Manolis Glezos (Μανώλης Γλέζος) is a living legend. Our grandmother calls him “The True Patriot.” He was very kind to let me paint him. I considered it a good opportunity for me to try following a classical method of painting. It’s like following a new recipe to make a very familiar cake. Warning: this article is meticulous as it aims to be informative. The process I followed is based on old masters’ materials and a step-by-step process based on research by Joseph Sheppard, Jeanette Aristedes and Jacques Maroger. Only after finishing this project did I read about how Sheppard and Maroger’s research has been discredited with modern science. For example, Maroger claims Van Eyck used egg tempura as varnish but microscopic studies have now shown he used a pine resin. This helps me understand that both Sheppard and Maroger were sharing their best estimates as to what the masters used and providing illustrations that would assist a pupil towards a similar result rather than applying identical materials. Note: all books and materials are listed in the bibliography and shopping list below. I’ve also added a mini glossary at the end for art students learning key terms. Full disclosure: secret ingredients included.
I moved toBrussels just in time for an exhibition on Rubens and tried to get in for free by arguing that, like his models, I too am Rubenesque. Intrigued by his alla prima theatrics and self-identifying with his prolific output I thought I might as well try his technique. I assumed that setting up a studio on the shoulders of giants would ease the long road of trial and error I normally follow. Problem was, I’d spent most of my early career working with pen and ink for black and white illustrations as well as felt-tip markers for coloured ones, rarely dabbling in oils. So I had to brush up on my oil painting skills here at mid-career stage and gather new materials here in a new country.
Attempting to emulate an old master’s technique while living in a country with limited delivery options and where you don’t speak the language triples the difficulty of starting a new style. You must do your homework; research the artist and their technique. Then do more homework; translate all art material key terms into native vocab. Then do more homework; source the addresses of quality art material stores and get your head around how to get there between unmarked streets and random opening hours. Then do the footwork and practice the local language en situ. The whole process is like training to be a hunter-gatherer spy. If you don’t have the studio all set up by your slaves/apprentices like the old masters did, then, like me, you’d better have plenty of old fashioned self-discipline and stubbornness.
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was known for his versatile, rapid work and enormous output. Unusually for his time, he painted a range of subjects. He worked on unusually huge canvases. He received unusually huge commissions. He was certainly no starving artist. Rubens combined diplomatic missions with art tours around Europe, studying in Italy and influencing many. He practiced by copying other master artists to improve his skill and developed techniques, e.g. he applied Titian’s layered (velaturas) soft edges (sfumato) to an alla prima style: in other words, painting without an under painting in gray tones to guide you.
Rubens searched for and found a technique for combining Flemish technical brilliance with the broad Italian style and invented a medium that helped put a gloss on his paintings, leaving them not as matte as Italian work of the day. Rubens’s work is now considered the epitome of baroque style.
My personal, autodidactic colour system begins with a visual assessment of the lightest and darkest points and builds up the middle tones from between those two extremes. While researching this project I read Juliette Aristedes’ book “Classical Painting Atelier” and now know that was a starting technique advocated by Leonardo Da Vinci.
My colour work always concludes with an emphasis on the ivory black and titanium white, leaving my highlights and darker shadow accents unblended to give the canvas a fresh and unlaboured look. After reading Joseph Sheppard’s book “How to Paint Like the Old Masters” I learned this was also the concluding technique of Frans Hals.
Often intoxicated by the texture and mystery in Rembrandt van Rijn‘s work, I added some of his impasto technique as icing on the cake. So, keeping with the recipe metaphor, although I aimed for pure Rubens, you could say, I’ve added a pinch of Da Vinci, Hals and Rembrandt to taste.
My subject is not one that an old master might have chosen. Here is an image of him sketching me as I sketched him. Although I am using materials comparable to Ruben’s, I have not tried to copy his works or composition.
