Cesar Santos on Classical Portraits

Classical portrait in oil step by step demonstration by contemporary classically-trained Cuban-American artist Cesar Santos.

I found this 2015 article at The Artist’s Network, where Cesar Santos leads us step by step through his process of creating classical portraits in oil, in this case, a self portrait.

Demonstration: Creating Classical Oil Portraits by Cesar Santos

Step One: Placing the Shapes

Step 1

On a 20×14 linen canvas, using charcoal, I marked the placement of shapes. For the construct stage I use a combination of Andrew Loomis’s system and Charles Bargue’s approach in Drawing Course. I’m measuring big distances, from the top of the head to the bottom of my beard and the width of the head, so that the smaller distances can fit within the space.

Step Two: Finding the Features

Step 2

Once the proportions look good, I start adding more information. I find the eye sockets, the nose and the rest of the features. My advice: If you have to put some value down to see proportion, better do it, but don’t fall into shading or rendering. Remember, this stage is to facilitate the painting’s process, so don’t put in unnecessary details.

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Step Three: Improving Shapes

Step 3

I want to take the drawing to a point where the viewer would recognize the individual and his mood. I double check the accuracy of shapes. With just proportions and a bit of form information, you’ll have all you need to start considering other elements like values and color. Before you start painting, however, make sure you fix the drawing by using a fixative spray.

Step Four: Massing in the Darks

Step 4

Since my canvas is white, I start by massing in the darks; otherwise, I won’t be able to judge the lights against the white of the canvas. Using burnt umber, I go over the beard, hair and coat.

Step Five: Mixing Flesh Colors

Step 5

Now I mix light red and white for the lights of the flesh. For the shadows in the flesh, I mix a darkish value using raw umber, a touch of Indian red and white. I paint the whole head using these two tints—mixing them to find the midtones; then I let this layer dry before moving on to the next step.

Step Six: Developing Color

Step 6

Having set myself up with good proportions, values, and a bit of muted color, I can now focus on developing richer coloring; thus, I go over the flesh in a direct manner with opaque paint as I look for the right values and colors—not focusing on rendering but just on bold, broken brushstrokes that describe the form and values of my reflection in the mirror. I let this layer dry. My advice: Always adjust and improve the drawing, or rather, the proportion and alignment, to express better artistic values.

Step Seven: Subtle Details

Step 7

After the previous stage has dried, I focus on refining all areas, piece by piece, improving the subtleties of value shifts and rendering the form. This is the time to describe the surface by painting wet into wet all the nuances of hues I perceive.

I also make sure the handling of the brush is in accordance with the area painted. For example, the beard deserves a different treatment than the skin or background.


Santos' Palette

Oils: Old Holland (OH); and Winsor & Newton (WN)

Palette: (right to left) titanium white (OH), yellow ochre pale (WN), raw umber (WN), light red (WN), cadmium red (WN), alizarin crimson (WN), terre verte (WN), ultramarine blue (OH), Indian red (OH) and ivory black (WN).

Brushes: No preference—the bigger the better

Canvas: Artfix Belgian linen, 84c

Meet Cesar Santos

His art education is worldly, his work seen around the globe, from the Annigoni Museum in Italy and the National Museum of China in Beijing to Chelsea, New York City. Santos studied at Miami Dade College, where he earned his associate of arts degree in 2003. He then attended the New World School of the Arts College before traveling to Florence, Italy to study at the Angel Academy of Art under Michael John Angel. His influences range from the Renaissance to the masters of the 19th century to contemporary art. Among Santos’s solo shows are “Syncretism” at Eleanor Ettinger Gallery (Chelsea) in New York; “Beyond Realism” with Oxenberg Fine Art in Miami, Fla. and “New Impressions” at the Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art in San Antonio. The artist has received numerous accolades, including first place in a Metropolitan Museum of Art competition. Visit his website at santocesar.com.

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