My First Portrait Commission

I recently finished up my first portrait commission in oils and really loved the project. This is Chris, an avid bird watcher, painted on an A3 wooden panel, commissioned by his partner Mary. I was really touched that she commissioned me for this after having only seen the rose painting I’d done a few weeks earlier. 

I learned a lot from painting this piece, and the main lesson was that I really needed to get my colours and values blocked in as accurately as possible before I started adding anything like details. I’m more of a natural draughtsman than a painter, so its hard to shake myself out of thinking of lines and details when I really need to be thinking in terms of blobs of colour, but I think I got there in the end. It just meant that I had to go back and continuously adjust the colours and values, and sometimes paint over hours of detail work that I’d added prematurely.

So this was day one, the block in phase:


Strangely I think I have a bit of a fear of going too dark early on, which I might be carrying over unconsciously from tattooing unnecessarily, since I can always paint over it unlike when tattooing. But this stage is largely about just getting the basic drawing down and covering the panel in paint. 

This is from day 2 and is the one that really tickles me. Those crazy eyes just make him look like he’s eaten some mushrooms along the way and is on a quest to spot some mythical bird. Here you can also see I’m going crazy on his eye wrinkles before I’ve gotten his skin tones right. 

Here in the next session I’ve done another layer on the bird and the leaves in the foreground, and also done some scumbling with a light green behind and over the leaves in the background to knock it back a bit and add some levels of depth between the leaves themselves so that he doesn’t just look like he’s stood in from of a flat piece of wallpaper. I’ve also darkened and varied his skin tones more. 

The following session was largely about tackling his hair and beard and eyebrows. I was really struggling with beard, until realising that while dry brushing and scumbling worked to add texture to the skin and foliage, hair really needs to be painted wet on wet, to give the sense of silky strands, and to help you get the fine edges and lines. Adding some tiny details like the white hairs in his eyebrows really helped to bring him to life and into focus. At this point he was just about there, and I asked Mary for her feedback. She said she loved it but that I might have gone a bit overboard with the wrinkles, and I agreed. They were just so much fun to paint!

Finally, I softened his eye wrinkles a little, and also darkened a few of the highlights on his face that were just a little too close to pure white, and had the effect of flattening his face a little, since it can’t all be that bright. And with that, I was done! I think the part of this piece I’m most proud of is the quality of skin tones that was created through building up several layers of paint and lots of fine brush strokes. I’ve started taking more oil painting commissions, so if you have any ideas for me, then please get in touch.  Many thanks to Mary and Chris for this great opportunity!

My First Oil Painting

I’ve been aspiring to try my hand at oil painting for at least a year now, and lockdown has enabled me to finally find the time to learn about the process, purchase the materials I need, and have a crack at it! I’m so glad I did, I really loved every minute of painting this picture. 

My brother Wyeth recently began a professional oil painting course, and he helped motivate me to get started when he was looking into it last year. Then I just started watching a lot of tutorial videos and conversations with oil painters. One that really inspired me was this conversation between realism painter Andrew Tischler and caricature artist Michael Fluharty. I went on to watch Fluharty’s portrait painting course at and a whole bunch of Tischler’s tutorial videos on YouTube. I’m really grateful that there are so many amazing painters putting out quick tutorials for free nowadays. 

So I finally got round to commandeering our incoming baby’s bedroom as my temporary oil painting studio, and got to work. I’m working on a wooden artist panel that I covered in three layers of gesso, and then lightly sanded and stained with a wash of burnt sienna, turpentine and Liquin Original medium. The first day was devoted to the blocking in layer and took about six or seven hours. At this stage its just about covering the entire panel in paint using roughly the right colours. I was really encouraged after this first day. It had literally been years since I’d had to worry about mixing my own paint since I’d been working digitally for so long, but it felt very natural and even by the end of day one you can stand back and see that you’re on the right track.

Day two I began the modelling stage, working my way from the bottom up, defining the rippling form of the leaves and trying to catch the way that their dark surfaces subtly reflect the blue of the sky in certain places. The Liquin Original medium increases the drying speed of the oil paints, so the underlying block in layer is pretty much set, if still tacky in places. This first attempt at modelling was when it really became clear to me how much easier it was to work in oil paint than it is in acrylics. The ability to blend your brush strokes so easily, and the vivid richness of the colours started to get me really excited about the possibilities for future projects. I also worked on this for about 8 or 9 hours straight, with a short break for lunch, and it flew by, whereas working digitally can sometimes feel like a bit of a grind. This painting seemed to draw my attention into it, rather than me feeling like I’m having to purposefully focus.

Day three I came back and finished the rest of the modelling layer, putting in another 7 or 8 hours. Here I was thinking more about depth, trying to bring certain leaves and rose petals more into the foreground by adding more detail, and leaving others lighter and less finely rendered to help them recede into the background. It was when I started the second pass on the rose that I really started to appreciate how much oil painting is like tattooing, and felt really encouraged that my skills from one medium seemed to be carrying over to another. I’ve tattooed a lot of roses in my ten years as a tattoo artist, and I was surprised to be able to work in almost exactly the same way that I would on skin but in oil paint, but without the added challenges of stretching the skin, wiping away excess ink, trying not to damage the skin and cause unnecessary bleeding, or even just having your time limited by your client’s pain threshold. Of course the wooden panel isn’t much of a conversational partner, but at least it holds still.

