Carrie L. Lewis, Artist & Teacher

Helping You Create Art You Can be Proud Of

Oils – Keyodee Star – Classical Method

Reference Photo of Keyodee Star

This is Keyodee Star.

Odee, as he is affectionately known around the stable, is a Michigan bred Standardbred. His performance in 2009 (the year the photograph was taken) was good enough to make him State Champion for 2009 based on earnings.

The portrait was purchased at the 2009 Michigan Harness Horseman’s Association Benefit Art Auction. It was created using a classical painting method based on the technique used by the Flemish masters. This technique involves a series of layers beginning with a detailed drawing and progresses through a toning layer, an umber layer, a dead layer, a color layer, and a detail layer.

The Drawing

The first step in the process is creating an accurate drawing at full size. Thin drawing paper was taped to a panel the same size as the final portrait and the drawing was developed through several stages.

The finished drawing was submitted for client approval, then the portrait moved to the next stage.

Drawing of Keyodee Star

The Drawing Transfer & Prep

The drawing is transferred to the canvas panel, in this case oil primed linen mounted on a Baltic Birch panel.

The transfer is accomplished with graphite, then the drawing is made permanent on the canvas with a small brush and paint in a fast drying earth tone (burnt umber). The canvas is then set aside to dry.

Drawing of Keyodee Star on Canvas Panel

Preparing the Painting Surface

The final step in canvas preparation is the imprimatura. The imprimatura is a neutral tone rubbed over the surface of the entire painting after the drawing has completely dried. The purpose of the imprimatura is to provide a basic ground tone on which the painting will be created.

Imprimatura of Keyodee Star on Canvas Panel

The Umber Layer

The first step in the painting process is an umber layer. The umber layer is comprised of a single color, usually burnt umber (as shown here) or raw umber if I want a cooler color. Darks are created with thicker paint or several layers while lighter areas are either fewer layers or thinner layers. The lightest areas are the imprimatura showing through.

The goal is to establish lights and darks quickly without getting bogged down in details. I also attempt to create a painting good enough to stand on its own at this stage.

Once the umber layer is complete, it is allowed to dry from four to seven weeks.

Umber Layer of Keyodee Star on Canvas Panel

The Dead Layer

The next stage is called the dead layer and refers to the ‘deadness’ of the color. It’s not quite a black and white value study, but it’s very close.

For Odee’s portrait, I used black and white mixed a little bit of blue to give it a cool tone. A gold-yellow color could be used instead of the blue for a warmer tone. The decision on which color to used is based on the final colors of the painting. Odee is a warm red bay, so I went with a cool tone in the dead layer.

The dead layer is painted in sections. I began with the stall interior (as shown above) in the first segment, then worked on the exterior stall, then the horse.

Dead Layer Started of Keyodee Star on Canvas Panel

To finish the dead layer, I made whatever adjustments were necessary to fine tune the painting. Again, I wanted an image that was stand alone in detail and quality.

When the dead layer is complete, the painting is again allowed to dry for four to seven weeks. Because the colors used at this stage dry more slowly, it’s not uncommon for a painting to require eight or more weeks to fully dry at this stage.

Dead Layer Finished of Keyodee Star on Canvas Panel

Initial Color Glazes

Color work begins after the dead layer is completely dry and the first color is applied in thin, transparent glazes that appear to do little more than tint the dead layer.

In this photo, you can see where warm yellows were applied to the stall interior and the horse and cooler blue-greens were applied to the stall exterior. At this stage, the painting begins to advance in shorter work sessions with more dry time between because each glazing must dry completely before the next can be applied without damaging previous work.

First Glaze of Keyodee Star on Canvas Panel

This photo shows the portrait several glazes later. Each glaze darkens the overall colors, so I can manage lights and darks by adding glazes to each area or choosing to leave an area untouched.

I can also lighten glazes by rubbing them with cloth to spread them out more thinly or by lifting the color after it’s been applied, leaving a faint stain behind.

Second Glaze of Keyodee Star on Canvas Panel

Secondary Glazes

Glazing and color application continues until the portrait is as close to the reference images as possible. Adjustments are made at every stage and I am always on the watch for potential problems.

But I am also in contact with the client on a regular basis, listening for comments from them. In the case of Odee’s portrait, I had painted the exterior stall wall much too blue, but failed to see that because I was focusing on Odee. A request from the client resulted in a glaze of yellow over the exterior wall and the result was a more accurate representation of the stall color.

Third Glaze of Keyodee Star on Canvas Panel


This is the stage at which portraits finally begin to come to life. The detail stage!

Most of the painting has been finished with the glazing process. The big corrections and adjustments have been made. It’s time for the fine tuning details.

Details include highlights in all reflective surfaces such as the eyes, hardware on the halter and the reflected light on the halter. The mane and forelock received a little attention at this stage, as did the highlights on Odee’s and muzzle.

This work was completed after the last glaze had dried thoroughly. Once I was happy with the portrait, I photographed it and sent it to the client for approval and the painting was set aside to dry.

Third Glaze of Keyodee Star on Canvas Panel

This is the finished painting. It has progressed through the necessary rounds of adjustments and corrections requested by the client and by myself.

At each stage, it was allowed to dry completely and, for most of those drying periods, was in a location other than the studio, where it was out of sight. Keeping the painting out of my sight while it’s drying allows me to go back to it with a fresh eye, which allows me to spot any problem areas at each stage.

As with each previous stage, the final stage isn’t complete until the painting has dried at least four weeks. It then receives a final evaluation and, if it meets with my approval, my signature.

At that point, it’s ready for framing if I’m doing the framing for the client, or for shipment.


  1. Barry

    Very helpful! Thank you.

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