My original model, Manolis Glezos, is a remarkable man and a Greek national hero. In the resistance against fascism, Glezos first came to fame by tearing the Nazi flag down from the Acropolis with his bare hands. Then, having survived a WWII prison camp, he continued to fight the good fight, working in the Red Cross. At the time I painted him, my model was 93 years young, worked long hours in the European Parliament campaigning tirelessly against, you guessed it, fascism and oppression. And unlike many others his age, Glezos still has ambitious dreams. For example, he is building a library in his home village of Apiranthos on the island of Naxos.
A friend recently sent us a gift and he was on the stamp!
I normally paint portraits only from life, but knowing these first steps in a new medium would be very slow, and my model a very busy man, I prepared figure drawings and sussed out composition considerations in advance. Rubens did this too, so that he was not burdened by the model’s comfort and could concentrate solely on applying the paint. It is always very difficult to find the exact likeness that I want to immortalise. In this case I can blame the model: he makes many strong facial expressions. Even at this early stage I had to make serious decisions regarding the message of the final piece. Did I want to show the face he makes when he reveals his eagle-eyed reactionary past, or the face he makes when being the articulate and active man of the present? Or should I share the hopeful face he turns on when looking towards the future? In the end I made a finished drawing on buff paper with black charcoal, red chalk and white conte. I used red tints of warm colour and white for highlights and light areas. The colour of the paper serves for halftones and reflected lights. The direction of the line follows the form* and are always in accordance with gravity.** If my landlady is reading this, please note: I then placed a sheet on the floor and covered all surfaces with protective fabric.
Rubens preferred a white panel painting surface, streaked with a thin warm umber tone instead of canvas because the panel freely read more light. Rubens liked these striations because they would show through large semi-transparent shadow areas, breaking up reflected light and making the whole passage vibrate. The warm tone is dried and nonabsorbent before painting started, so that the tone would not be dissolved into subsequent layers of paint.
For this portrait I used a canvas panel. Sheppard says well-seasoned Masonite or wood is even better, but it was difficult for me to source in our timescale.
This is how to prepare the surface:
1. Using a large brush, apply a coat of warm liquid glue size on each side of the panel and allow the glue to dry. Coating both sides prevents warping. Glue stops the wood from soaking up the gesso and requiring more layers.
2. Give your panel three or four coats of acrylic gesso*** on each side, sanding after each coat. Keep the gesso lukewarm in a double boiler if you have one. Dampen each dry coat of gesso before you add the next coat. Apply gesso on both sides of the board to prevent warping, using a large flat brush, moving my brush in a different direction for each coat. The coats are at right angles to each other.
3. To isolate the gesso from your paint, brush on a final coat of warm rabbit skin glue that is one part glue to 30 parts water. You can tint the glue with a water-based colour such as a watercolour, acrylic or even poster colour. Paint on the tinted glue with a wide brush. Leave the striations of the brush visible if you like (this is the Rubens’s technique), since they break up the reflected light and show through the transparent shadow.
4. Once dry, if you have used hardboard, sand paper lightly then repeated gesso application in both sides. Sand again and gesso again.
5. Tint a 50-50 mixture of acrylic matte medium and water with burnt umber-powdered pigment, acrylic or watercolour. (I aim to experiment with a yellow undercoat in future paintings to keep closer to my personal style.) Apply with a large brush, leaving the brush striations on the panel. Leave to dry. When the surface is BONE DRY it is ready for painting.
Now, I made a mistake here as this is the first time I’ve done a full painting following the techniques of the Old Master. I mixed far too much burnt umber into the matte medium and it came out too dark on the canvas. So I had to start a new canvas. I’m being careful with these steps here. I wanted to get this just right. Plus, I figure, if I do it right then I’ll know the depth of mixtures better next time and it will become second nature to mix them to the right consistency.
Like Rembrandt, I first sketched the portrait on the panel with a thin wash of colour- as liquid as a watercolour wash- using a warm umber tone to indicate shadow areas. Rubens used a brown tone, but my style is to heighten, lighten and brighten, so I applied a lush umber. This renders the shadow areas warm. I hope to move towards an ochre tone at this stage in future paintings in order to keep it on the lighter end of the spectrum for a brown underpainting.
