How To: Paint a Portrait with Greg Mason

How To: Paint a Portrait with Greg Mason

Posted by Cass Art on 16th Mar 2018

Cass Art Professional Ambassador Greg Mason is building up quite a following! A semi-finalist in 2018s Sky Art's Portrait Artist of the Year, he is also a regular finalist in the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and Royal Portrait Society competitions. He currently works from his studio in Exeter as a professional artist and teaches a variety of workshops to those wishing to develop their skills in oil painting.

We're delighted to have Greg share his incredible insight into oil painting portraiture with us for this How-To blog. Taking inspiration from his time spent in Farindola in Italy, he's given us a step by step guide, accompanied by photos of his oil painting coming to life. Over to you Greg.....

About the portrait: The painting I’m going to focus on here is of Giulia. Although this was created quite recently in my Exeter studio using the new Cass Art Artists' Oil Paints, the process began last summer whilst on residency as part of an international arts festival based in Farindola, Italy. The small town we stayed in had been hit by a significant tragic event in January 2017. An avalanche had killed 29 people as 60,000 tons of snow fell on on Rigopiano Hotel just a few kilometres away. The town was still in shock, as many of those who worked in the hotel were from this small tight-knit community. Giulia lost her cousin and several friends that day and was one of a series of amazingly resilient people who visited my studio in the month I was there. During my stay I got the real sense that the town was rebuilding itself, finding new work for those who had lost jobs and continuing with their traditional festivals as a way of holding on to hope and celebrating life. Giulia and her friend Paulo acted as compares at an evening musical festival. She wore the outfit shown in the painting. The striking red skirt, turban and converse pumps were a real statement of colour and life - so this is how I decided to paint her.

Step One: The process began with a set of photographs in my earthquake damaged studio. The temperature was hitting 40 degrees every day but I had great light in the space which I could moderate with slatted shutters. Whilst playing around with different poses and situations there was a moment when the light through the shutters hit her dress, she was turned away from the light but still caught in it. In her pose she looks down in contemplation but is clothed in colour. The sadness and hopefulness came together in that moment and I knew that would be the composition for my painting. Having recorded the moment in a photograph, the next decision is which canvas . I like to paint heads at a certain size - around 5 to 8 inches - and I knew that the full figure needed to be represented in the whole space so I opted for one of the large deep edge Cass Art canvases at 80 x 100cm.

Step Two: The next step involves transferring the drawing and I do this in a number of ways, depending on speed and situation. I love working from life, but when this isn’t practical I either use a grid or sighting from reference to lay down the structure and key planes of the face, body and interior. I don’t like to overwork this stage as it’s just a baseline for what comes next, but it’s also foundational for retaining accuracy later on. Also, on a practical level, too much graphite on the canvas can muddy your colours as it tends to blend with the oil layers and eliminated the chromatic values.

Step Three: Once I’m happy with the drawing I put out two oil colours, Ultramarine Blue and Raw Umber from the new Cass Art Artists Oil Colour range and using a large flat brush with a little Liquin medium to help the flow, I block in the key tonal values with a generalisation of warm and cool areas - blue for cool, brown for warm. The Liquin aids faster drying and also seals in the free graphite from the original drawing. I make a conscious effort to keep this stage loose and packed full of energetic brush strokes - I want to keep the feeling that I am still there in that moment, reacting spontaneously to the scene in front of me. A lot of this underpainting will remain in the finished work if it is good enough.

Step Four: Finally it’s time to bring out the full pallete of oil colours. I use Titanium White, Permanent Yellow Deep, Cadmium Red Light, Alizarin Crimson, Cerulean Blue Hue, Ultramarine Blue, Raw Umber, Ivory Black and sometimes add Lemon Yellow and Ultramarine Violet to extend the options, all from the new Cass Art Artists Oil Colours. For brushes I head to the Cass Art Grey Synthetic selection which I’ve found to be really dependable. They hold paint well, and stand up to punishment. The flats in particular offer great versatility between sharp lines and the ability to block in quickly and without fuss.

Step Five: When painting in colour (having established a neutral underpainting) it’s often a good idea to begin with the strongest colour and in this particular piece I knew that the red in the turban and skirt would be a make or break component - so I started there. The Cadmium Red Light is really vibrant, it did a great job - sometimes I blended with Alizarin Crimson to achieve a cooler red and sometimes with yellow for greater saturation. These subtle differences were enough to define the planes and surfaces facing the window as distinct from those in shadow.

Step Six: Moving on to the face, I tried not to ‘think pink’ for flesh, but rather to look and say to myself ‘is that a blue tone’ or ‘is that a green tone’, or what is the chromatic relationship between the skin and what sits next to it. Painting is all about looking hard and not relying on what you think you know. In this way I look to keep the work authentic to the moment. A light pass on the background reinforced some of the tonal values and hues I had laid down to begin with and then I moved through to the arm and feet.

A session might last about 3 hours - just enough to drive into one of the key areas, take and break and have a moment to reflect on the progress of the piece. Thinking time is just as important as painting time, as long as procrastination doesn’t set in. I’m a great believer in the notion that asking yourself the right questions while you paint is the source of making a good piece of work.

I love teaching artists to have this kind of reflective practice, whilst building up the skills that allow them to make stronger work. If you are interested in developing your oil painting skills there will be lots of workshop options to study with me at Cass Art Islington during April. For those who want a more in-depth learning experience I’m hosting several painting holidays in France this summer and the one at on June 24th still has some places left.

Finally, I let the painting sit in my studio for a few weeks when it’s close to finished - just so that I can look at it fresh every morning to see if any aspect jumps out at me as requiring further resolution. If not.... it’s done.

Thanks Greg!

Feeling inspired? 

See more of Greg’s work at