Wednesday, March 20, 2013

10 Things... About Painting in Oils

Greg Manchess

Next week, The New Yorker Magazine will run a portrait I did for art director, Chris Curry, of an Australian billionaire and one of the richest people on the planet, Gina Rinehart. Chris supplied the reference shots and asked that I paint it like the portrait of Neil Young I did for The Rolling Stone last year. It was my first time working with both her and the magazine and I was very excited.

Along the way, Chris changed course, and asked that I follow along. I did, a bit confused, but as a professional, I had to be able to accommodate. I felt that the sequence of working on this assignment would help illuminate many of the items here for this "10 Things..." post. Rock bottom basics to keep in mind for painting in oil.

Do whatever it takes to get the image to the surface. 
Draw it freehand, copy images, project, trace, draw from life, or scan and paste it down...doesn’t really matter. Keeping the life in the painting is the hard part. Seal the drawing so you don’t lose it. As you paint, you’ll slop over lines. Since it’s sealed, you can wipe pigment off to get back to your sketch. The basic drawing is a guide, not a floor plan.

pencil sketch, Gina Rinehart

Value first. Color next. 
Spend some time mixing color. Practice copying color from life, then copy color from photos. You’ll quickly learn what colors make up the color you’re trying to mimic. All color is value. Learn to discern a 10% value from a 50%. Value first, color next.

Keep colors clean. 
Don’t dive into deep colors like ultramarine or Alizarin crimson without using copious amounts of white to lighten them. Use these rich colors in small amounts, adding slowly until you get the color you need. Too much too fast will get you mud. Even so, the idea is to work your way up through the muddy colors, using them as underpainting, until you lay on fresher, cleaner colors on the top layers. 

Still mixing dull, mud colors? Then go buy a bunch of premixed subtle colors and only mix them with other similar valued colors. Remember though that mixing any color with just white will generally give you a pasty flat color. Most rich colors are mixed from several pigments.

Yes. Use black. 
Black exists in Nature, much to the chagrin of quite a few instructors. You just don’t want to use it to grey colors for skin tones, shadows, etc. Then you really will get muddy. If you want to make black exciting, mix other transparent colors into it. You’ll get a fabulous range of blacks. But you have to learn to use black. You learn through patience and practice. Look for places to use it judiciously.

And yes, it’s ok to use flesh color. Did you think that was cheating? I bet you did. What goofball, besides that little voice in your head, told you that? VALUE first. Flesh color is just another value to use for painting skin, and clouds, and sky, and snow, and a bunch of other stuff. What...don’t look at me like that. 

First painting, classic style. But Chris was now interested in a different, more loose approach.
I let it sit overnight, then painted on top of this, treating it as an underpainting.

Know your brush.
Always notice how much pigment is clinging to your brush. If it’s gobbed on there, you’ll need to shift your stroke to use it appropriately, without leaving awful trails of thick pigment in the beginning layers. That only leads to more ugly. You’ll feel it after a while...second nature. As for the amount on the canvas, the old adage, “Thick over lean” is still pertinent.

Find your surface. 
Don’t worry so much about what the right surface is for permanence. Worry about what feels right under your brush. Paint for you, not the world. What feels good to you will advance your skills. You can change it all up later.

Delay gratification. 
Avoid straight white, pretty much whenever you can. Sure, mix it a lot with other colors, but when working up to those highlights everyone loves so much (because they make the surface of the painting seem almost 3D, which is awesome...) resist the temptation to put down a highlight too soon. Wait until you get to those last layers of paint for that. When you do, always mix some pigment into the white. Always. Straight white is hardly ever applied except in the brightest sun-bouncing-off-glass affect. Don’t do it.

Not kiddin’. Talking to you. That’s right. You know who you are.

First revised painting, which actually took longer than the first piece.

Not so fast, pal. 
I paint fast. I’ve painted fast for years. I didn’t get fast by painting fast. That’s like saying you get good at the violin by making your fingers move really quickly. Think musicians practice fast? The brain records and then insulates the nerve fibers that get used sloooooooowly. Speed comes after much, much slow practice.

Place your strokes. Design your strokes. Lay them down slow and deliberate. Record how that feels. Memorize. Do it again. Plan the next stroke. Mix the right color. Lay it down slow, deliberate. Do that 60,000 times and you’ll know what you’re doing when you speed up.

Just paint. 
We are not chemists. We are artists. We paint. We don’t ponder molecular structures. Keep it simple. Just put the doggone pigment down. It’ll still be there in your lifetime. Don’t waste time worried whether or not it’ll be there for all future generations to admire and adore. Spend time painting and making sure they even care to preserve your work in the first place.

Besides, they’ll have fantastic methods for preserving things in the future. Don’t sweat it. Unless you’re painting on grocery bag paper like I used to do. Don’t ask.

