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Step-by-Step Demo of a Figure Painting in Oil by Thomas Sheehan

Step-by-Step Demo of a Figure Painting in Oil by Thomas Sheehan

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Thomas Sheehan puts a thoroughly contemporary face on iconic subjects and timeless states of mind. In this free excerpt from “Theatrical Light” by Ruth K. Meyer in Magazine (March 2013), Sheehan offers a step-by-step breakdown of how he painted Justine (below, right; oil, 48×24), playing with light and color along the way.

Play With Light and Color
by Thomas Sheehan

The first step for any of my pieces is to shoot strong photographic references. This is especially important for portrait and figurative work because my painting process is so time intensive that painting with a live art model from start to finish would be difficult. I sketch a layout and then shoot hundreds of photographs (with a model, when the piece calls for it), carefully managing the lighting and choice of props and clothing. I then select elements of these photos (best eyes, hands, folds and so forth) and put together a final layout in Photoshop, from which I create an 8×10-inch printout to mount on my easel. From this reference material, I create a drawing on the canvas and then paint the picture. For the last stage of a portrait or figurative work, I have the model return for a final sitting, during which I’ll add the detail and personality I could never capture in photos.


Step-by-step Demo:

1. Tone the canvas: After coating and sanding my canvas with three layers of acrylic gesso, I toned the canvas with gum turpentine, ultramarine blue, Mars black and burnt umber to a midrange value to soften the harshness of the pure white gesso; without this toning layer, the stark contrast of the white gesso and the paint colors would make getting an accurate read on the value of my colors difficult.


2. Create an outline: After lightly sketching the figure on the canvas, I painted the outline in white (on a lighter background I might use raw umber). I sketched an extra right arm at a more extreme angle as another option to the layout.


3. Establish direction: I started painting the left side of the figure in quite a bit of detail. I wasn’t sure how tight I wanted the painting or exactly what my color scheme would be. At this point the painting was nothing more than an overly elaborate, time-consuming sketch.


4. Continue roughing in: When I was finally satisfied with the direction I wanted to take, I moved on to the head, face and right arm. I’d decided that the raised right arm appeared awkward, so I roughed in the other right arm.


5. Block in background: More confident in my direction, I blocked in the background with a combination of ivory and Mars blacks, ultramarine blue, raw umber and burnt sienna. At this point I was considering a beach scene with gently rolling waves behind the figure.


6. Detail fabric: I used the ultramarine and cobalt blues of the draping to balance the warm skin tones. Those cool colors reflecting onto the figure also provided transition.


7. Make adjustments: At this point I’d addressed all parts of the painting, but I could see that the background was distracting. I decided to discard the beach and waves. I also had my model return so I could make critical refinements to the facial details.


8. Finish: Referring to the model, I made additional color changes to the torso and fabric. After making slight adjustments to the background, Justine (above; oil, 48×24) was finished.

A self-taught artist residing in Oak Park, Illinois, Thomas Sheehan has been working in oil and pastel for most of his career. For years he was by day an advertising creative director and by night a driven artist, and his award-winning classical style evolved through trial and error. Abandoning advertising in 2003 to work full time in fine art, he spent two years painting in France before returning to the United States. In addition to creating commissioned works and portraits, Sheehan exhibits his work in major outdoor art festivals, which give him opportunities to interact with interested viewers across the country. To see more of his work, visit Read the full feature article in Magazine (March 2013).

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Watch the video: Oil painting techniques: Blending and brushwork (June 2022).


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