It’s been quite a while since I’ve documented an oil painting project, so I’m happy to announce that today begins a new oil painting series.

For the next few weeks, I’ll walk you step-by-step through the process of painting a large, “moment in time” portrait.

About the Subject

The subject for this demonstration is a portrait of the fabulous trotting wonder, Muscle Hill. The reference photograph shows Muscle Hill uncontested en route to winning the 2009 Kentucky Futurity at The Red Mile.

The photographer is Nigel Soult, who has been instrumental in the creation of more than one portrait. My thanks to Mr. Soult and to my client.

About This Series

The portrait is a 22×28 original oil on prepared panel. It was created using the Flemish method.

I’ll be documenting the creative process from beginning to end. Topics will include:

  • Developing the line drawing
  • Preparing the painting surface
  • Painting the umber layer
  • Painting the dead layer
  • Painting the color layer

There will also be tips on problem solving, painting individual elements, and staying motivated on large projects.

Let’s get started.

How to Create a Line Drawing for a Large Painting

Getting Ready to Draw

Muscle Hill Reference Nigel SoultHere’s my reference photo. I received a digital image for computer use, but also purchased an 11×14 print version for use during the painting process. I find working from a high quality print produces much better results than looking at the same image on a computer screen. For one thing, it’s easier on the eyes.

For another, a print can be clamped to the easel for easy reference.

But I also like digital references for enlarging details when necessary.

The first step was making a 1-inch grid on the photograph. I use PhotoShop to put a grid on digital images. It’s easier and more accurate than drawing a grid by hand, because my area of expertise is not technical drawing.

MS Reference Photo with Grid

I worked from an 11×14 inch reference photo. The portrait will be 22×28, so calculating the size of the full-size grid was easy. I just doubled the size.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time making these sorts of calculations with any painting, so my standard practice is to use a full size reference if the finished art will be 11×14 or smaller and to use a half-size reference photo for larger work.

Whenever possible, I also print a plain grid and begin drawing on that. Because this portrait is so large (22×28) I couldn’t print the entire grid. After trying to print it on multiple sheets and piece it together, I decided to print only the section containing the horse and driver. That fit onto a sheet of legal paper. The rest could be drawn by hand once I had an accurate drawing of the horse and driver.

I began the drawing with Verithin non-photo blue to sketch the horse, bike, and driver. It wasn’t pretty when I finished for the day, but at least all the major shapes were in place.

Next, I used Vermillion Red to revise the drawing, reshaping and refining where necessary and detailing where possible. I worked throughout the drawing, then concentrated on the near front hoof and leg. In that area, I began defining detail with shading. I also began using the enlargement without the grid, relying more on my eye to get the drawing right.

Line Drawing Development 01

I used the gridded drawing to check placement of shapes, but used the enlarged photo most.

To check the drawing after I’d nearly finished it, I put a piece of tracing paper on the reference photo and made a careful tracing of the horse and driver. I then compared the tracing to the drawing. Being able to see the “reference” as a line drawing helped isolate the areas on the freehand drawing that I needed to correct.

I worked through one round of changes, then photographed the drawing and continued revisions to the horse. After that, I finished the driver and bike, then made a new drawing on fresh tracing paper. At this point, I left the grid behind for good.

Line Drawing Development 02

Even though I was transferring an existing drawing to new paper, the process spanned two or three days. As usually happens, I found details to add or change, particularly with the driver, bike, and harness. Also, the drawing is full size, so there was a lot of transferring to do.

Once the drawing was transferred to tracing paper, I began working on it alternately from the front and from the back. I did the head first, working on it in reverse, then erasing the front and refining it one more step. That helped clarify the bridle and the shape and placement of the facial features and resulted in a much more pleasing drawing.

Next, the legs and body, then the harness and the rest of the drawing.

When the drawing was as finished as I could make it, I mounted it to a drawing of the background I did earlier. The purpose in doing a separate background drawing was that I wanted to change the position of Muscle Hill relative to the background in order to improve the composition and reduce the infield clutter. The easiest way to do that was to make two drawings so I could move the drawing of the horse around on the drawing of the background.

I also decided to leave out the big screen in the infield and the buildings in the background. I replaced the latter with a tree line, so needed to take those changes into account in finding a good composition.

It took a couple of attempts to find the best combination, but it was well worth the effort.

Preparing the Final Line Drawing

When I was happy with the composition, I transferred the two parts of the drawing  to fresh tracing paper. I worked on it in small periods of time, working section by section from the lower left hand corner to the upper right hand corner.

When the drawing was finished, including last minute refinements, I made a fresh drawing on opaque paper to be sent to the client for approval.

Finished Line Drawing of Muscle Hill

While waiting to hear back from the client, I prepped the painting surface. I’ll show how I did that in the next post.