One problem encountered at this stage was that while I lay in the portrait on the panel with a bristle brush and a small amount of medium tinted with burnt umber, I found the bristle brush to be too thick to pull together the sitter’s features at the size desired. I tried to give careful attention to transcribing proportion and composition and most importantly: retaining a striking likeness, but my size 4 brush was just too large for this 16 x 12 inch (40.6 x 30.5 cm) canvas. In order to fit the subject’s face and shoulders into the frame of the canvas I realised I’d need a smaller brush. Unfortunately, my smaller brushes are all fine hair rather than bristle. A bristle brush is needed at this stage to pick up and hold this gloopy textured matte medium. To overcome this issue I had to forsake the bristle brush for a charcoal pencil just to get the facial details on the canvas.
I went back to the size 4 bristle brush for the large spaces and clothing. Only an outline indicates the light areas.
Using the same brush as above, I scrubbed in the hair with burnt sienna diluted with a small amount of medium. Note the same amount of medium should be blended into each colour mixture, but the amount of medium should be very small. One obvious sign of too much is when the surface becomes slippery.
Here I painted in some of the foreground frame, using a combination of ivory black, white, and ultramarine blue. Keeping my paint thin, I mixed the colours directly on the panel and worked them into each other.
I painted in the dark parts with dark umber. I kept these shadow area transparent, however, so that the light of the canvas panel shines through. (Later I worried that this kept my work grounded in the illustration style and I now wonder whether layer upon layer with no base visible allows one to “ascend” to the appearance of a proper oil painting.) I mixed a gray from ivory black and white and paint in the shadow areas of the face, neck and chest, keeping the paint thin and translucent. I also painted in the gray wherever form turns and recedes, such as on the cheek and chest. A separate bristle brush is used for each colour.
Then a translucent middle tone is laid over the light area and acts as a flesh tone. I chose to mix a variety of colours for my model’s flesh tone. All of my exhibited, commissioned and private practice pieces have begun on blindingly white backgrounds with unblended Cadmium yellow used to block in forms. Sheppard suggests using yellow ochre, white and French vermillion to make the mid tone for the flesh. Although I am now working with materials and techniques that are comparable to those produced by the apprentices and studios of the old masters I still want to retain my personal style and vision, so I put more yellow in flesh tones than an old master would. You could think of the extra yellow as postmodern, inspired by the Impressionist’s extreme colour palate. Or, more humorously, you could think of my yellow as post-postmodern, influenced by decades of The Simpsons. Whatever flesh tone ensues, this should be applied so that it overlaps all the edges, leaving none of the bare board showing.
Going back to honouring Rubens’ method, colour is only added to cheeks and lips. I then brushed in additional touches of the vermillion into the areas that have a pink tone: eyelids, cheeks, nose and mouth. Note the light and shadow areas are almost the same value- except that one is transparent and the other translucent: modelled together until the form is correct. Like Rubens, I emphasised powerful contrasts between transparent and opaque colours. Drawing into the existing wet paint with burnt umber, I sharpened the drawing of the head and features. I blended the colours into each other with a large, dry bristle brush, working first in one direction, then in the opposite. I only wanted to soften the colours, not change the existing shapes. I then improved upon the drawing of the portrait, restating and correcting with each of the basic values—flesh tone, gray, and burnt umber—using a separate brush for each colour. I painted in reflections under the nose and chin with vermilion. I used cool grays, simply mixing black and white; applying them between the lightest parts and the darkest shadows. The grays are used everywhere, on the dark and light sides of the forms, always applied as shadows. Rubens also used these grays to make forms recede. Since stronger colours appear to come forward, the grays seem to fall back. As Sheppard puts it: if there was a “secret” to Rubenesque colour combinations, it certainly must have been his cool grays. When used next to the pink flesh tones, these grays take on a blue or even green hue.
For highlights I mixed a lighter flesh tone of white and yellow ochre. Working with this lighter tone—quite heavy and opaque because of the texture of the white lead paint—I then marked in the highlights, careful not to add too much light to the skin tone. Remember that many artists argue no pure white is visible in the living subject. In keeping with my photographic training, I modify this tradition with the knowledge that I will use pure white only for the catchlight in the eye. According to early photographers, the catchlight represents the human soul. Without it, in my opinion, any subject appears dead.
