BY GORDON HANLEY
My first oil painting materials were a 10th birthday present from my parents. It consisted of the three primary colours, some yellow ochre and a tube of black and white, along with a couple of hog hair brushes and two small 10” x 8” canvases stuck on a bit of cardboard. I guess most artists start out that way – or some variation of it, and at some point thereafter it evolves from being simply a part of your life, to completely taking it over. In my case, that process occurred in various stages, interspersed with university studies and five years in the RAN. It was in this latter occupation during a posting to Canberra, that I managed to injure myself. As I was recovering from the accident, the urge to paint re-surfaced – largely because I needed a distraction (in those years Canberra TV consisted of two channels) and it helped with re-hab. The outcome – for better or ill, was that the desire to paint and draw has never left me, and led eventually to a career as a full -time artist.
I began by painting in oils, some years later moved to watercolour, establishing my professional career in that medium (which remained my sole form of artistic expression for almost 20 years) before moving into goldpoint drawing. Recently, I have returned to my first medium – oils. This does not represent a change in direction – goldpoint is and remains, my primary focus – but it allows me to express ideas in colour. The subject matter largely remains the same.
I have a wide collection of colours, but use a fairly restricted palette as far as individual paintings go. Usually I tend to mix, rather than grab a tube of a particular colour, which explains why I still have three or four tubes of green paint that are nudging the quarter century mark. My usual palette consists of:
Black (Lamp Black and Ivory Black)
White (Zinc White and Titanium White)
Earth Colours: Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber
For these two paintings, I also used Permanent Mauve.
The two most important colours are Ultramarine blue and Burnt Umber, combinations of which give you an amazing range of colour temperatures from cold blues to warm earths, and hues from a delicate mushroom to rich darks.
For skin tones, I use combinations of red – Cadmium Red, Light Red and Alizarin, earth colours above, with Ultramarine Blue. I adjust the tone with Zinc white.
If you are setting up a general all-round palette that covers landscape, seascape and figure / portrait work, I would add Cerulean Blue, Phthalocyanine Blue, Terre Verte and Viridian. If you wish to save a few dollars, Spectrum Red and Spectrum Viridian can be substituted for their more expensive counterparts – certainly if your paint choice is Art Spectrum.
Other things in the picture are a range of brushes – three wide hog bristles that are very cheap, but do the job, a good quality synthetic bristle – I use Holcroft #12 and #6 flat and a #6 round, and some fine detail brushes #1 and various #0/types. The main thing is they don’t splay out after cleaning, otherwise they end up as blenders and scrubbers.
You’ll notice a couple of charcoal sticks, small palette knives (I tend to use these for painting rather than mixing paint with) and some painting medium (which isn’t shown here). The best medium I’ve found is Art Spectrum #1 and #2. I make my own glazing medium.
You’ll also notice what appears to be a floor tile pressed into the role of a palette – which is exactly what it is. In studio work I tend to put the palette on a table next to the painting. Using a tile the same colour as a primed canvas means you can more accurately assess colours, and cleaning is a breeze. However, I still use the old traditional wooden palette for easel work because it is lighter – you don’t want to be holding a heavy floor tile for hours at a time! I always paint to music, so I included some of the CDs that I played during the creation of this piece – basically lots of jazz and blues – anything that gets me buzzing along. One advantage of playing CDs (as opposed to streaming or listening to a radio station), is that the end of every CD serves as a reminder to take a break. Walk away and have a drink of water or a cuppa. I find that the act of painting and drawing is often so all-consuming that I will forget to eat or drink for hours on end! But there is also an art-related reason for getting into the habit of taking regular breaks: they enable you to step back and assess where you are going. This is so important and can save you time in the long run. Too many artists become engrossed in the minutiae of detail, and don’t look at the work as a whole. Glance up at your painting from a distance. How is the composition holding up? How is the colour balance? Where do you need tonal or colour accents? These are ALL aspects central to the act of painting. This is the real nuts and bolts stuff of art – the transfer of vision into reality, of the physical creation of an art work.
