Master Copy after Jacob Collins

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Post before last, I linked an article about Jacob Collins who runs an atelier in New York. At the time I was working on a master copy of one of his portraits: Carolina, oil on canvas, 22 x 20 inches, 2006

Above is my grisaille master copy painted on dibond aluminum, primed with acrylic white gesso. In the past five years many artists have started painting on dibond, which has its pros and cons. I like it because the painting seems more luminescent and because the material doesn’t contract and expand with changing temperatures or warp as easily as canvas or wood panel. This was my first time painting on dibond and I learned a lot — it holds paint differently and made modeling more difficult at first. But eventually I got the hang of it. The bummer was that the piece of dibond I used for the master copy was primed by some one else who used a roller, the kind you’d use to paint your living room. Some people like to paint on texture. I thought the orange peel effect was too much (you can see the white specks where light is reflecting off the texture in the photo above). But the good news is there’s plenty of ways to prime dibond smoothly so I’ll try again with another painting and prime it myself.

In the grisaille year of my studies, my palette is limited to monochrome –one-color–paintings but I don’t need to paint strictly in grey. I can mix a base color to suit my needs relevant to what I’m painting. For a cast I might stick to ivory black and white, but for flesh, as with this master copy, I try to get the overall temperature of the skin color right and base the whole palette on that color. I landed on a ratio of 4/5 raw umber (a cool, dark brown) and 1/5 burnt sienna (a warm, ruddy brown). The burnt sienna livened up the raw umber so that I could achieve a sense of warmth even though I’m technically still painting in grayscale. For my darkest darks I mixed in a touch of black. This master copy helped me out a lot in life room because I was able to experiment and find a color that could be both warm enough to feel natural in the life room, but neutral enough to still function appropriately in a grisaille painting.

Jacob Collins’ Carolina is a beautiful portrait with a full palette and lustrous skin modeling. Over their careers, artists start to favor a particular combination of colors on their palettes. For example Collins’ palette: flake white, naples yellow, flesh ocher, transparent earth orange, raw sienna, burnt sienna, burnt umber, raw umber, alizarin crimson permanent, ivory black. He’ll add special colors when the situation demands it, but for the most part this will be on his palette every time he goes to paint. Every color, whether you mix the paint from powdered pigments or squeeze it out of the tube, has its own personality and idiosyncrasies (remember a few posts ago when I wrote about how ivory black turns blue when you add white? Well, raw umber, a brown, becomes grey. And so on…) Painters get to know their favorites and start to assemble a team of colors that work well together to create the aesthetic they want to achieve. Juliette has her own color palette, similar but different from Collins’ and her aesthetic is a little different as well.

In grisaille, I’m meeting neutral colors one by one. At the moment I really like raw umber for everything. I’m getting to know it in various forms from all the different manufacturers. Some brands look green. Some look golden. I am more resistant than some folks to greenish tones in my paintings where I didn’t plan them so I avoid some brands’ raw umbers all together.

Dibond, canvas, panel, gesso, manufacturers of paint. More and more, materials debates begin to take up mind space. “Always use this, never use this. This is not archival. Mix your own paints.” I see people become lost completely to it. This is important stuff to be sure but I also see how it might become a distraction early in learning or in a painting career, especially in the technique-driven realist art world. Discussions of technique and material use can easily take over and suck the air out of the room, the life out of the art.

Copying a work of art from a master painter is a great way to work on techniques and experiment with materials because the subject, composition, and drawing questions are already worked out. You can isolate questions of practice and endeavor toward a standard set not by your personal best effort but by those heroes who made you want to paint in the first place. For me the major bonus is that it’s a way to hone difficult skills while still being inspired by and reminded of the beauty these techniques were designed to create.

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