An Oil Portrait Demo in 4 Parts with Katie O’Hagan

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1. Starting with the Eye: As usual, I start with the eye. Prussian blue is a recent addition to my palette; I use it mainly when painting the white part of the eye, which requires the tiniest amount of the color. Sennelier’s version of Prussian blue is of such high quality that it will probably take me several hundred years to finish the tube.

2. Initial and subsequent passes: The first stage goes very quickly. Once I know that everything is in the right place, I add several more layers—usually at least three. I paint in thin layers, so the effect is cumulative.

3. Degrees of Brown: When I opened the initial tube of Sennelier Van Dyke brown I discovered it was much warmer and lighter than my usual color. I then ordered Van Dyke brown deep, and it was the color I had originally expected. I wanted to try the lighter color, however, so when it came time to paint the horizon behind the figure, I mixed a little of the Van Dyke brown with nickel yellow and blended it into a sky of Prussian blue and Payne’s gray. I hadn’t intended necessarily to keep the sky like that, but when I was hiking one night, I noticed the horizon to the south, where the New York City lights created a faint glow. I had a snapshot of the portrait at this stage on my phone; I held it up to the horizon and the colors matched perfectly, so I decided to leave the sky as is.

4. Detail of Arm: The trick to painting tattoos is to underpaint more than initially feels comfortable to you. When the tattoos are too tightly rendered they often seem almost to levitate off the skin. I did instead a very rough sketch of the shapes with a thin layer of Payne’s gray, and then I filled in the color with slightly thicker paint. Finally, I blotted the finished tattoo with a piece of shop towel.

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