The Painting Process
I prepare my canvases with at least one coat of gesso – actually an essential practice if you are painting on the budget canvases that proliferate the discount art outlets these days. The canvases are coarse-grained and the gesso is usually of poor quality. You need a good surface to paint on and one that won’t absorb masses of paint as you apply it. I’m not an elitist in any way here. It is better by far to buy whatever you can comfortably afford and get painting, as opposed to worrying about the cost of everything and getting stressed. In my experience, this can be a very significant factor that inhibits the development of so many artists. They are so worried about making a mistake they revert to careful conservatism, or worse – complete inaction. It is best to just dive in and get on with it – you are painting in oils, so what’s the worst that can happen? Rub it down and start over? One of the great differences between this medium and the ones I have built my career on, is that oils are completely forgiving and totally correctable – I’m having a lot of fun with this rediscovered sense of freedom.
I often texture the canvas with a coarse hog hair brush that gives a more interesting surface. I dislike the appearance of cheap coarse canvas weaves, so I go one of two directions – textured or completely egg-shell smooth. The subject matter dictates choice.
My first step is to do a charcoal outline on the canvas. Because of my drawing background I tend to shade in half tones which, in figure work helps me better assess shadow areas on the faces and figure very accurately. This is not an essential step, but one that works for me. I am one of those artists who likes to have the painting finished in my head before I put a mark on the canvas. We all work differently, but that is the way I visualise my images.
At this point I’m only concerned with the figure and its placement within the picture space.
Once I’m happy with that, I set the drawing by painting the overall picture in Burnt umber with some Ultramarine Blue to control the colour temperature of the underpainting. This process was used by many – and indeed most, of the great masters of portrait and figure art prior to the Impressionist movement who relied on a direct alla prima application of paint to canvas. I lean towards the earlier method. Other artists use different approaches, and frankly whatever works for them is also a “correct method”, I just find that this suits my methodical approach quite well.
Now I’m looking at issues of light and shade. Where are my darks going? How do I intend to lead the eye of the viewer? Is it balanced? Does it reflect my vision of the art work? Am I getting the “feel” right here? All of these questions arise at the set-up point where I’m working the composition. Unless your composition is right, then everything that follows will be flawed. There is of course, no guarantee that a good composition equals a good painting – there are so many other factors that impinge on this, but it helps. Note here that this is a painting, not a drawing. There is no suggestion of a “paint by numbers” approach here, and as the painting unfolds, several adjustments will invariably occur.
Satisfied with the underpainting, I then begin work on the figure. I intend to tighten and overpaint this layer sometime later – so at this stage, near enough is good enough. My aim here is to put on to the canvas a more or less realistic impression of the beautiful young model. I’m not too concerned with fine detail – some of the brushstrokes are quite rough and the colour areas rather blocky. I could leave it at this point, but my personal tastes in painting and drawing tend toward a tighter rendition than you would see in pure forms of impressionism. What I’m looking at here is the colour temperature of the flesh tones.
I add the blue of the transparent lingerie that Scarlett is wearing. This is a bit tricky – I don’t want to paint it as a mass of dense colour – it has to look sheer, so it requires a delicate touch. Her arms had to be balanced with the blue of the material, which required a change in the colour temperature of the flesh tones.
Now that I know it works, I complete the material on the left-hand side. The most important thing here is that the figure must remain the focal point and anything I add or subtract must not distract the viewer’s eye from where I want to direct it. The pearl necklace is next, and I establish the shadow lines on the figure and on the pearls themselves. I add some detail into Scarlett’s hair, laying the foundation for the work to follow. I always paint hair over a few days if I can, allowing the paint to dry between coats. I can then use the previous layer as a base should I wish to erase certain areas for effect.
