Process - Alla Prima Portraiture and Mass Drawing. by Michael Monaghan


Process is one of my favourite things to read about. I love learning how the sausage gets made… for lack of a better phrase.

There’s no trick to making a painting work- some do, some don’t. That’s life. What you can do with an effective process however is channel the chaos of that early part of a painting into something productive and get on to the job of actually painting.

I’ll try and do a few of these process posts using different lighting and models but for this one the model is top lit using a a warm artificial light to create a chiaroscuro effect.


Step One

For this sketch I’m using a cheapo canvas board that I scrubbed with Ivory Black thinned with medium*.

  • I use 50% Linseed Oil and 50% Gamsol


Step Two

I make a ‘drawing mix’ of Cadmium Red and Ivory Black and at this stage I’m basically just looking to place the head on the canvas.

You should really only be thinking about the big relationships between the shapes you see and not the minutiae that make up your sitter’s face.

Get the big shapes right and the rest will follow!


Step Three

What I’m doing here is laying in my preliminary darkest and lightest marks.

Doing this helps set a rough range early on in the painting to work within for both value and colour.

I find that, when drawing with mass, laying in these marks early helps greatly with relating abstracted shapes to one another later.


Step Four

This is where your sitter should really start to appear.

I mix up one simplified tone* and treat the shadow shapes of my sitter as a unified shape.

  • It’s usually a kind of opaque reddish combination of Cadmium Red, Yellow Ochre and Ivory Black although in this instance I cooled the mix with some Ultramarine Blue.


Step Five

For this step I lay in a local flesh tone. That is the colour that best describes your sitter’s skin tone in neither light nor shadow.

Annabelle’s skin tends more toward yellow than red and although I aim for one unified tone I do try and accommodate the fall-of-light* into my thinking.

  • The subtle shift in value as the lit areas relate to the light source (ie the forehead is lighter than than the chin etc.)


Step Six

Now you have your basic facial shapes blocked in it’s time to start finding the half tones. It’s important at this early point not to drag your marks into one another too much so as not to muddy your colours.

At this stage I’ll look, mix a responding colour, look again and lay down my mark on the canvas.

Finding these half tones successfully is what will give your painting the illusion of three dimensions.


Step Seven

Using the same principles as your facial block-in from earlier I’ll just look for a basic representative colour to block-in the hair and shoulders.

As with the face, think more in terms of big shapes first.

Usually at this point I’ll adjust the ‘silhouette’ of my sitter as the relationships tend to shift throughout the early part of the painting.


Step Eight

Most of the painting at this point is the search for more half tones to better give the illusion of three dimensions.

This is where edge control starts to enter into my thinking. Which edges are hard and which are soft?

To soften an edge I’ll either find a connective half tone or drag two adjacent marks into one another using a soft dry brush.


Step Nine

The same as finding depth in the face is dependant on accurately representing the half tones, these tonal representations are what gives hair it’s illusion of weight.

Blonde hair is a conundrum because it’s basically every colour except blonde!


Step Ten

Here I’ve just softened the transitions in the hair and placed the missing eye.

There’s no point in having a beautifully painted eye if it doesn’t convincingly sit in the head of whoever’s eye it is- that’s why I tend to leave the eyes until last.


Step Eleven

This is the point where reliance on process ends and each painting starts to throw up its own unique problems.

If you have a reliable process then you can focus most of your time with a model (or just at the easel in general) on solving the idiosyncratic challenges that each sitter throws up.