Wokingham Art Society
Demonstrations by Peter Keegan
Visit him at www.peterkeegan.co.uk
Portrait
2015
Return to Archive Landscape
2016
Landscape in Oils, 20 September 2016
Tonight's demo will be in oils, his preferred medium, but almost everything he says will apply equally to acrylics - and much of it should interest watercolour and pastel painters.

Peter told us last year that portrait painting was his favourite type of work. It provides some 60% of his income, the rest being split between other types of painting and teaching (demos, workshops).

Portraits don't sell in art galleries, nor are they always what art societies want. Hence tonight's demo: from a spectacular sunset photo he had taken across Lake Thun in Switzerland.
He had a copy of the photo on his tablet computer, hung on his board alongside a sheet of taped-on white oil-colour paper.

He had put a strip of masking tape along the bottom of the paper, thinking that a wider format might suit the subject better (he could always strip it off and extend the bottom if he wanted).

The first thing was to decide on a background colour: cadmium orange seemed good so he brushed in a slightly thinned layer all over. To get this even and avoid contaminating subsequent colours he vigorously scrubbed the surface with a rag until it was effectively touch-dry.
Peter's big home-made palette had lighter, warmer colours on the left (titanium white, Naples yellow, cadmium yellow hue, cadmium orange and alizarine crimson) and darker, colder ones on the right (Terra Vert, cerulean, cobalt and ultramarine blues and some raw umber).

We had a vote about where the horizon should be. In the photo it was dead central, against the conventional golden section rule (although it's OK to break rules if you know what rule you are breaking). Some wanted more sea, some said leave it central and a few wanted more sky. So Peter decided to leave it almost central and be able to add more sea later if he wanted (by removing the masking tape). With a small brush and some slightly thinned dark purple he marked in the main features.
In what order should it be painted? Colour-by-colour or background-to-foreground? Sky background first, he decided, taking a big #14 brush and a mixture of unthinned blues with a touch of crimson. He worked from right to left, putting the paint on thinly enough for some of the orange to show through, gradually lightening it as he reached the left hand side.

The orange sky was blocked in with a smaller, #12 brush. Then the distant mountains: a slightly greened purple, getting darker (more blue, more green and some umber) towards the water level. The sea is the same colour as the sky but slightly lighter and with more ultramarine, except in the bottom left corner which needed to balance the dark top-right clouds.
The water surface makes the orange reflection a slightly darker tone than the sky.

Peter used an even smaller, #4, brush to put more detail into the sky, letting it "skip and dance" across the surface, not picking up the blue underneath.

For the last half of the demo he discarded the photo. The time was spent restating areas where the colour was not quite right and making tiny marks all over the painting: sky texture; snow on mountainsides; ripples in water; softening some edges and, of course, putting in the sun and its reflection.

All the way through Peter was making helpful little asides, for example:
* When painting over a different colour lay it on thickly - scrubbing would mix the paints, dirtying the result
* To see what colour you really need, use a hole in a piece of card so it is not affected by adjacent colours
* With oils you can sometimes create an intermediate colour by blending existing paint on the surface
* Use a soft brush for blending
* To clean off excess paint from your brush use a rag, not turps or white spirit. If you want it really clean, don't use turps and detergent (and maybe even hair conditioner!) until you have got most of the paint out with the rag
* He recommends Rosemary Chunking bristle brushes but uses several brands of paint.
* Paint with feeling. Say something, don't just copy what you see.
Peter left several of us intending to visit his website, www.peterkeegan.co.uk,
to arrange for some more hands on experience with him.
Thanks again for another interesting evening, Peter.
Portrait in Oils, 19 May 2015
Peter arrived with a carload of examples of his portraits, leaflets, booklets about his services, courses, holidays etc.

Girding the loins

Bigger examples
Before the demo he'd nobbled Chis Parry to act as his model. He took photos of her on his iPad and chose one of them to work from (if you'll excuse a sentence ending with a preposition). She could then re-join the audience.

