Ah, my bread and butter. I’ve been making art since I was very young, and I’ve developed a workflow for producing the style of art I love best – figurative realism. It’s been far too long since I tackled a realistic series, but now is the time to return. The buttery goodness of oil paint and the texture of graphite rubbing against paper is what I love.

The path from sketch to final painting is a wonderful, if frustrating, journey. I had to learn to be patient and train myself to take each step carefully. It has been, and always will be, my favorite way to make art. Let me show you the process of my traditional work…

The Step By Step Process

1.) Thumbnail sketches. They don’t necessarily have to be the size of a thumbnail, but they do need to be sketchy. These quick drawings are like having a journal by your bed. You’re not looking for details, just the outline of the idea, mostly where the main focus will be and how the images flows. Intended to be notes for further development, it’s important to make a bunch of these since this is when your mind is trying out different scene scenarios, and you don’t want to spend extra time later changing everything around. There are no mistakes at this stage, just experimentation. For me, it helps to draw a box outline, either before or after, to set up the boundaries of the composition.

2.) Photoshoot. By this point, I have an general idea of what needs to be included for my reference photos. I either set up a photoshoot with models, props, and locations or I start to build the scene on the computer. Careful planning goes into making sure everything is placed consistently throughout the course of the shoot, otherwise you have to adjust it on the fly, which isn’t fun and can look off to the viewer in the end.

3.) Drawing. After some manual editing in Photoshop, I have at least one main image to work from. Now comes the detailed sketch. I’ve been drawing most of my life so this is the most relaxing part for me. It’s also where I have to work out any last alterations before I jump into the paint. The main goal for this step is arranging the values (darks and lights) and how they play off of each other. There’s an axiom in painting that says if you have the correct values, you can use any colors you want. I generally use graphite or charcoal and chalk to draw on toned paper. The medium value of the paper lets me add lights and darks without spending my time building up the grays.

4.) Color scheme. If I didn’t already have one in mind early on, I start looking for an special aspect of the painting to depict the appropriate mood. The color of the light dictates what the overall hue will be so the first decision I have to make is what time of day the scene takes place in or what kind of indoor lighting is present. I’ll then look for an object or some specific piece that I want to emphasize and start to work my way from there. I tend to work using a limited palette so I only need three or four colors plus white. I can mix the rest from those. I use all kinds of color setups including monochromatic (one), complimentary (opposite), and analogous (similar) themes.

5.) Color wheel. I like to make mini color wheels with the paint so I know what range I have to work from. If I see an orange in the scene but only have blues and greens on my palette, I need to find the closest color I can get to orange on my wheel. This takes skill, and artists spend years training their eyes to see colors in relative terms. This may seem arbitrary to some, and it may be for more abstract artists, but I’m fighting for realism.

6.) Color sketch. I spend the least amount of time on this part because I enjoy it the least, and I don’t want to waste my creative energy on it. It’s necessary, however, because I need to see how the colors mix together and how the mood of the entire painting will come across in the end – nobody wants a muddy mess. It’s also a practice run. It gets me loosened up for the final piece. My body tightens up during the painting process so I want to start off as relaxed as possible because you can see it in my brushwork.

Before I ever touch the canvas, I’ve already produced enough reference material that I don’t feel the need to guess or imagine anything. I have my thumbnail sketches, drawing, color wheel, color study, and photo references to work directly from. The rest is just recording the information.

7.) Canvas tinting and sketching. When the time comes to start the final painting, I still have to prepare the canvas. A blank white canvas is a scary thing so tinting it is the first step. Using a turpentine wash mixed with one or two colors, I cover the entire surface area quickly without purpose, changing up the direction of the brush strokes randomly. I mop up the wash in the areas that will have more light. Depending on the size of the canvas, I either sketch by hand or use a large grid to help place initial lines. Still using a wash, but with less turpentine, I start to sketch in the lines and big shapes. My goal is to find the correct proportions.

8.) Value painting. The next step is commonly called the grisaille – a monochromatic value layer. I continue to use a wash with one color to mark the areas of light and dark. The eye is easily fooled, and if I don’t do this now, the drama of the painting may not be as strong in the end. Many artists use this step as their value stage, followed up by adding color with glazes. It’s like coloring a drawing. The difference in my technique is that I use the value stage as a guide.

9.) Direct painting. Rather than adding transparent color glazes on top of a grisaille layer, I apply both color and value in one step. It’s more direct, dynamic, and is a bit like juggling. I am covering the layer below instead of adding to it. I do my best to get the brushstroke down and then never have to touch it again. From here on, there is a play between strong and soft edges, mixing, and light versus hard touches. In addition to juggling for the mind, this step is also like fencing for the hands. This is the hypnotic stage for me. An hour into painting, and I can get lost for the rest of the day.

My first attempt at an area usually has paint mixed in with some medium (oil, varnish, etc.) to get it to flow smoothly. Then, as I add more paint, I use less and less medium. This is the advantage of real paint vs digital paint (at the moment). The texture of the paint surface is the evidence of the painter’s hand.

Throughout the painting process, my eyes are constantly glancing at my references, carefully laying on paint, cleaning off my brush, mixing a new color on the palette, and then repeating. I focus on relatively small areas at a time so I can finish using a wet in wet process. I leave surrounding areas very unfinished so I can start loosely in those parts the next day. I want the entire painting to feel like I painted it in one sitting.

10.) Glazing. When the painting is finished, I let it dry a few days. Once it’s dry to the touch, I can unify specific areas with glazing if I need to. I mix a small amount of paint with my medium to paint a transparent layer. This is similar to adding a color filter in Photoshop.

11.) Varnishing. The last stage before photographing is adding a varnish. A final varnish can only be added months later after the paint has dried and cured, otherwise it will lead to cracking. A retouch varnish, however, can be added immediately after an area has dried to the touch. Along with spraying this type of varnish on throughout the process, I give it one final coat at the end. I prefer a satin finish, not too matte or shiny.

The painting is finally finished at this point. Yes, it’s a long process, and it’s one that hasn’t changed too much in my lifetime or in the centuries since oil painting began.

Sketching the idea.

  • stack of books
  • sketch for Undaunted Courage

Setting the mood.

  • color study for Undaunted Courage

Laying the foundation.

  • work in progress for Undaunted Courage
  • work in progress for Undaunted Courage

Finalizing the image.

  • work in progress for Undaunted Courage
  • work in progress for Undaunted Courage
  • work in progress for Undaunted Courage
  • work in progress for Undaunted Courage
  • Undaunted Courage painting by Ricky Colson