At this stage, I work the colour harmonies into the painting. My approach is to use a complementary colour palette which is why I retained the warm tone of the sheets. The tan colour is the compliment of the cobalt blue of her lingerie. I add a third colour – lavender, which is a split complementary. The aim is to create a cohesive, restful image in harmony with my original vision. I’ll probably end up toning the colours down in some parts and strengthening them in others, so I don’t get too picky at this stage. Dark accents are added to the margins on the top and on the right-hand edge. This helps to not only frame the picture, but also provides a tonal anchor.
It is important in high key artworks (whether they are paintings or drawings) to establish a good, solid tonal range. A high key work that consists of all light tones and no dark accents risks becoming flat and uninteresting. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, adding darks also adds sparkle to the picture.
I took the opportunity at this stage to alter the composition slightly which involved removing the second pillow and turning it into a lavender coloured sheet. I felt that this simplified the image and thus strengthened the composition. I also extended the sheet along the lower left to pick up an area that was looking a bit too uniform. Colour equals visual weight. Too much of the lavender colour would visually pull the balance to the left.
The solution was to extend the cream sheet on the left and to alter the line of the sheet on the right, increasing the amount of lavender to provide a counter-balance.
Here is the penultimate stage with all visual elements in place. I put in colour accents on the pillow that added interest and lifted the painting. It is important when adding accents that not distract from the focus of the painting. They should to only act to pull the painting together, uniting it, but also enhance the mood. For this reason, I stayed with the pastel palette and added the accents in those hues. I work and adjust the tonal weights to pull the viewer further into the picture, guiding their eyes to where I want them to go. I also balanced the large area of lavender-coloured sheet by increasing the smaller lavender area on the lower right.
I double-check the tonal balance. A useful technique to assess this facet is to reduce the image to black and white – which of course, removes colour from the equation.
Nearly there, but I’ll need to tweak that a bit.
Further alterations involve tightening the image, creating a more realistic skin texture, and cooling down the skin tone. The rendition of skin tones is a topic worthy of an article all on its own. Professional artists use a range of techniques to achieve the look they want. There is no single “correct way” – I wish I could give you a few “magic fixes” but really, it is all about observation. I can however, give some general hints:
Paint what you see – not what you think you see. Look hard at the area you are painting. Identify shapes and the locations of those shapes. Where are the areas of light and shade? How do they relate to adjacent areas? What is the tonal range of that area?
A useful question to ask is “how do I know an edge is there?” You see it because of a difference in tone or colour or both. So, put another way, do I shade it lighter or darker than the adjacent area?
What is the colour temperature – warm or cool?
Skin tones shift with each millimetre, so be sensitive to that and avoid using blocks of the same colour.
Don’t use your fingers to blend – it looks horrible and rarely produces anything worthwhile. Use a brush. I don’t have a blender brush. I work the skin tones by adding paint layers over existing paint layers, allowing each layer to dry between coats. To obtain the effects seen here, I’ll generally use four or five layers: Charcoal, monochrome layer, block-in, overpainting to correct the temperature, then final retouching. The layers are never uniform, they are always broken – revealing some of the layer beneath, which adds to the complexity of the surface and gives a very natural, realistic appearance.
The art I create is simply about beauty, and beauty can be found all around us. It isn’t complicated, but neither is it superficial or shallow. What I am seeking to achieve in this art work, is essentially what I try to achieve in all of my pieces – and that is to engage the viewer with the subject, so that it speaks to them on a deeply emotional level. We have all experienced that piece – the one that stops you as you walk through a gallery, or as you flip through the pages of a magazine. Whether or not I succeed in this depends as much on the tastes of the viewer as it does on the painting itself, and of course not all tastes in art are the same. However, if you approach your art with honesty and ask the right questions of it, you will be much nearer to achieving that goal.
Gordon Hanley has been a full-time artist since 1993 and has been recognised by the world’s premier realist art organisation the ARC as a “Living Master”. He has been the subject of numerous articles – in national and international magazines, television and radio interviews. He is having two major exhibitions this year:
“The Two Living Masters” exhibition at Morpeth Gallery in the NSW Hunter Valley featuring the art of John McCartin and Gordon Hanley. Thursday 6 July – Sunday 9 July 2017.