For a couple of years now, I've had an idea in my head. The idea was to combine my realistic painting techniques with my semi-abstract style. For awhile I found a lot of excuses not to give it ago, you know, ‘I’m busy’, ‘I’m not sure where to start’, ‘I want to master this first’, ‘How are the paints going to mix?’ But the time for excuses is over, and I had to give it a go.
I decided I would start with an elephant, they’re big and bold, recognisable, and mostly I just like them. I did my image research, and found the one, I even designed the stencil, and then I hit a wall.
So the plan was to add oil paint to the portrait, BUT oil paint doesn’t play well with others or itself for that matter. Layering oil paint requires you to work from ‘thin’ to ‘fat’ in order for the paint to stick and not crack later. You can put oil on top of acrylic, but it doesn’t work the other way around. And I have no idea how the spray paint would react to the oil paint.
So I sent an email off to my spray paint supplier to see if they could tell me how the paint would react. Unfortunately they had yet to test for this but was interested in my results if I tested it myself. So I was going to have to test it out myself, OR since I can be lazy, I thought about it a bit more and decided it was possible to do the portrait without the paints touching.
My original thoughts were to complete the oil painting part, and then proceed as I normally would, acrylic paint and then spray paint and have all three layered on top of each other in places. One option was to give up on the idea of oil paint and just create the detailed parts with acrylic paint too but I really liked the idea of three paint mediums and styles coming together to create one portrait. Before I gave up on the oil paint I realised the paints didn’t have to overlap they could just meet.
And with this decision I was able to get back into it.
Once I knew how I was going to create it I was able to take the stencil and place it into my Ipad and work out what was going to be oil paint, and where to place the colours and things started getting exciting.
I already had a great sized canvas ready to go, so there was nothing stopping me, so I got to cutting out the stencil, and shortly there after used it to sketch out my elephant.
The first paint to hit the canvas was a nice magenta to act as a warming background to the rest of the oil paint. This was the first time I had used this technique only on a specific part of the canvas, usually I would cover the entire canvas in my background colour but it's not doable when the background is all white.
You can see in the image on the left both the magenta and the beginnings of the first oil layer. You can also see the reference images I am consistently looking at as I paint.
It's been a couple of years since I've had the oil paints out and I'd forgotten how much they can smell. The first medium I was using is particularly potent but does the job. I had to make sure I had the door closed to the rest of the house and have the window open. My little apprentice Watson (mini bull terrier) was unimpressed with the smell and not keen to join me in the studio for the first couple of layers.
I like to paint in thin layers when I'm trying to create a realistic work. It allows for the creation of depth by leaving some areas with less layers, it allows for some colour correction and manipulation, and a greater understanding of tone and the details.
In the left image the first layer has been completely rendered and in the right image the head, trunk, leg, and tusk have about 3 or 4 layers, and the ear is sitting at probably 2 or 3 layers.
You can also see I've sourced some more reference images, I wasn't getting the detail I needed in the first ones.
At this point I was really happy with the tusk and I felt the painting itself was going well but it just didn't look right. So I took a step back and didn't look at it for a couple of days. It was during this time I realised, I could lay the acrylic paint down at any time, because everything will stick to it, it was only because of some weird plan I had in my head that I had to finish the oil side before I could put the acrylic down that I hadn't done it yet.
So the next step was getting the acrylic colour on. At this point the oil paint was dry enough to take tape, as seen in the left image. I couldn't let the acrylic touch the oil but I needed the freedom to finish the whole stroke of the colour, which needed to come right up against the oil paint, hence the tape.
I was hoping that seeing the whole form of the elephant would help solve any issues I was having with the oil paint and it certainly did. I had to make some corrections on the trunk but overall just seeing the whole elephant solved most of my issues. In the image on the right, I have tidied up the edge of where the acrylic and oil meet, and darkened this edge too. I did this for two reasons, as much as I want this to be a single cohesive image I also want there to be a distinction between the different elements, which the darker edge should help with and I also want the elephant to look a little like he's coming from behind the painting.
Now to make this a more cohesive image I felt that the oil side also needed some colour and that colour had to come from my oil paints not my acrylics. I very much enjoyed the challenge of mixing my oil colours to match the acrylics. Luckily enough I always leave my paint to dry on the pallet, so I had a colour reference that wasn't the painting itself. Once mixed, I only added a touch of colour, I thought subtlety was a good place to start creating a bit of a reflection of colour rather than something really obvious.
Once the subtle colour was on, I did like it and I wondered if I should go harder, and add some nice thick buttery colour too but I decided to let it be for the moment and get the spray paint on. So I taped and masked the oil paint, and I taped and masked the stencil too (the stencil was cut for the entire elephant) as I didn't want to risk a weird reaction. For the first time I actually used some weights as well as the spray adhesive, to place the stencil down due to its size.
Putting on the spray paint is quite often a slightly scary process, it could all go wrong but this time was extra horrifying because once I started spraying I realised I didn't have much paint left in the can. Thankfully I had a second can which was also low but did finish the job.
With the disaster averted and the spray paint revealed I was very happy, my idea was coming together and I was quietly confident this was going to work.
Usually the spray paint is the final step in my portraits, that’s it, a pass fail, either it works or it doesn’t. With the added aspects to this portrait and it’s size, I decided it was worth adding in some more acrylic colour where it wasn't quite working as well as it could, and even re-spraying the eye. Adding a photo of the current painting into my iPad I was able to play with different colours and where the colour needed to be added to make the work better first. You can see the digital colour I've added to the left. My iPad has become an invaluable tool to my work, I don’t think I would have attempted to make the changes without being able to see how it would work first.
The below images from left to right, the portrait before the added colour, a close up of the colour added to the eye before it had been re-sprayed, and the portrait with all the added colour.
So close to finishing, but now I’m up to glazing the oil paint side, which I love to do because it takes the painting to another level but I hate waiting for it to dry between layers.
When glazing you take a glazing medium and add a very small amount of paint which creates a very transparent colour. When you layer this transparent colour, and I'm talking many layers sometimes, it creates a beautiful depth that isn't really achievable any other way. When using a dark colour like my favourite Paynes Grey, it also manages to push that part of the the painting back. It's not easy to see in photographs and certainly not layer by layer but the following images are all the finished portrait. In the below image, glazing has been utilised in the trunk crevices/wrinkles, between the trunk and eye, between the eye and ear and throughout the ear to create the tendons. It has also been used on the edges of the tusk, to give the tusk the rounder appearance. The leg behind the trunk has also been glazed to push it back.
The below images show another couple of close-ups. On the left, the tusk shows why I love oil paint, the variation but subtlety of the colours, the rounded form it seems to have, and the depth of the darkness behind it that brings it forward. And then on the right, the legs show why I love this semi-abstract style too. I love being able to see that thick texture of the colours that make me want to touch it, and the stencilled spray paint which sometimes has strong sharp edges and other times the soft gentleness of the overspray.
And below the finished portrait.
I am so pleased that my idea has worked and I can't wait to complete more in this blending of styles.
Note: This piece will be hung in the MMG Rosebery Festival, West Coast Artists Exhibition titled 'It's all Perception!' this February.