The final painting of Gina Rinehart, with some slight revisions.


  1. awesome! It's true haven't seen you put much painting up here in a while, but really sweet!
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  2. Really useful and reaffirming post - thankyou :)

  3. The reason most of my instructors seem to have suggested avoiding black was I think more because it's better to mix a richer black rather than use an out-of-the-tube black, not for reasons similar to not using pure white (i.e. it's not very often "found in nature". I guess if you accidentally dip into a black of more varied pigment already on the canvas there's less chance of muddying your colours too. :p Thoughts?

  4. Thanks for the awesome advice Greg! Delicious brushwork and color.

    Paint sloooooooowly to get fast... grrrrrr. So bloody frustrating at times but if it worked for you and Itzhak Perlman I am a fan.

    What do you use to seal your pencil drawing ?

  5. I will very soon get rid of my calendar and start mesuring time by the "10 things..." posts :)They are always awesome and enlightening.And that painting kicks ass! A photo,seady, a pencil scetch,wait for it, basic colour...BAM- Colour explosion that blows your mind away :D I love it

  6. Takes a lot of confidence to "destroy" that tight painting. I think you took a big leap with this one Greg. I like this new Manchess- expressive and bold. I think your bold strokes that used to sculpt the figure are now giving the pieces life and emotion. That blue is fantastic. Reminds me of Marshalls aura paintings. And I like how you snuck in a Muddy muted color in the top right. Nice.
    Matt Dicke

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  8. What a post, and what an amazing painting to accompany it! (The blue and the reddish-orange are gorgeous.)

    I've begun to take baby steps back into oil painting (been using acrylics for a LONG time), so this article is extra enlightening for me. Getting the drawing down onto the surface is the most tedious process, and I feel like it wears my brain out to the point of not even wanting to paint. Fortunately, all my oil paintings lately are only for myself, so I don't even bother with a pencil/charcoal drawing on the canvas first...I just draw with some thinned raw umber and a pointy bristle brush.

    Now to go blast a link to this post all over Facebook.

  9. IMHO, this is not a good painting of who ever Manchess is trying to portrait, all the distraction does not give the subject in this painting more personality or story.

    Want a good example of impressionistic approach ? Take a good look at Jeffree R. Watts

    now that's good impressionistic that respect the subject and does not distract viewer with sloppy "swift" strokes.

  10. If the painting is supposed to deliver a message such as "no one can see the real Gina Rinehart behind all the noise in the media" then Manchess has done his job right, but if he was trying to protrait the personality of this woman, I dont see any except distracting colors.

  11. I think I've bookmarked every single "10 Things" post you've made. thanks as always for the insight and showing your process. Never can get enough of your brushwork.

  12. I too would be really keen to know what method/s you use to seal the pencil drawing....

    1. I use retouch varnish to isolate any drawing on canvas, then paint over the top. I'm not sure what this person used though, it could be fixative.

  13. Hey all....thanks again for the nice guys are great! I hope the 'Things' work for you. I try to distill them to just the stuff that counts. Oil painting should not be made to seem complex.

    As for sealing the pencil...once the drawing is down, I just paint an acrylic color over it. Nothing elaborate, keep it simple. The acrylic acts as a nice underpainting, too. I usually mix a grey from burnt umber and ultramarine, which I can push to either warm or cool.

    Heimer: I see what you mean. Actually, there's no reason to 'accidentally' dip into a black on the palette. If you hadn't meant to, then the brush gets cleaned. (Lots of student painters don't wipe the brush enough.) This causes mud as well. You can mix black, or mix color into black. This is where I depart from so many 'fast rules' about mixing pigments. Oil paint is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get affair. Don't really care how we get there, just has to be good when we do. : )

    Hey TFX....we're all pretty polite here on Muddy, and we all welcome counter points. It wasn't your comment, but your tone that needs some adjustment. Your point is well taken, though, and you touched on something I had to address during the painting. I, too, wondered if I hadn't lost much of her likeness in the portrait because when everything has to loosen up, this is the first thing to go!

    In fact, the art director asked me to make a little adjustment to her eyes to bring them back into focus. I based the painting on 24 portraits I had painted for a pharmaceutical company and they were all wildly brushed to the point where one could barely recognize the person. But that's what they wanted.

    So I actually toned it down a tad here for the client, which is something that I believe a professional that's worth the effort MUST be capable of doing: shifting midstream. Illustration is not about locking in a style and never wavering from that again for the length of your career. Illustration is about communicating ideas, and ideas change. Constantly.

    Anyway, thanks for your thought.

  14. Love these 10 things posts, they're always packed with good lessons and are very inspiring. I'm hoping I can save up enough money to sign up for your Smart School class this fall. Thank you for writing these!

