Figure in Water Mixable Oils

See how to begin a figure painting with water mixable oils. Explained is a reductive underpainting technique where the painting surface is covered with one color, and the highlights are removed with a cotton rag.

2 hour, 22 min. video

Demo by Art Prof Clara Lieu.

Video Walkthrough

  • There is a ton of prep work that happens before the brush gets to the surface.
  • Prof Lieu started with this reference photo, but spent a lot of time tweaking the photo in Photoshop.
  • Changes in Photoshop included playing around with the orientation of the figure so it wasn’t so ordinary looking and the gravity of the figure shifted dramatically.
  • The top of the shoulders and the arm touching the ground was darkened to give more emphasis on the hand which is gripping the hair.
  • Four thumbnail sketches in pencil were created, focusing on the value and tone of the image.
  • The cast shadows in the figure were effective to break up the shapes in the background.
  • This reductive underpainting technique doesn’t work well on a stretched canvas, a panel is much better because it’s solid and won’t “bounce” the way a stretched canvas will.
  • W&N Water Mixable Fast Drying Medium will start to feel tacky after about 90 min, and will dry overnight.
  • You’ll be surprised by how much physical pressure is needed to remove the highlights with a rag.
  • When applying the first coat of paint, adding a medium is really helpful to increase the flow of the paint.
  • Mediums like the stand oil, the fast drying medium, or safflower oil work well.
  • Prof Lieu considered 3 reds: cadmium red light, a very yellow red, Indian red, which is very close to burnt sienna, and alizarin crimson which is a very deep red with lots of purple.
  • Jumping around the composition ensures that you maintain cohesion when establishing the figure within the space.
  • Spend some time in advance thinking about whether you want a focal point, or areas of tension.
  • Prof Lieu focused on the angle of the top leg + the hand gripping the hair.
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