XXXI Paintings Varnished & Photographed! (Part One) by Michael Monaghan

In July I did a project called XXXI where I painted a new painting from life every day for 31 days.

It was mostly just to reinforce the importance of painting from the life to myself as often for commissions and personal work I will work from photography.

Painting from life forces you to organise and compress information in a way that you don’t have to when you’re working from photographic reference and, for me, that abstraction is something I love about painting; seeing how artists throughout history have taken information and translated it through paint.

These are 10 of the 31 paintings varnished, photographed and ready to be sold so if you’d like to buy one then send me an email at michael@michaeljamesmonaghan.com !

Daily Painting #2 by Michael Monaghan

I kept it nice and simple with this morning’s warm up- a bulb of garlic and a chilli pepper.

I suppose there’s a reason that food is so ubiquitous in still life but I don’t know what it is. I could theorise on why? Something something, lifegiving, something, visceral relationship, blah blah, so on and so forth. When I think about the abstract concept of interesting still life paintings I definitely don’t jump straight to food but then when I actually start to browse still life paintings I love a huge majority of them are paintings of food… so go figure? I particularly love paintings of oranges. I’m working on a big piece at the moment that has oranges in it simply for that reason. I just think they’re beautiful.

This one’s just a tiny sketch (6” x 8”)

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Daily Painting #1 by Michael Monaghan

So, the idea was to post on Monday but I got a bit waylaid with other things… however in future that won’t happen! (It will).

I’d like a bit of regularity with what I post here so I thought doing a daily painting post once a week, on a Monday might be a good idea. Monday morning is when I’d usually do whatever for an hour or two just to warm up.


This Monday I decided to warm up by painting a bag of flour and as is often the case with these quick little paintings from life, you encounter one element or more that stumps you. For me it was the inside of the bag… I generally prefer things with a flowing natural form like faces, plants, landscapes but the creases on the inside of the bag proved a bit of a conundrum because they were these tight little geometric triangles and any abstraction just looked a bit lacking. If this was something I was planning to come back to I’d probably have spent time focussing on working into those little polygons but this is alla prima!

Painting wet-into-wet calls for abstraction and that’s why I love the process but yeah… some things are better left and came back to.

What I landed on, after a bit of hopeful scraping with a palette knife, was dropping the value of the inside of the bag and ‘cheating it’. That value shift helped to divert attention away from the opening and toward the body of the bag but still, it’s only been a month or so off of painting from life every day and I’m already feeling rusty!

I also painted a couple of skulls too using this miniature resin skull I have on my desk. They’re fun, quick little warm ups but I paint that little skull a lot so if you see it reappear you’ll know I’ve run out of ideas that day.

Next Monday, daily painting, on time… maybe!

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

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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.

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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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.