Using separate bristle brushes for each colour, I modelled the head more finely. I worked the brushes back and forth from light to shadow with each stroke. I modelled the form together much like the alla prima painting of Rubens, working one tone back into another, correcting each form.
I now reinstated highlights, soften edges and paint final details. I also marked in the deep accents if the nostril and the line between the lips. As I always tell my pupils: the line between the lips must be the darkest line on the mouth. Outlining the mouth with the same tone line as the parting is a sure sign of unprofessional observation or dark lip liner worn by the model in reality.
Once the gray was modelled into the form, reflected lights were painted into the transparent shadows with reds or grays. The highlights are not pure white but have some flesh colour in them.
Just like Rembrandt who constantly worked on contrasting his heavy opaque lights against his transparent medium-laden shadows, and his warm tones against his cool ones, I blended only after the paint had dried a bit, once it had already become tacky and difficult to move which is one of the textural qualities peculiar to the Rembrandt technique.
At this point Shepphard says I should cement it with a transparent mixture of burnt umber and ivory black, but I was too frightened to apply a layer with such a dark element as black, even if it’s nearly transparent. I was afraid it would appear smoky. Instead, I painted in the background with mixture of white, ivory black, ultramarine blue, and a little medium. I wanted to apply the details of a typical Rubenesque landscape, but with the acropolis in the background to link to the legacy of Glezos, however at the last minute I chose to leave his face as the focus. In theory, if the colour was too dark or too light it can be corrected by adding more colour directly to the panel and then working it in with a brush until the tone is right. However, due to my fears over darkening the image, this step was not necessary in this case. The edges of the figure are overlapped by the blue, so there is no hard line. If anything is lost in overlapping, the form can be restated with dark paint. In this method is important to fill shapes with colour and not have hard lines or bare spaces between the background and the figure. The soft edges- the sfumato– give a feeling of air and space round the subject.
Now the two final stages: application of first the light and then the shadow accents. According to research on Rubens, the light tones are heavy and opaque; the highlights on flesh should never be white alone, but always mixed with some flesh tone. Bringing my own style into play, based on my background in black and white photography and dark room printing, the white catchlight in the eye must hold the whitest unadulterated white on the page and the darkest crevice must be the solid black tone. Even if glossy with medium (or on glossy paper, holding the photography reference), the white catchlight in the eye must be the polar opposite end of the spectrum from the pre-selected darkest line in the image.****
Rubens would mark shadow accents with dark burnt umber, crimson or black. The paint was then softened or given further accent where needed. I used a gray made of solely black and white to draw the highlights of the jacket and then use the black alone for the dark accents of the folds. I painted in the shirt with a mixed blue and pure white, not pressing hard on my brush to produce a dynamic line. After a long sitting, when the paint would no longer move, I let the canvas dry. With all that medium it took a very long time to dry.
Here is a timelapse video of the making of this painting:
You can see it go from a glaze to a gaze to Glezos.
A Rubenesque technique required more courage than that of other painters because of the unfinished appearance of each stage. Only at the end does the painting pull together.
Rubens worked alla prima, but, at the end of this project I decided I wanted a bit of Rembrandt mystique in there. Rubens is known for his voluptuous young women who require reams of busomy soft skin, which my model certainly does not have. The skin of my model is more suited to Rembrandt’s techniques at this stage of the painting. Beginning a second sitting after a couple of weeks of waiting for the painting to dry, I followed Rembrandt in glazing the entire painting with medium. However, I don’t follow van Rijn blindly. For me it was a tint of yellow, for Rembrandt it would have been a tint of black or umber. This immerses the entire subject in shadow for his purposes, in light for mine. I figure, how else to make a martyr of the Left glow?
Like Rembrandt, I then took a cloth and carefully wiped out the light areas. Some of the glaze remained in the crevices of the heavy impasto and made them seem even more three-dimensional. I emulated Rembrandt, painting into this dark glaze, continuing for many more sessions. The end result was as intended: a damn good likeness and a soft, nostalgic effect with heavy (for my style) layers emerging into the light.