  15. Since no one else has I'm going to disagree with TFX. Aside from the snide tone, which I hope is a matter of language, success in portraiture is only partly based upon likeness. In fact it is not difficult to achieve likeness. What Greg has instilled is a desire, by the observer, to know more about the subject rather presenting a laundry list of who the subject is. Most of us who do this would rather be challenged than spoon fed by the endless number of pseudo impressionists who populate the art world. I think an artist should be applauded for reaching beyond subject and formulaic brushstrokes. Greg is waving goodbye to formal affectation in the rearview mirror.

    1. I'm there with you, Bill. Greg's straight forward portrait was beautiful and clear, but the direction they steered him in is much more interesting and bold. Moreover, he did all of this on deadline for a weekly magazine.

  16. The biggest lesson I've learned this year was that I have to slow down, especially at the beginning. I've been trying to compensate my lack of hand-eye ability, and unclean lines, by drawing fast. And why couldn't I? My room mate and other class mates drew fast, and good. With good fortune, I had a teacher who saw right through my bad habit. Turns out, he had the same problem, too, and had to repeat a class SIX TIMES to break away from it. With my luck, I only have to take it four times.

  17. An illustration implies there is a story, a messege, or some times a feeling or mood to tell, it is calculated and carefully executed so the end result is authentic to the idea the illustration tries to illustrate.

    There is a possibility that people might tell Greg his painting is great simpley because it's signed in his name, and that's fine, and because majority of the commentors like Greg's painting, it's more important to not sugarcoat my dislike for this painting, I still ask the same question:

    What is the meaning or the messege Greg tries to convey, and is the message relevent to the audience and worth audience's time participate in the act of viewing?

    The lack of resemblance of subject combined with conflicting paint strokes cloud the message behind all the "wild colors" and intention is uncertain, this painting becomes merely an expression of the person behind paintbrush, it's a painting about Greg Manchess as an artist more than a painting of a person Gina Rinehart.

    It is possible that the client is simpley after painting with Greg's name on it, if that's the case, then there is no need to ask what the painting is about or the subject matter.

  18. Thanks for another great 10-Things post!

    It may be personal preference, but that portrait makes me want to find out more about the person being depicted in such an enigmatic way. Does that blue indicate she has some profound insight? Has she got the solution to one of humanity's biggest challenges (ie cancer)? Will she share her knowledge?

    The point that struck me hardest was to not worry about longevity of our paintings so much. The other day I did a small painting straight onto cardboard, and really fell in love how all the oil was sucked away, leaving behind a matte layer of paint. If it only lasts 2 years in which I can love it (and touch it ;-) ... that is good for me.

    Thanks again!

  19. In my humblest opinion, as I'm a nobody.

    I didn't get the painting either. But tfx, your coming on a bit strong buddy.
    Yeah, an illustration is supposed to depict sensual information (loosely from Wikipedia)... and clearly. But in reality, an illustration is just a commodity.

    Greg worked hard to develop both his name, and his style. That's what he sells. The art director had purpose in hiring him, and were obviously satisfied.

    Grouping dislike for this painting with, what comes off as, 'your a poor illustrator' and 'your fans are blowing smoke up your ass' is probably counterproductive though.

    Don't sugar coat it. say what you want, your entitled to your opinion. But we should probably be a bit more graceful.
    Sure, we might not get it. But we don't have to pay for it, or the information we were given with it.

    I just want to make sure Greg see's our gratitude for his hard work, and constantly supplied free information, even at the cost of increased competition.

    thank you Greg.

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  21. The worst thing you can do to an artist, is to tell false impression of his work. Even the greatest painter has room to grow, endless search of what is authentic, that's the conviction all artist share.

    Greg share his personal experience to help us, the least you can do in return is to give him uncompromised feedback.

    If you love Greg's work as much as I do, tell the truth.

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  23. The worst thing, in my opinion, an artist can do is not what you wrote but tell another artist how he supposed to think. I have been giving feedback for thirty years and mine is sound. You seem to have an extremely narrow idea of illustration. Illustration has expanded well beyond the; hand it to an audience in a pretty package exercise. Our industry has fought very hard to include the voice of the artist in an illustration rather than simply aping the words of an author or idea of a client. I think if you would look at contemporary illustration you would find the illustrators at the top of the profession practicing exactly what I'm saying.

    In fact I am very much enjoying some of the work Greg has done lately. He is exploring beyond that which he already does so well. And in my mind that is, in part, the measure of an artist.

    You certainly are entitled to your opinion and welcome to share it. But please don't tell me I am giving the artist a false impression of his work. I know I'm not and I'm sure he knows I'm not.

    Sorry for the deletion.

