketching directly onto the canvas with the photo showing on my computer monitor. (I need a bigger monitor!) I used a small bristle filbert and a mixture of transparent oxide red and a little ultramarine.
This is the ‘final’ sketch just before starting to lay in color. I established the darks (shadows!) in the foreground areas, but left the background alone. I was conscious of the need to keep Ted and the easel well separated from the middle and background of the painting. The fact that Ted and his easel were in bright light with distinct shadows while the background was mostly cloudy and without shadows was the key to doing just that.
With the sketch done, I put in the basic color notes. Notice how the totally smooth surface of the Gessobord combined with the linseed oil makes the first oil application look almost like watercolor. When done carefully and intentionally, that can be an interesting effect and something to remember for the future. For my purposes, the important thing is that the white surface is covered and colors and values are suggested. Also, when dry, the first layer of thin paint will form a ‘barrier’ on the surface of the panel, reducing the absorption. Subsequent applications of paint will lay on the surface and appear richer and more substantial. The next phase is to adjust values where necessary primarily by refining colors in shadow and light.
Now the painting becomes fun! The paint goes on with texture and intensity. I am also searching for a likeness since ultimately, this is a portrait! I spend a little time on the easel and the stretched canvas as well, since these are important pieces of the story of Ted and therefore of his portrait. I’ve left out Ted’s glasses so far, primarily because I don’t want to have to paint around them while also trying to capture the subtle transitions in the shadow of the hat. Later, I wrestle with whether to put Ted’s glasses in the portrait, but finally, like the easel, the glasses are a part of Ted. It isn’t quite him without them. The painting is nearing completion. Yep…the glasses were important! The last steps include a little modelling and final touches. It’s done.
Portrait of Ted Smith, Artist. 10×20 oil on Panel