Friday, 20 May 2016

Painting a Fox in Oils


This Blog post tells the story of how I painted a Fox in oils. The starting point was one of my own photos

My main interest has been wildlife and particularly bird photography. You can see the sort of thing I have been doing at 

In the process of chasing dramatic photos I have gradually become more and more interested in the beauty of the final image. This is quite distinct from my interest in the birds and animals themselves. This idea of beauty has grown with me and some time ago I started to try to express some of my images in painted form. This was the subject of a previous blog.

I thought it might be interesting to record the process I am currently using by showing you the development of a single painting from start to finish. This is how it went.

The first step is to get the basic image on to the canvas, in this case it is a canvas-covered board 8 x 10" in size. To do that I draw a grid of squares over the original photo.

I then draw a similar grid of squares, but a bit larger, on the blank canvas. This is a well-known method of transcribing images across from one medium to another. All you have to do is draw the contents of each square on the photo on to the corresponding square on the canvas. I am only trying to get the outline at this stage. The next photo shows how the canvas looked after I have done a bit more work on the developing image, but you can see the square grid clearly enough.

You can see that I have just started to block in some of the darkest shapes from the photo. This is done by eye of course, but the grid is a great help in getting things in about the right place! You will also notice that even at this early stage I have developed the eyes, nose and mouth to a much greater degree. I instinctively felt that these would be the key to producing an arresting image.

I continue trying to block in the main colour masses to build up the image. It is important to note that I am working in Acrylic paint at this point. This dries quickly and allows me to adjust things by over-painting if necessary. It will also provide a really good, stable base for the oil painting to follow. 

I am very uncertain about background colour. I lay in a darkish neutral  colour just to see what it looks like. Not very attractive I conclude, but still do not know which way to go on this for the moment.

OK, so have you noticed the glaring error that I made? Look at the Fox's forehead. It is far too shallow when compared with the original photo. I have missed out a whole row of squares above its eyes when transcribing the original image across to the canvas - twit! I kick myself for not having noticed the ridiculously wrong facial proportions.

I then have to try to find the original square grid. It has been quite heavily over-painted already but I manage to spot some of it and am able to reinstate it over the painting - you can see it below. This allows me to re-visit the original photo and reconstruct the upper part of the head in the correct proportions this time.This correction has also much improved the composition by moving the ear tips closer to the top of the canvas. It was this too-large gap  at the top of the painting that I originally noticed and finally alerted me to the error I had made. This is the beauty of creating an acrylic underpainting where all these things can be resolved before committing to the final oils.

Below is the image at a slightly later stage, with the photo alongside for comparison. At least the head is the right shape now. I have also changed the background colour to an aquamarine sort of blue to complement the yellows and oranges in the face. I am working in oil paint now gradually refining the facial structure and reproducing the patterns of colouration in the original. I am not too slavish about this, I want the effect rather than an exact copy of the original.

From there of course it is not a huge leap to the final image, below. I have tried to give the effect of fur by sparsely over-brushing lighter colours on top of dark to give the layered effect found in real fur. It is quite difficult, especially when brushing into still-wet oil paint. It is all about communicating texture. Keeping the initial oil layers thin helps, otherwise over-brushing with the next colour picks up too much of the underlying layer.

The trouble with me is that, even when a painting is finished, I cannot resist coming back to it and fiddling. One day of course I will have a disaster, but so far I have managed to confine myself to delicate refinements. See if you can spot the difference between the image above and the "final" (I promise) version below. 

The colours look a bit brighter in this photo of the painting, but they are actually unchanged, it is just the camera. What has changed very slightly is the shape of the tip of the nose. I have also lowered the bottom rim of the eyes slightly. This exposes marginally more of the actual eye and gives the animal a more engaging stare. I have only changed things by a few hairs' breadth, but there is a difference in the overall feel of the painting. It is very subtle at this stage. Finally I brushed in a little more shadow on the left side of its muzzle as you look at it. Better stop there!

When I started oil painting I was unsure about how I wanted to re-interpret my original photos. At first I thought I needed to decide on a style to try to achieve. I never did quite make this conscious decision, but in practice the paintings differ from the photo just due to the nature and limitations of the new medium. I am sure a style will develop as I do more and more.

 If you are interested to see my other paintings, you will find them at my website here