Oil Painting: Matthew Mitchell: Applying Rembrandt's Portrait Techniques

16 Jul 2007

Oil painter Matthew Mitchell adapts Rembrandt’s working method for his portraits spotlighting Americans serving in civilian or military roles in Iraq and Afghanistan.


by Karen Frankel

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Alexander Scott Arredondo
2005, oil on linen,
30 x 26. All artwork
this article collection 100 Faces of War Experience Project.

A few years ago, Massachusetts artist Matthew Mitchell was working as an illustrator and painting alla prima in oil for pleasure when he determined two things: First, that glazing and scumbling offer the opportunity to add more depth to a portrait, and second that “I found I was most happy when I was able to reduce an illustration to essentially just someone’s face.” These two ideas intersected in Mitchell’s current project, the 100 Faces of War Experience, a multiyear undertaking that will eventually encompass 100 portraits of people who have traveled from America into Iraq or Afghanistan to serve in either a civilian or military role during the recent wars. Mitchell conceived the idea for this nonprofit project in 2005, and from the beginning he sought to emphasize the importance of some traditional ideas in portraiture, including the scale of the pieces. “The paintings are done life-size,” says Mitchell. “The whole point of the show is to make a personality present both through the words written by the subjects and through the paintings—each portrait is always to be accompanied by words submitted by the person pictured.”

Mitchell’s portraits are, in large part, based on the techniques of Rembrandt. After spending two years looking at a reproduction of Rembrandt’s 1669 self-portrait, Mitchell realized that he never grew disenchanted with the expression of the sitter or the painting itself. This made him want to discover how the Dutch master worked, and the biggest lesson learned was the importance of layers. Rembrandt’s forms were built using many layers, and Mitchell asserts that the layers themselves were what Rembrandt was focusing on. This idea excited Mitchell because he had been painting wet-in-wet and putting down his colors directly. The layering of glazes offered new challenges. For instance, since the original color may be glazed several times, “conceiving the color becomes really tricky,” Mitchell explains. “I have to think about how it’s going to be influenced by subsequent layers in order to get the color I want in the final stage.” Rembrandt employed both the thin layers of a glaze and the thick layers of the impasto technique, which also strongly affected how he achieved a desired color. Mitchell follows the same process. “Because I scramble up the impasto with the end of my brush so the viewer can see down to the layer below, I have to think about how much color is going to be revealed as well as what color glazes are going to go on top of this thick layer.”

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Steve Mumford
2007, oil on linen, 30 x 26.

Mitchell’s palette is based on the suggestions of Michael Wilcox, who has written several books on color. Mitchell uses both a warm and a cool version of the primary colors, specifically cerulean blue and ultramarine blue, quinacridone red and cadmium red, and cadmium yellow medium and Hansa yellow. “I would have never found Hansa yellow without Wilcox,” says Mitchell. “It’s a very good cool mixing yellow.” Burnt sienna, burnt umber, yellow ochre, lamp black, ivory black, and titanium white round out his palette. He works on portrait-grade 26"-x-30" canvases so his depictions can be life-size.

Although Mitchell likes to work from life, his paintings for the 100 Faces project are usually done from photographs. “When I meet the people for the project, we sit down and I just let them talk about who they are and whatever else they like,” he explains. “At the end of the session, I ask them to stand up so I can take a photo. The result is a kind of candor in the photograph, something unusual.” Mitchell prints out the photos immediately so he can add his impressions from the conversation to the images.

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Pablo Rodriguez
2005, oil on linen, 30 x 26.
Lyle Phipps
2005, oil on linen, 30 x 26.

He prepares his canvas with gesso and then executes an underpainting. The artist coats the surface with a mixture of a little cerulean blue and a gray, resulting in a medium tone upon which he can draw using a darker blue-gray mixture or an umber. Because the portraits in 100 Faces are very straightforward, he composes them right on the canvas. “The technique I’m using allows for a lot of subtle changes as I build up layers so, if I want, I can rearrange things a little bit,” he says.

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Tanya Karst
2005, oil on linen, 30 x 26.