Although it is only 8 years since Peter finished his degree at Cardiff, he seems to have made a good job of establishing a reputation for himself. Look at his website.

A brilliant move, when he finished his Cardiff course, was to make a series of portraits of officials, tutors, students and ancillary workers that he had met there. The university bought the lot! It must have boosted his reputation no end.

Flamboyance
He will paint landscapes and still lifes, but portrait is his passion (we originally asked him to demonstrate landscape but when Sue Smith saw his portrait work she changed the request - well done Sue).

He will work in charcoal or watercolour or, if necessary, acrylic ("dreadful stuff - dries too quickly") but, again, oils are his passion ("the ideal medium for beginners - so forgiving").

His portraits are mostly what the old masters would have called alla prima: one-sitting oil sketches (often, in those days, eventually given to the VIP sitter and hung away from public view in a bedchamber or study). The grand portrait was painted, back in the old master's studio, using this likeness.

Peter starts drawing with a brush, using a single-cream-texture mix of white, raw umber and french ultra (the only time he actually thins the paint, with turps).
One-to-one scale is convenient - a hand-span is equal to the distance from chin to top of forehead. Using his hand as a guide, he finds the best place for the head and then marks chin and top of forehead. Then a curve for the centre-line, a short line for eye-level (roughly half way down, but adjusted for the individual face), one for the nostrils and another for the mouth.

Careful measurement of angles and distances (using the brush handle and the hand) lets you start to block in the rest of the face. This is all done with the same thin paint and short straight strokes. Accuracy is vital, but no-one gets it right first time. The initial very pale outline was overpainted 2 or 3 times, each time more accurately and with a slightly darker mix of the same colour and thinner lines. Last, with the final mix, the darker areas of shadow were drawn.
Then colour, darkest tones first. On the light side of his enormous palette he had titanium white, two yellows (cadmium and ochre), orange, cadmium red, alizarine and flesh pink. The pink is a cheat to save time - for a commissioned portrait he would mix the skin colour, to get it exactly right.

On the darker side of the palette he had burnt sienna, sap green, ultramarine and umber.

His first (darkest) skin colour, in shadow, was a remarkably rich reddish-brown colour. As he worked into the transitional and, later, half-tone and lighter areas he added not just more white but also traces of green, yellows and blues.

The last 45 minutes were nearly all filled with tiny single touches with smaller brushes. Outlines were corrected, temperatures adjusted, glasses just hinted at, and details re-checked until, by 9:45, Peter declared he was finished.
Throughout, he amazed us by being able to talk as well as concentrate on what was a precision painting task. There was an endless stream of helpful comments: I'm sure I missed many of them but here goes:

To get a really good likeness you need to spend time getting to know the sitter.
You should have a clear idea of where you are going, before you start a painting.
Sitters wearing glasses are good news - the glasses can act as a sort of grid to which you can relate the other features.
To improve, you should practice, read books and copy artists you admire.
95% of portrait artists now paint with a laptop or tablet computer screen for reference, not a paper print. The computer can enlarge detail, remove hue (so tone is clearer) and make many other adjustments. It's not cheating - prestigious artists have always used the latest technology to help them get the impression they want.
The best size of brush is the one you think is a bit too big!
Acrylic dries darker; watercolour dries lighter; oils dry the same
Earth colours dry quicker - artificial ones (e.g.titanium white) slower
Use rose madder instead of alizarine for children's portraits
Oils can be removed with a clean brush moistened with turps, so you can adjust lines by that vital millimeter, one way or the other
Wipe excess paint off the brush when you are picking up new paint
There is more colour around the eyes, where the skin is thin
Only put a background in if it supports the painting
When is a painting finished? Never. It is just abandoned



Thanks, Peter for a most intriging evening. When is the workshop?
Chris Parry by the end of the demo

Return to Archive

All images on this website are the copyright of either the Wokingham Art Society or the individual artists

This document is maintained by Sam Dauncey