Achieving Unity in a Painting

(Last Updated On May 25, 2022)

I am delighted at the rapport that has developed between Graham Ovenden and myself. Although we both look forward to these annual visits, I do feel a bit guilty that my presence interferes with Graham’s painting routine. But not every stage of the painting is equally complex and so I was treated to a demonstration of glazing.

1. Contemplating a plan

I was told that I was the first person to witness this process. Certainly this is an expression of trust. But even if another painter were to watch, it would not necessarily have affected his own technique. Another artist, Adam Fuss, has openly expressed irritation when asked about his techniques. His reply was always something like, “Why, are you going to try this at home? What difference does it make how I do it?” Although there is value to a formal education in painting, each artist has his own vision and has to accomplish it in his own way. Psychologically, this is a very interesting point. As far as technique is concerned, the artist must find a conceptual comfort zone on how he is to achieve his vision. (Please excuse the English language’s proclivity for sexism. I, of course, am referring to female artists as well when applying the marked pronoun.) In the case of Graham Ovenden, his paintings—both figural and landscape—are constructed in several layers that create an effect that is hard to fathom when merely viewing photographs of his work. This terracing is a way of introducing subtle psychological depth to what we are looking at. From a pragmatic perspective, it gives the image some dimension while, perhaps more importantly, creating the impression of translucence.

The consequence of this particular method is that paintings cannot be produced in a hurry. Each layer must be completely dry before the next can begin. That way if there is some kind of error or the artist changes his mind, that layer can be cleaned off cleanly without damaging the foundation.

Glazing is the process of introducing a uniform layer to the canvas. Besides adding some depth, Graham says that the single color provides a unifying effect on the overall composition. In other words, it brings together the components into a radiant whole.

2. Mixing the colors

Graham is not the only artist who uses glazing. Some artists who wish a very faint glaze will use thinning agents. Graham does not do this but mixes his paints at full saturation. Out of necessity operating in a small flat, he has discovered that using a sheet of plate glass makes a most effective palette. It is strong, does not wear out and can be cleaned completely preventing any subtle contamination of colors that may have been used before.

3. Applying the glaze

He applies the paint by troweling it on with a small metal instrument.

4. Complete coverage

All the layers of the painting are quite thin and must be highly uniform. In fact, the texture of the surface is so important, Graham avoids using cloth canvases because it biases the proper build-up of the terraces. When examined closely, the painting is constructed almost in the fashion of an etching.

5. Smoothing

When the area is completely covered, the glazing is wiped off with rags to remove any inconsistencies in thickness. Any remaining blotches are individually dabbed off with a quick patting from the side of the hand.

6. Touching up remaining splotches

Some fine-tuning with a more precise instrument accentuates certain contours giving the final desired effect. Once the glazing is complete, it will be several days before it is safe to paint on the canvas again.

7. Some finer touch-ups

8. Glazing complete

Note: Please understand that I am not a painter, so please forgive me if I did not use the proper terms of this craft. -Ron

7 thoughts on “Achieving Unity in a Painting

  1. Fascinating! In the face of all the techniques, I believe that Ovenden’s digitized paintings lose much of their genius. ):

  2. Glazing dates back to the old Dutch masters, if not before. The usual way it is done, however, is to build up the colors in the image with successive layers of glaze, rather than slathering the whole painting with one color. This allows a much richer tonal range and depth to the painting than by merely painting on the color straight from the tube. Another way glazing is done is to do an underpainting in earth tones or blues or the like of the entire painting and then lay colored glazes on the top to build the final desired colors. I’ve even used this technique in watercolors, doing yellow and purple underpainting and then going over it, when dry with dry brushed colors, though it is a lot tricker with watercolors because the paint underneath has a tendency to lift and mix when you paint over it, but it is not impossible.

  3. What, no happy trees? Thanks for sharing that. Sounds fascinating. I don’t understand why someone would be annoyed that others are interested in how they create.

    • The process is the same for landscapes but this is a site about girls. Graham did say a while ago that he didn’t want to include figures in his landscapes but he has been toying with the idea of something with a fairy motif. So we’ll see. -Ron

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