Two Self Portraits – oil on canvas – 40 x 51 cm each
It’s a long time since I last painted any self portraits during the course of my life I’ve painted a few. I do it partly because it’s a good way of getting some practice at observational painting. And I can do it in my time so it’s different from working with a model. Having to keep still whilst working adds some tension to these kinds of portraits.
Recently I’ve been painting using much cooler ground colours. When I paint I dilute the oils with a medium which I make myself using liquin, refined linseed oil and genuine turpentine. I have this made up in different ways depending on how translucent I want the glaze to be. With glazes it’s possible to create very subtle effects of shade and colour. I rarely use impasto or try to build up swirls of expressive paint. And I never paint onto white because the ground colour effects the overall tone of a picture it also means that the colours I’m using will always be in a different key. When I paint I mostly use a palette of seven colours plus white. I have two reds, two blues; the same tint of yellow in two shades and two earth colours. This palette is based on the primary colours, the use of a limited palette helps to prevent colour from becoming muddy or turgid. Numerous tints are available but most of them can be mixed from a small palette, the only two that can’t are viridian and magenta, however I rarely need these extreme colours. I mix my own black using ultramarine and burnt sienna and sometimes some red depending on the ground colour. The advantage of mixing black in this way is this, with a tiny bit of white it can be either cool or warm. When I tried using blacks such as ivory black or lamp black I found that they deadened the colour. Having a ground colour means that I use less white, and obviously white can be effective in a way that it never could if you was painting onto a white canvas. If you paint onto a white canvas then a lot of white will have to be added to all of the mixes to make the colours light enough. As white is essentially opaque this will reduce the luminosity of the colour however some people like this effect.
With these two self portraits I can see quite a difference between the warm ground and the blue ground. I think I prefer the warm ground when looking at these two pictures but I will be using blue/grey grounds much more in the future.
The use of ground colours goes back to the 15th century when oil painting was first developed in western art. We know that many artists used grounds because of numerous unfinished works that exist such as ‘Adoration of the Magi’ by Leonardo da Vinci. In this picture Leonardo favours a warm brownish colour. Warm browns, tawny hues or grey grounds have been popular with many artists. To give just a few examples Rubens favoured brown or grey, Rembrandt usually brown, most of Goya’s portraits are painted onto orange grounds, Constable favoured a mixture of earth colours and the list goes on. In the 19th century certain Pre Raphaelite and Impressionist artists experimented with brilliant white grounds hoping that this would enable them to get more light into their pictures and in some cases it may have worked. However to my eye green always looks insipid when painted onto white.The Russian painter Shishkin painted onto white and although I admire many of his pictures after awhile the colours begin to look very much the same.