This painting awaits exhibition.
* Many thanks to my father for teaching me dynamic lines that follow form.** Many thanks to Evgeny Baranov for impressing upon me the importance of using gravity to guide your hand in skilled drawing.*** Obviously, Rubens never used modern gesso. Without his resources and for my purposes, acrylic gesso is the best substitute for his.**** Many thanks to Paul Ubl, who taught me how to measure my blacks as true black when I was twelve years old and he was teaching at the University of Anchorage Alaska.
Alla prima- Direct painting without under painting, with the painting completed in one sitting. (Note, although Rubens was able to do this all in one sitting, I don’t have a maid or cook so I had to take breaks for Real Life.)
Cool grays- In this context I am referring to cornflower blue tones mixed with black and white. Warm grays tend to have lavender red tones mixed with black and white.
Drybrush painting- The technique of using a brush containing very little or no paint to blend or stipple paint that has been applied previously.
Form- In this context I am referring to the concept that the form is all the visible features represented in an artwork.
Gesso- A mixture of glue, water and whiting (or precipitated chalk) used for priming a painting surface.
Glaze- A transparent coat of paint thy enables a dry undercoat to show from underneath as through coloured glass.
Medium- To paint with oils means to paint with colour pigments binded by a drying oil. Some people use linseed oil, walnut oil or acrylic mediums. More discussion on mediums can be found below.
Impasto- Heavily applied opaque paint that usually shows the marks of a brush, palette knife or other tool for applying paint.
Modelling together- In this context I refer to when we create the illusion of volume on a two-dimensional surface, providing depth by shading.
Powdered pigments- Pure colour ground to a powder ready for mixing with a painting vehicle such as oil of water.
Sfumato- From the Italian word for smoked; a term used for soft, smoke like edges.
Translucent- allowing light to pass through but not details or very clear shapes. Translucent also means semi-transparent.
Transparent- allowing light to pass through so you can clearly see details and shapes.
Value- This is a common art term that means the lightness or darkness in a colour. For example, white is the lightest value, and black is the darkest.
I hunted through plenty of obscure places online until I found an art store called Schleipper here in Brussels. I now know there is also a shop called Creacorner that might stock many of these items.
Halftone buff paper for preliminary drawingBlack charcoalRed chalkWhite contePaint sheet or tarpaulin to protect working surfaces1/4″ untempered Masonite or well-seasoned wood or marine plywoodAcrylic gessoWarm liquid glue sizeWarm rabbit skin/jellied glueSandpaperA large flat brush for the gessoWashed (colourless) Linseed oilWhite lead (flake white)Naples yellowYellow ochre (light)French vermilion (light)Alizarin crimsonBurnt siennaBurnt umberIvory blackUltramarine blue or Prussian blueBrush numbers 4, 5, 6 and 8 round bristles, number 4 round sables, and largeflat bristle blenders and 1/2″ flat oxhair blenders.Whatever you use to clean brushes, e.g. White Spirit. Burnt umber powdered pigment, acrylic or watercolour for under coat. (I will experiment with the yellow undercoat and report back.)Acrylic matte medium OR thick jelly-like basic medium (Sheppard details Rubens homemade version on page 14. If, like me, you don’t have formula cooking equipment and feel squeamish using white lead pigment then buy one of the ready made mediums)
Roberson’s Medium for Oil Painting.Taubes Copal Painting MediumWinsor & Newton Alkyd Mediums (an oil-modified synthetic resin).Sheppard cites a company called Mayer and claims this is a 19th century British formula of oil, resin and wax. Medium Flamand and Medium Venetian. Manufactured by the aptly named French firm Le Franc and Bourgeois.Sheppard even suggests using thin asbestos pads over low flames, which certainly dates his book to before asbestos was determined evil poisonous.
Note: there is no master medium. Rubens constantly changed his medium.
Aristides, Juliette“Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional
Studio Practice,” Watson-Guptill (2008).
Maroger, Jacques“The Secret Forumlas and Techniques of the Masters,” The Studio
Sheppard, Joseph“How to Paint Like the Old Masters,” Watson-Guptill (1983).