  24. Love this :
    "Design your strokes"
    I like both versions. Thanks for sharing , Greg. -S.

  25. Telling false impressions is NOT the worst thing you can do to an artist. Its probably something like shoving them down a flight of stairs... And authenticity is NOT ALL ARTISTS conviction. These are all horribly over generalized statements, and logical fallacies. I don't know if your overly passionate, or trying to make an ass out of yourself. I was trying to extend a branch.

    But Greg, truth time:
    oils are an overwhelming medium at first. Above the timberline was the first thing that inspired me to paint in oils. Just watching you paint blows my mind.

    Its best I only became a fan four years ago. I don't like many works before that. And yes, some of your work is absolutely uninteresting.

    But king Tut blew me away. Magellan strait was gorgeous. The portrait you did at (illuxcon?) showed your skill is beyond simple illustration. I was so freaking happy when I saw the cover of spectrum 17. Your subject matter isn't just MTG style fantasy, your recent trend of astronauts was fresh air.

    I'm extremely grateful for your posts on muddy colors. I don't know if you know this, but you weren't very active online, and it was hard to find info on you. Speaking out about using projectors and tracing increased my speed and passion for painting. My current palette is 70% based on yours.

    Hope I don't come off as a fan boy, or like I'm blowing smoke up your ass. but if there was ever a time for some bonehead Ptown "artist" to express his gratitude, its probably now.

    Your an artist I can continually look up to,
    and my wife seconds that.

  26. LOL! Well, I don't think you're in any danger of coming off as a fanboy with lines like:

    "And yes, some of your work is absolutely uninteresting."

    Ok, Neil....let's simplify. I was a young art student once (in many ways, I've never lost that) and I wanted to learn how to paint well. Don't you think it seemed overwhelming to me, too? Of course it did. One way around that feeling was to take it a step at a time, trust that I could learn it, and then push and study hard to accomplish that.

    Talent is for sissies. Letting go of that feeling of wanting that so much is the very first step. Before you pick up a brush...or perhaps as soon as you do. The next step is to simplify, start slow, study other painters and do what they do. Eventually, you'll do what you do. That's the authenticity that TFX is talking about......I think.

    Remember also that oil painting is the easiest of all the mediums, with the possible exception of pastels, which are the same pigments with a different binder and formed into sticks. (you're just painting with tubes of hard paint!)

    I did have one advantage, back then, above the students around me. I saw the paint in layers. In fact, I was interested in getting layers of paint because I just liked the way it looked. So I built those layers today's at a time. Turns out, since I had no involved painting instruction, I was doing it right.

    Thanks so very much for your kind remarks and your interest in my work. I like painters, and I like talking about the struggles artists encounter because I did and do, too. Think of yourself as a researcher laboring away on some crazy idea. You'll have to solve the problems of that idea by yourself because no one is around, or whatever. You'll quickly learn to throw out all the complicated matter and get directly to the point.

    Painting isn't hard. Learning who you are and what you want to say with it is another thing altogether. Just paint. The answers are within the endeavor, and NOWHERE else.

  27. By the comment, "Just paint," I don't mean just the action of painting.

    I mean you must focus on every piece to be the best thing you've ever accomplished in your life. Your focus must be that sharp. Because every time we put that pigment down there's the opportunity and possibility that we learn something revolutionary and evolutionary in our personal work and training.

    Every. Single. Time.

  28. Thank you so much ....
    Im a huge fan and its always great to read your words of wisdom :)

    Thank you again !

    Thiago Gonçalves

  29. Hey Greg I saw the printed version did they photoshop back in the left eye? Looked a little different then the last piece you posted.

  30. Thanks for your support, ZeD!

    Looks like they did, Matt. Unfortunately, it's been a problem for a lot more years than I care to remember, but because the AD can change the painting without harming the painting itself, or even the file....they just can't resist.

    Many don't understand that it can change the feeling of a piece, but that's the business.

    I prefer that the client ask me to make any and all changes because I keep the entire piece in context. But this can be argued so much that it's not worth the effort.

  31. Hello Greg!

    Always appreciate your posts. About keeping your colors clean, when you say be cautious with deep colors like Alizarin and Ultra Marine, are you referring to painting portraits specifically? Or just mixing in particular? Do you think they become too dominant in a painting? Just curious...

    Thank you for your time,

    Tony Lemos

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      Greg, GREAT tutorial! I am learning oils. Only in the last week or so have I been back to creating art. Before that it was SIX MONTHS before I could pick up a brush, oil pastel stick, or even a crayon. For the longest time I was saying "I need to get back to creating art....". At some point I began to ask myself why I really "needed" to create art, and if I truly "needed" to create art, then what was blocking me? That caused me to look at the things that I was doing instead of creating art, and then deciding if those things were really that important, if I "needed" to do those things. They must not have been that important. Lesson learned: we must WANT to create, no one can be forced to create if it's not a life or death situation.

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