After painting in the basics of the head, Mitchell applies a thick layer of impasto in very bright colors. “These are colors you can usually see in people’s faces,” explains the artist. “There are reds in the cheeks and the nose, and different reds in lips. Yellows around the eye-socket areas and cerulean blues around the forehead are generally visible. Although there are many variations in those colors in different people’s faces, you can count on some of them being in every face.” As he creates the impasto, the thick paint starts to define the forms of the face. Mitchell leaves certain sections, such as the eyes and parts of the cheeks, smooth. He puts a dryer, such as Liquin, Galkyd, or linseed oil that has manganese, in the impasto so he can begin sculpting it the next day. Using a palette knife or the opposite end of a brush, the artist goes back into the impasto, scraping paint off. Mitchell points out that the sculpting creates texture where highlights may stand out—literally. Raised areas in the painting catch the light.

The sculpting also reveals the ground and gives a sense of pores to the skin. “There’s a direction or flow to people’s skin, and I try to create a sense of space by working with that,” he says. When the impasto layer is completely dry, Mitchell glazes the painting with a thin mixture of burnt umber, then he judiciously rubs off the glaze. “The glaze color rests in the pores, in the texture of the paint,” he says. “This is something you see a lot in the work of Rembrandt and his contemporaries—they put a glaze over things and then selectively rubbed down the surface. It results in a subtle sense that those parts are coming forward.”

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Scott Palmer
2005, oil on linen, 30 x 26.

For black sitters, Mitchell uses an additional glaze of violet to capture the purple undertones of their complexions. He treats the violet glaze in the same way as the umber glaze—wiping it on, then wiping it off in select places.

When the underpainting is complete, and before he puts on the final colors of the flesh, Mitchell draws in the darker shadows, the dark of the nostrils, and the line of the mouth. “Painting the darks before the final flesh tones is important because the look of the scumble—the dragging of the light paint over the dark paint—is another way to add a sense of layering,” says the artist. “That creates the sense of things coming up from down below that you see in old portraits.”

The artist paints the final flesh tones very lightly. “Usually there’s a little bit more glazing in the fleshtone areas where I might have painted too brightly, in areas that I want to recede a little bit, or where I want to have a little bit of a different color cast,” he says. Mitchell paints in the last highlights—the whitest whites that he can use on the face—when he’s almost finished.

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Nicholas B. Chavez
2005, oil on linen, 30 x 26.

While he’s waiting for the paint to dry on the face, the artist will often start working on the rest of the painting; he may use a variation of his layering technique on other sections of a painting as well. In Lyle Phipps, for example, he did a full underpainting of the shirt. “I began the shirt in very light whites and grays,” he explains. “Then I very lightly glazed on top of that with umbers and different colors to bring out the shadows.” Next, he wiped the glaze off so just a little bit of paint rested in parts of the work. Lyle’s shirt was completed in only three layers, as opposed to the nine or 10 layers needed for some parts of the head.

It takes Mitchell about a week to paint a portrait; he is usually working on several at the same time. “I work an hour or so on one and then switch to another,” he explains. The busy schedule is a labor of love. “I always wanted to be an artist,” says Mitchell. “It was the central thing in my mind, always, to draw and paint. To be able to do that seemed like the best thing in the world, for as long as I can remember.”

About the Artist
Matthew Mitchell lives and works in Amherst, Massachusetts. He paints on the second floor of a barn on his property; his wife, illustrator Rebecca Guay-Mitchell, has her studio on the first floor. Originally from Minnesota, Mitchell spent a year studying biology/premedical illustration at Iowa State University, in Ames, before attending Pratt Institute, in New York City. After graduation, he collaborated with artist Perre DiCarlo and local community gardeners to build a stone amphitheater in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He then worked as a cabinetmaker and a welder, painting in his free time. He then worked as an illustrator for 10 years before choosing to paint portraits in 2004. For more information on Mitchell, contact him through the 100 Faces project website at www.100facesofwarexperience.org.

Karen Frankel is an award-winning writer/producer of corporate videos and a corporate speechwriter living in New York City.

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on 6 Sep 2007 1:28 PM
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charles a carnahan wrote
on 13 May 2008 12:33 AM
? do you teach any workshops if so when and where. dates, and how much please respond thank you allen carnahan