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Focus On Flesh

There are so many ways to interpret and to represent the many colors of flesh. Ask 10 artists, and each will have a different palette and approach. For this portrait study, I decided to use a traditional method, called “the Flemish Technique.” This technique is based on ways that Flemish painters in the 14th -16th century developed highly realistic paintings using egg tempera, and later, oil paints. It is easily adaptable for acrylics, and this painting was created using Atelier Interactive Acrylics.

The Flemish Technique is also called “7-Layer Technique,” because it traditionally incorporated 7 layers, or steps. The steps are the initial drawing; the “imprimatura” or value washes; the umber layer for shadows; the dead layer for values; 1-2 opaque layers of color; and the final layers of transparent glazes and opaque highlights. Since Interactive dries quickly, but still gives me time to soften edges, it’s a great medium for this technique.

First I did a drawing (called a cartoon) the same size as my surface. I used graphite for my drawing on Strathmore Drawing paper. When I was happy with my drawing, I applied charcoal on the back, and transferred the drawing to the surface by tracing the major lines and shapes with a sharp pencil. Because Flemish paintings are typically very smooth, I used an Ampersand Gessoboard for my surface.

I next established values by using a mixture of Raw Umber and Titanium White, using Clear Painting Medium to create a mid-viscosity paint. I combined the 2nd and 3rd steps (the imprimatura and the umber shadow layers) because in this particular painting, it made sense. And after all, I am a contempory 21st painter – not a 16th century painter!

For the dead layer, I used Naples Yellow, Light Red Ochre, French Ultramarine Blue, Raw Umber and Titanium White. My goal was to create a painting that was complete in its tonal values, with minimal color. By focusing on value, I was able to concentrate on getting the subtle tonal shifts correct without worrying about color. I found I had to add a bit of color, because in this portrait study of my son, he looked so “dead” in the dead layer that a bit of color added some more life! I used Clear Painting Medium for my mixtures, and once it was dry, I sealed this underpainting with a coat of Atelier Matte Medium so I would have a flat painting surface for the next steps.

The next steps were my favorite ones – adding transparent color glazes, scumbles and opaque highlights. If you follow the steps and developed a solid underpainting, this is when your painting comes to life, fairly quickly. I used the new Atelier Glazing Liquid for my glazes, with Tinting White, Permanent Alizarine, Transparent Yellow, Burnt Sienna, Arylamide Yellow Deep, Cadmium Red Light (Scarlet), Light Red Ochre, Raw Umber, Jaune Brillant, French Ultramarine Blue, Toning Grey Pinkish and Transparent Red Oxide. The Toning Grey Pinkish and Jaune Brillant worked particularly well for my 18-month old son’s skin tones, and are well suited for that rosy glow in all colors of flesh. As you can tell from the list, these colors are a mix of transparent, semi-transparent and opaque colors. With the Atelier Glazing Liquid, the glazes and scumbles dried fast and did not lift when I applied another glaze on top. All I need to do now is varnish this painting (probably a Satin or Gloss) and it is good to go!

The Flemish Technique is just one approach to painting flesh. At times, I’ll use a limited palette of Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow Medium, Cadmium Red Medium and French Ultramarine Blue for quick alla prima studies, while at other times I use my full spectrum Impressionist palette of Titanium White, Transparent Yellow, Cadmium Yellow Light, Cadmium Yellow Medium, Indian Yellow, Transparent Perinone Orange, Cadmium Red Medium, Cadmium Red Light (Scarlet), Permanent Alizarine, Quinacridone Magenta, Quinacridone Red-Violet, Dioxazine Purple, French Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue, Permanent Green Light, Permanent Sap Green, and Yellow Ochre, building up through complimentary colors. To read more about other artists’ palettes and approaches, click here.

So go ahead and try new approach to flesh tones, and post your colors - and your paintings – here!

There are (5) Comments, Comments are now closed for this discussion?
  1. comment_1_15001

    Daisy commented on October 8, 2011, at 2:52 am.

    Really nice! Love the gold, and all the color. Very insightful!
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. comment_2_15001

    Nancy commented on October 26, 2011, at 9:42 pm.

    I am thrilled to see this demo and plan to try it soon.
    Thank you. I have wanted to do some faces, but no clue where to start.. Nancy

  3. comment_3_15001

    Ruth commented on November 8, 2011, at 3:17 pm.

    Thanks so much for sharing this really informative demonstration. I love attempting portraits so will be referring to it often. I love the site and will be visiting often.


  4. comment_4_15001

    Marilyn commented on November 19, 2011, at 1:44 am.

    Please fix an easy way to print the article without the extraneous printing. Thank you. Marilyn

  5. comment_5_15001

    Serena commented on November 30, 2011, at 9:48 am.

    Hi Marilyn,
    I know printing from websites can be a pain. At the moment we haven't included a printer friendly version but I can have a look at this possibility.

    If you use print preview before you go straight to print your computer will offer any selection of printers which you have installed and give option for pages to print. That way you can limit it to just the pages or selection that you want.