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How was that oil painting made

Many people look in museums and see a complete oil painting and want to know…”How was that done? What did the oil painting look like when it was being made?”

Will we attempt to answer that question for you here.

Let’s use a oil painting by John Singer Sargent as an example.

painting by john singer sargent

Please remember, this reconstruction is not done so you can re-create only this oil painting. This re-creation is made to help you understand the process of oil painting, period. The exact same process you see here would be used if Sargent were painting an apple.

I have seen many re-constructions that are done so you can paint that same picture. If you want to do that, I suggest painting a “paint by numbers set.”

Nobody ever can be 100% sure about how a painting was completed, but through study and experience one can get a good idea about how a painting was made.

The blank canvas would have been primed with white oil paint. This was done to convey a light feeling through the layers of paint that would follow.

It is always a good idea to start with a very light priming. This helps to add light to the oil painting during the painting process. The bright white ground will shine through the layers of paint that are put over it. Oil painting on a bright white ground also helps the oil painting age well.

So, in 100 years, your oil painting won’t turn as dark and sink into the canvas. So it helps preserve your oil painting long after you are gone.

The initial drawing was made on the canvas with either charcoal or directly with some dark lines of paint.

The drawing stage was more for placement than making a finished drawing. He would keep everything loose in case he wanted to make any changes. Perhaps the areas which would eventually be black or dark would be indicated as well. But at this stage, placement was first and foremost in his mind. Not color, not the girl’s face, not the exact shape of anything…but placement on the canvas.

He was not thinking about drawing in the sense of a finished work of art. Simply establishing a nice composition on the canvas was the important thing.

You can see this beginning looks almost like the drawing of a child.

beginning of a john singer sargent painting

That is fine, he was just building his foundation for what is to come next.

In using the word foundation, it probably will help you to think of a house and it’s foundation. When a house is being built, the foundation looks nothing like a completed house. The frame of the house goes on this foundation and it looks like a skeleton. The same happens with oil paintings.

When Sargent was satisfied with the composition it would be time to mass in the painting.

The colors were mixed to the general overall tone of the masses such as the brown of the girl’s hair and the red of her sash and chain.

A general massing of color takes place in this stage. Details are not thought about yet. They will come later in the painting process.

Just like in building a house…you must put up a wall before you can put in a window. You have to put up the frame before you can put the siding or bricks on

A general flesh color was established, and perhaps two flesh colors for the main areas of light and shadow. These were laid in on the girl’s face. As you can see, not much attention to detail at all in this stage.

As Sargent said, features like the eyes and mouth should be “drawn in” at the end. Edges are kept soft on purpose — they are a detail as well.

The process of massing in the main areas of color is now revised.

painting by john singer sargent stage 2

To be continued…



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