Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Breaking out the Canvas and Sable

Last year I decided to try my first oil painting in a long while, (since college, when I took an elective, "Oil Painting for Non-Art Majors" at the University of Illinois in Champaign.)

The subject is my Father, who passed away last Fall...and I had intended to do this several months ago, but honestly, it was too hard to think about. But a few weeks ago, it felt like the right time. 

I planned it as a gift for my Mom, and had hoped to get started in June. However, due to client work I ended up with four days in the first week of July to start and complete it before my next visit to see her in Illinois.

(Waiting until the last minute to start a big truly was just like going back to college again.)

Given the many years since I last 
saw a blank canvas and smelled linseed oil, I knew there would be significant rust...and with the time constraint I almost gave up on it. But I decided that I might not otherwise do it anytime soon, and that the tight timeframe might actually help.

The first step; pencil drawing on the canvas:

This is where you make major decisions about shape and proportion, largely determining whether a likeness comes across later. As I started to see glimpses of my Dad looking back, (but asking myself, does he look like he's suffering from indigestion?), I felt it was ready for the next step...

The "underpainting", commonly used in paintings for many centuries, is a study of highlights and shadows, (just raw sienna acrylic washes here.) The acrylic dries instantly, so I did not have to wait to start the next step...oil paint.

Thin layers of mixed colors, eventually followed by gradually thicker brush strokes of paint. I used water mixable oils to speed the drying process so it would be ready in time for travel. (They did not exist when I was in college.)

I had not used real brushes and paint for anything in several years since switching to a Wacom Cintiq for digital book illustration, but the rust began to come off gradually. I also found myself stumbling a bit in shifting gears from realism to cartoon minimalism and distortion, going from this to client work and back again. But it was a great exercise.

The finished painting:

(click to enlarge)

It will take a few months of perspective to know what I think of it. (My Mom was quite happy but she is my Mom, and she would react that way if I had done it with Crayola crayons on construction paper.) 

It worked out to wait to do this in terms of getting it done but also in the heart and mind. Enough time had passed since my Dad passed that I was okay looking at his photos for long periods. It was still emotional but it was helpful, even cathartic, as it gave me a chance to reflect on his life in my own way.


  1. Wonderful portrait, Mark. A true labor of love, and it shows. Great work.

  2. Joanna Carlton8/27/17, 2:19 PM

    Beautiful portrait!


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