Figure using Brush Drawing- demo

Philip Howe Fine Art
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Fine Art - Figures,Portraits, Other Subjects
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Life Drawings (Figure drawings)
Early work_ 1980's, 1990's
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This study started by projecting a line drawing onto canvas. I have hundreds of such drawings from 20 years of life studies and if I need more I simply hire models as I see I will need them for an upcoming painting. I will usually shoot transparencies for reference and scan these in if I need them at some point in my digital designs. If the computer has done one thing well, at least for my work, it's allowed me greater freedom to endlessly develop more complex, hopefully more sophisticated designs than I could ever see using tracing paper or simply drawing each element out. That method was so boring for me, and many illustrators and painters I know, that by the time you get to the real painting you might be burned out on the whole idea. For me, the most important, most powerful statement is a good design and concept. The techniques to get there are certainly secondary but important enough that they need to be as polished as talent will allow. If there is one thing that separates a good image from bad ones its probably technique, but I feel better design is what separates good work from something memorable or moving and I do my best to achieve a strong, moving design that often takes me longer than the actual painting process.
This study, while not a design project, will give you a good idea of how to develop solid paint quickly, in a few hours, leaving all but final detailing, if desired, to achieve a finished look.

First I shot a slide of my pencil drawing. Slides project considerably crisper than any opaque projectors can and so you can, if needed, get much more detail if the slide is good and sharp. I use a 6x7 projector and shoot 120 film for maximum sharpness, a good technique for doing murals or painting very large without the usual distortion of your drawing.

I quickly sketched this out onto the gessoed white canvas using a smaller sable (synthetic) round with a decent point. I like using Flash paint, an acrylic like laytex that has much more covering power so you can thin it way down and still get a good solid line so the strokes can be fluid and fast. Museums use Flash for some underpainting work if a complete rebuild is required as its very stable.

Another variation would be to use gouache, as I did for years, the advantage of it being that, even when dry, it can be wiped off since its water-soluable. I even used to airbrush gouache over large areas for a quick, ultra smooth underpainting, or wash that I could go back into and pull out highlights from. You could also use oil or alkyd if you want more time to work with it.

The detail below shows some of the wet line and dryer line. Simple enough if you have a decent drawing to start with. Risky if you freehand it, but you can achieve good effects either way. The projection, of course is much faster and since I drew it out once, why do it again? My goal is to get a good drawing, not to show off that I can do it all freehand. I simply corrected the drawing here and there as I drew it with the brush.

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Figure drawn in
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Drawing detail


I paint the block-in stage with 1"to 2" bristol flats and then come in with a bristle filbert (Robert Simmons makes superb filberts!) for closer areas like the cheeks and nose, trying not to detail but get a blocky, stroky quality that carries a lot of paint and covers the white completely with each stroke. lf I painted thinner I might consider a brown or grey wash underneath as the illustrator J.C.Leyendecker frequently did, but I use no medium and have to get the paint on thick enough to be able to pull it into the next area without smearing or thinning. In fact, I rarely wash my brush but just pull it against a rag or towell then dip back into the paint on the palette, forcing me to use still heavier paint. I try not to mix the paint too much. A real taboo is the use of 'flesh' tints and greys but I find they help keep the base flesh color consistent and I did use one here as a starting point, warming it up or cooling it with reds or blue-greys, adding white or brown or color as needed. I'll use anything that will help get the look across.

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Color blocked in at 5 minutes

I paint the block-in stage with 1"to 2" bristol flats and then come in with a bristle filbert (Robert Simmons makes superb filberts!) for closer areas like the cheeks and nose, trying not to detail but get a blocky, stroky quality that carries a lot of paint and covers the white completely with each stroke. lf I painted thinner I might consider a brown or grey wash underneath as the illustrator J.C.Leyendecker frequently did, but I use no medium and have to get the paint on thick enough to be able to pull it into the next area without smearing or thinning. In fact, I rarely wash my brush but just pull it against a rag or towell then dip back into the paint on the palette, forcing me to use still heavier paint. I try not to mix the paint too much. A real taboo is the use of 'flesh' tints and greys but I find they help keep the base flesh color consistent and I did use one here as a starting point, warming it up or cooling it with reds or blue-greys, adding white or brown or color as needed. I'll use anything that will help get the look across.

This block-in took around 2 hours to cover the figure then another 2 hours to refine it with the filbert. The heads usually take me as long as the rest of the entire body because I feel if the head looks right then that sets the quality tone for the entire image. This being just a study I played with it for a while until it answered my question of how the light will work into my more elaborate final painting.

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Color Blockin at 45 minutes
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Closer view of blockin
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Head blocked in, detail
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Head block in detail stage 2

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Before and after filbert smoothing strokes

Here's an interesting before and after. On the left is my finished block-in with the nice free strokes and loose wet-into-wet oil that gives it a lot more character than a too-smoothed finish. That would be easy to do at this point. Its a nice technique, great for book covers- you just take a smaller sable round and drag and stroke it here and there with a light touch until all the edges come together and look photo-realistic. What sounds tedious is actually quite fast and the results are immediate. Thats why photograhy, after all, suggests an illusion of in and out of focus, soft planes against hard edges. You can get that effect if the paint is laid on right and its just a matter of buffing it. You can take a big round 'mop' style brush and drag it over lightly here and there and if youit is painted thinner, say over a brown underpainting which is the normal procedure. The noodling at that point would push the opaque paint just into the brown and give the look of a warm, thinner shadowed sort of realism that always looks great, especially in chiaroscuro (the use of contrasting light and shading to create an enhanced realistic effect).

Anymore, I much prefer the PAINT to work for me. If blending is needed, I take a 1inch bristle FILBERT thats pretty thick and springy, yet soft and clean, and just pull at the edges here and there, trying not to overdo it. If I do, I can always put back in flashy brush-strokes that give a solid sharp edge. This is the key, for me, to control the FOCUS and the EDGES and force the eye to play in those areas that I want it to go to rather than have a soft focus image all over that just gets boring since there is no distinct place for the eye or mind to settle.

This is one of the best techniques I know of and can only be done with a bold, opaque block-in and heavy oils. Theres actually a lot more control with heavy oil than thin and wet oil than drying oil with too much medium. Of course, the paint will stay wet for days so if you are in a hurry, like most illustrators, it can be a problem.



The right side shows how this stoke, just short drags here and there, can really round out a form. Its the best way I've found to pull a 3/4 value into a shadow area and I am convinced Sargent, Zorn, and others, used this pulling technique to melt two areas together seamlessly and with little effort. It was the confidence they had in their drawing ability to go back into such areas as needed and redraw with an opaque stroke (usually with filberts and rounds) that allowed them to paint boldly and if they needed a sharp edge then a clean stroke using a bristle or sable FLAT, with or without (!) paint, would define the edge against the softer ones surrounding it.

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Male figure study final 24 x 36"

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