On the fourth and final day I began the detail layer. First I repainted the background, and then meticulously softened the edges of all the leaves and petals towards the background to make them appear out of focus. After a few attempts I found that the easiest way to do this was actually using a small, square brush and just dry brushing over the edge of the leaf with the background colour. I also tried to create more of a textured surface for the background, also incorporating some of the pinks from the rose into the yellow ochre and earth green blends, but finally decided that my visible, textured brush strokes were too distracting and brought the background forward, so I blended it all together into a softer finish with a large square brush. The rest of the work was done with a tiny round brush, and was mainly putting in small highlights on the leaves, and then adding in the veiny, delicate folds on the flower petals. Just as I had softened the edges of the background leaves, here I was also trying to really sharpen the edges of the petals in the foreground. 

All in all this took around 30 hours over 4 days. I never expected to take such great joy in painting a rose bush, since I’ve always been so drawn to surreal, imaginative fantasy and sci fi art, but we recently moved out of Manchester and into the countryside in Todmorden and being back in nature has been really inspiring, so I plan to paint some epic landscapes soon. The whole vibe of the moment is spring time, and new beginnings; we just bought our first house, I’ll hopefully be moving to a new art studio in the next few months, our first baby is due in October, and I’m just starting out with a whole new approach to art, so this rose bush with its little blossom peeking out from behind really captures a lot about where I’m at right now. Pretty sure I’m hooked!

The Process Behind the Angel of Jupiter

Well I finished up this Angel of Jupiter yesterday and thought I’d share a post about my process for any artists out there that might be interested. I’ve learned a lot from every angel I’ve painted so far, and refined my technique a little with each one, and this one was no different. The entire piece was completed using Photoshop.

I made the initial mistake in this process of trying to go straight in with colour and shapes too soon, and essentially skipping the line drawing stage. I thought that perhaps I was slowing myself down by always doing such detailed sketches before I started the painting phase, but my initial attempt at ‘straight to paint’ only proved how important it is to build on a strong drawing foundation. This was as far as I went with sketching at first. I knew he was going to be a mature man, on a throne, at the centre of a giant orrery, with some eagle symbolism, and the top of his head open. The themes would be circles, planets, cycles, wheels, golds and royal blue, he would be a little proud, arrogant even, like Zeus, but also peaceful, like a Taoist who knows the rhythms of nature so well that he simply enjoy their unfolding. So, with all that in mind, I sketched this incredibly generic warrior who seemingly expressed none of those qualities…


Then I dove straight in with colour and promptly threw out my orrery idea in favour of him being sat in some kind of tree throne which held the planets in its branches. In retrospect, its obvious that I only opted for this idea because an orrery is practically impossible to freehand without carefully drawing out all the perfect ellipses and spheres first, and wiggly branches are much easier. 

I was pretty excited at first to have something come together so quickly. Then I thought he looked too much like he was either deep underwater, or somewhere beyond our atmosphere in space, when he was meant to be more of a sky god. I also wanted more gold and metal generally, so I tried to add in more of a golden throne with slue skies behind.

And that’s when it became clear that he was broken and unsalvageable, and that I needed to draw and draw some more until I had something I was sure was worth painting. So first I did this guy.

Then with the basic composition in place I shaded him in. This was the final sketch before I started laying in some colours.

At this point I’m excited about it again, I really liked the drawing. Thankfully I’ve come to recognise that this is always a peak in the process before a hard drop into the beginnings of the colour stage. The drawing looks good, and then it turns into a kind of garish cartoon as I make my initial colour choices. I was prepared for that this time though so I only spent 3 or 4 days at the most questioning my worth as a human being and my prospects as a professional artist before it started to come together…

One of the main issues I noticed while laying in colours was that there wasn’t enough going on in the mid-ground to really give the sense that this was a huge, galaxy-tracking orrery. I also wanted the walls and window behind him to look rounded, like an observatory, and as it was it just looked like a flat wall behind him, and not very far in the distance. So I lightened and muted background blues to give a sense of distance, and added in these ‘arms’ holding up the planets behind him, coming off the central platform, which were also painted in more muted tones to give a sense of depth and atmosphere. I also added in a lot of detailing on his clothes and boots that I hadn’t originally planned, to further add to this theme of fractal complexity.

Finally it was time to add the special effects. Any kind of elemental energies and lighting effects always come last, so at this point I added the electricity and some colour layers to show it reflecting off his gold throne. I also added some shadows behind his head because I was afraid that his circular head piece looked too much like it could be part of the throne itself because of the way it was symmetrically positioned. And finally, it was finished. This is one of my favourite angels I’ve done so far, and I won’t make the mistake of trying to skip the drawing phase again. 

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