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Paint a Portrait using the Transparent Monochrome Oil-Painting Technique

Posted on Fri 16 Aug 2013

Demonstration Ansley by Molly Schmid


  • A high-quality canvas or panel primed with a non-absorbent primer.
  • A variety of both hard and soft bristle brushes in all shapes and sizes.
  • Cold-pressed linseed oil; if your linseed oil has thickened over time, you can use a very small amount of varnish to achieve a good consistency.
  • A tube of oil paint, the darker the better unless you plan to do a high key painting.
  • Absorbent, lint-free rags or paper towels and cotton buds


The first step involves the canvas. I use high-quality linen, custom double lead primed (extra fine). Your canvas is going to act as your absolute lightest value, so I cannot emphasise how critical it is that you work on a smooth, non-absorbent, high-quality canvas. This technique won’t work if you’re using an inexpensive, gesso-type canvas. The texture of the canvas is important, as well. Smooth is better, especially if you're painting people. You don't want your subject to look as though they have a bad case of acne because of bumps on the canvas.

Once you have a good piece of canvas stretched tightly, apply a very thin layer of cold-pressed linseed oil. Scrub it on with a large brush, then wipe or blot off any excess with an absorbent rag or paper towel. Be careful not to use anything that's going to leave a lot of lint or fibres behind. Your working surface needs to stay as clean as possible. Scrape off any debris with a clean palette knife if necessary.

After applying the film of linseed oil, use a dry brush to scrub on a thin layer of oil paint. Do not dilute with any type of solvent or medium – you’ll quickly lose control of your paint. After scrubbing on a light layer of paint, I took a rag and removed some paint to get a light tone where Ansley’s profile was going to be positioned on the canvas. The idea was to remove pigment from the canvas to achieve the lighter values


After I had put down a light to medium tone on my canvas, I started laying out features. I began with the eye because it provided a convenient unit of measurement and enabled me to place the other features of her face correctly. I spent a great deal of time measuring and placing pigment in the right areas so that I wouldn’t have to go back and rework areas too much later on.

I applied the paint very thinly, using little paint and wiping most of it off my brush before touching the canvas. As I placed paint I blended and spread it on to the canvas (imagine sculpting with paint), moving and removing pigment as necessary to achieve the different values that will eventually define the image. Using a clean, dry set of brushes I used blending techniques such as stippling, dry brushing and feathering. I was very careful to remove excess paint from my brushes using a dry cloth (no solvents)


I wanted to establish my darkest dark and lightest lights early on, so I removed all pigment, getting back to the bare canvas to define the cheek area, which was bathed in light. I used my clean cloth to wipe off the area that would become the cheek and temple and cotton buds for the nose. I then applied an opaque layer of paint to both define the profile and establish some depth in the background. Once I had the skin appearing soft and smooth, and the eyes, nose and mouth well established and almost finished, I left it alone.

When the linseed oil and paint have begun to set it is difficult to rework. Because I started with thin, scant amounts of paint and used a lot of dry brushing techniques the surface of this painting began to set quickly


I began to establish the other features – chin line, ear, hairline and the top and back of the head. I continued to work carefully – not too loose or fancy-free.

The intermediate stage is where mistakes can be hard to correct, so the idea is to not make too many. To establish the hairline at the forehead, I mixed a small amount of linseed oil with a tiny amount of paint and carefully applied the mixture with a sable brush (still staying thin) but I didn’t do any blending. I used this mixture because I knew I was going to tackle the hair last and I needed to work on a fluid surface; I wanted to be able to be a bit more painterly with the hair and allow the medium to help define the texture


Once I had Ansley’s facial features rendered to my satisfaction I was able to relax and begin to move around the canvas freely. In addition to working on the hair, I began to manipulate the background, which helped to establish the composition


I was almost finished at this point. I had been working for about six hours. I’m a slow and deliberate painter. I’ve watched other artists knock out brilliant paintings in a snap. Not me. My advice is to work at whatever pace gets you great results


Things began to come together very quickly here. I made the necessary adjustments to the facial features: I trimmed a little off the chin and made the nostril area bigger.

I was able to fix things by adding brushstrokes, not by taking away paint, thank goodness, as taking away paint in the delicately painted facial area at this stage could have been disastrous. I also used some careful dry brushing with a minuscule amount of paint slightly darkening the area under the chin and around the front of her face to correct those values.

Adjustments to her shoulder angle gave the proper posture (no slouching for this young lady). I could have fudged her features a little and got away with it, but I wanted her parents to recognise her


Ansley, oil on canvas, (30.5x40.5cm)
Ansley had very dark hair with a large flat bow in her bun. I knew from the beginning that I would replace them with a cascade of ribbons and flowers. To do this, I used a rather unconventional tool – a clean makeup sponge. I dipped the tips in turpentine, squeezed out the excess and then erased the paint to form little circles, streaks and dabs. I gently blotted those areas with a clean paper towel, which allowed me to get back to the pristine white of the canvas. From there, I could work back into the area to form flowers and ribbons

Molly Schmid is the daughter of the artist Richard Schmid and has a degree in fine art from Florida State University. Molly’s work is in the permanent collection of the State of Florida, as well as private, corporate, and museum collections, and she has been commissioned throughout the United States and Canada. Her emphasis is on classical, representational oil painting. Molly also acts as Executive Vice President for Stove Prairie Press, an independent publishing company founded by her father.
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This demonstration is taken from the September 2013 issue of The Artist

Read more about this technique and Molly's top tips in the full feature

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Coming next month: Still life with cat by Molly Schmid

Paint a Portrait using the Transparent Monochrome Oil-Painting Technique


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