Photorealism and Glazing Technique

Photorealism and Glazing Technique

Published On: 02-14-2013 08:10am

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I'm often asked about my "photo-realism" paintings.  So I thought I'd share a bit about the technique used to achieve such realistic images.  Keep in mind, this is simply of doing things, so don't take mine as the FINAL word on the subject.  Rather, read as much as you can about this technique and you will gleen valuable tidbits of information that you can use and adapt for your own creative needs.  OK, that said, here is a brief overview of the steps used in this technique:

1. Choose a photograph to work from.  While this sounds simple, it may, in fact, be the most critical part of the process.  It is generally easier to obtain those "eye-popping" results if you start with an image that has lots of contrast and depth, with areas of deep shadow and bright highlights, like my marbles photo below:


2. The Imprimatura Stage: This step is optional.  It consists of giving the primed canvas a very diluted layer of color to unify the colors in the composition.  Some will use a shade of reddish brown or yellow which gives the final painting a "warm" overall feel (particularly desirable for portraits).  Sometimes blue is used to give the painting a "cool" feel, to add a luminosity to shadows and enhance atmospheric perspective (as landscape features tend to take on a bluish hue the farther off they are in the distance).  I've even used a bright color such as yellow, orange or even red to achieve a more luminous feel (see my marbles painting, below).

3. The Grisaille: pronounced "griz-ay" (derived from the word "gray") is a detailed "monochromatic" under-painting (using only one color) over which the various colored glazes will be applied, but allowing the underlying value structure and details to show through.  Appearing like a black and white photograph at this point, all the basic values are present and even much of the detail.  It is almost like "drawing" with paint and, since I love to draw, I particularly enjoy this stage.  It is helpful to keep the values somewhat lighter than they would normally be (except for areas of deepest shadow) since the lighter ground under will yield brighter, purer colors in the final painting.  You may use a "tighter" or "looser" style for this under-painting, depending on how realistic you want your final image to appear.  If you want a more "photographic" look, you will want to faithfully reproduce both the areas of sharp detail as well as any out of focus or "blurred" areas in the photograph due to a shallow depth of field.  While the grizaille is often painted in shades of black, white and gray, since this is probably the easiest way to translate a full color image into a monochromatic one, other colors can be used instead (such as in my Marbles painting below):  

10364 Marbles: First Stage

4. Glazing: A glaze is an application of paint diluted with medium (i.e. turpentine, turpenoid, or water if acrylics or water based oils).  It is generally preferable to use "Transparent" colors for this glazing technique in order to let more of the under-painting show through.  This information can often be found on the paint tube.  If not, try checking the manufacturer's website.  While it is possible to use "Opaque" colors for glazing, they typically result in a more "foggy" appearance.  Also, since more medium must be used to achieve sufficient transparency to let the details of the under-painting to show through, there is a risk of over-thinning your paint, potentially resulting in insufficient bonding with the underlying layer and possible "flaking off" of the paint eventually. 

Glazes can be applied in many different ways.  I will often apply my glazes thicker and then thin them out by removing some of the paint with another brush, cotton swab, crumbled paper towel or even my finger (probably not the healthiest thing to do...and definitely no eating in the studio!) until I can see the details of the under-painting showing through while still retaining the desired color strength.  It's actually quite similar to applying make-up, or the process that was used in the past for "tinting" photographs. 

10365 Marbles: with glazes

There are many excellent reference books on the market that address the technical aspects of this glazing technique, such as  How to Paint Like the Old Masters by Joseph Sheppard and I would also highly recommend reading a bit about color theory prior to attempting this technique in order to get more predictable results.  Ultimately, however, the best way to learn is to experiment to see how various colored glazes interact.  There some very important technical "rules" to keep in mind though, at this stage:

  • Each glaze layer must be allowed to dry totally before applying the next.  This may take two to three weeks, or even longer if the paint layer is particularly thick with oil.  Otherwise you may dissolve or obliterate the prior glaze and wind up with muddy colors. I often let my monochromatic under-painting dry for some before applying glazes to make sure it it fully dry (after all the hard work it takes to do these detailed under-paintings, I don't want to take of damaging the under-painting).

5. Highlights:The final stage is where you add in your brightest highlights, such as the whiskers on my cougar painting, those little white dots in the eyes, and the white reflections in the marbles.  This is when the painting really "comes alive".  
This technique is not for one who wants quick results and immediate gratification however. Since each paint layer must be allowed to dry for several weeks, or even months (however long it takes for the paint to lose it's "tackiness") before adding the next, in order to be sure I don't obliterate my previous work.  For this reason, I am often working on several paintings at one time.  But I think you'll find the results are well worth it! 

Oh, one more important note: While many artists use photographs out of magazines and books etc. to learn this technique, as I did when starting out, you must never attempt to profit from the creative work of others unless you have obtained permission from the photographer.  Ultimately you will want to use your own photos to avoid copy-write infringement and experience the satisfaction of creating a piece that is your own.

Most of all...HAVE FUN!!!

See more examples of my photorealistic paintings at Tres Mundos Artistry (

Reader's Comments

By Guest on 11/15/2015 @ 04:13pm

Thank you

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