My first dead layer painting – Two Mushrooms

Check out the category “dead layer” for more paintings using this technique.

This was my first serious try with using a monochromatic “dead layer” which was later glazed over with color. I’ve tried some glazing stuff before but I really had no idea what to do so it didn’t work out very well. This time I used the technique put forth by Alexei Antonov which uses 7 layers to (hopefully) yield a glowing painting that’s not physically possible to do without the transparent glazes. Plus “dead layer” sounds cool and is fun around Halloween, which is when I started this 🙂

Here’s the finished painting, this is “Two Mushrooms” by Airn LeBus, oil on panel, 10×8 inches, 2009:

Two Mushrooms dead layer oil painting

There are 3 free tutorials on artpapa.com, one of Antonov’s sites; I had to bounce back and forth between the apple and rose one and also peek at the forums and do other internet searching to feel more confident I understood what I was supposed to do. I still ended up being a bit confused and not sure if I was following the instructions correctly. Antonov’s paintings are really breathtaking by the way, I would certainly call him a modern master and feel comfortable taking his painting advice.

Here are 4 stages of this painting, including the shadow layer, dead layer, a later color layer stage, and the final painting which changed a bit from the initial plan:

Two mushrooms painting stages

Some of the Two Mushrooms painting stages

I deviated in what I hoped were unimportant ways from his tutorials and guidelines, including using panel rather than canvas, using Galkyd at one point and bleached linseed oils, etc…I think much of his technique is designed to yield paintings that will last for centuries, but for this painting that’s not my top priority, I just wanted to try glazing with step-by-step instructions.

Planning

I chose mushrooms as the subject of this painting for a few reasons: since the drawing could be simple and I could get to the actual painting quickly, because they are weird and cool, and because I was visualizing them looking great glazed so they are a bit luminous and glowing when the light bounces off the brighter underlayers through the transparent layers of color.

I looked at some pix of mushrooms on the internet and did some quick sketches of them, then did some little thumbnails and decided on the composition and perspective. I was in a rush to start the painting so I just slapped something together…that’s pretty much been the case with all my paintings except the very recent ones, I was just so eager to paint for the first year or so I just started the painting without much planning.

Imprimatura layer

I drew the mushrooms on the panel in pencil and then in sepia ink, I just used a Micron pen. I put a ton of Turpenoid for the 1st layer (“imprimatura”) and it didn’t bind properly…it had plenty of time to dry but came off the panel when touched with a finger. I then re-did the imprimatura with approx 50% Turpenoid and 50% bleached linseed oil…that time it worked better.

Shadow layers

Next layer in Antonov’s technique is the 1st shadow layer…I did this with just burnt umber, Galkyd Light, and linseed oil. It dried quickly to a enamel-like finish which was probably not ideal. FYI I don’t normally use Galkyd, but wanted this to dry extra fast. I believe the point of the shadow layer is more for archival reasons, in some other paintings I have started recently I skipped that layer and went from imprimatura to the dead layer.

I repeated the process as above for the second shadow layer. At that point I was still not really sure how I was going to do the ground area around the mushrooms, but I wanted it to be pitted and worn stone. Of course it would have been better if I had planned out everything first.

Dead layer

Next came the dead layer. I ended up doing this in several sessions, it ended up being more like two dead layers. Before starting I tried rubbing an onion on the panel as instructed in the Antonov how-to guides and “oiled out” with bleached linseed oil, which I normally use. In some of the sessions my color mixture was more olive in tone…I used yellow ochre light, red ochre, titanium white, and ivory black. It was a bit frustrating to be honest, I was concerned about keeping the paint thin and smooth so it would dry quickly and so there would not be rough spots later when I glazed over it…I also regretted the lack of planning since I wasn’t really sure what to do on the ground around the mushrooms. The dead layer also did not always offer the coverage I was expecting, which is one reason I said it was somewhat frustrating. Overall the paint just wasn’t responding the way I wanted it to, the enamel-smooth surface due to the Galkyd was probably the main factor. I have started two other paintings on panel since this one where I did a dead layer in raw umber and titanium white over an imprimatura (no shadow layer) and those went on nice and easy (Christmas Angel and Dream City Girl). With those I used some Turpenoid and oil in the imprimatura but then just a tiny bit of oil or no medium at all for the dead layer.

Color layers

In any case I wasn’t too happy with the results and decided to move on to the color layers…the dead layer part was not as complete as it probably should have been. I let this painting sit a couple weeks while I finished The Well III, Cracky-Chan, and Dream City #1, and then thought about what to do for this to make it better. I decided it would look cool and mesh well to include a thin layer of water so it looked like a pond or swampy area in which the mushrooms were growing. I tried to find some good reference photos on the web but didn’t come up with anything good…so I ended up just kind of guessing what it might look like.

I tried to “oil it out” but the oil just pooled on the smooth, enamel-like surface of the painting…rubbing an onion slice on the dried painting did seem to help the oil absorb in better. I rubbed it in with my finger and then wiped off the excess with a paper towel. I was glad that I used less toxic paints because I used my finger for blending a lot in this session…I was using titanium white and cadmium yellow light hue which I think is less toxic than cadmium paints, it doesn’t actually have any cadmium in it. A lot of painters have said flake i.e. lead white is crucial and that titanium white will not cut it…I don’t believe them yet 🙂

After I added a water droplet, darkened the background, started adding the swampy water effects, and added a layer of cadmium yellow light hue and more shading on the mushrooms I started to get much more excited about this painting…see the image in the lower left of the painting stages photo above.

More planning and major changes

I decided to let it dry a week or so before continuing, since I was not sure exactly how to add the water highlight / reflections for a swampy / murky look…there would be some trial and error and I wanted to be able to wipe off mistakes without affecting what I already put down. At this point it didn’t look like water so much as a mist hovering over the ground.

Since I wasn’t sure how to proceed I again tried looking at a bunch of paintings and photos of swampy areas but wasn’t able to find much. I imported a photo of the painting into Photoshop and spent a pretty good amount of time trying different things and finally came up with something that seemed OK.

I had realized from looking at some Bouguereau paintings containing water and stuff by other artists that the surrounding area was very important to clue the viewer in that it’s supposed to be water. I decided that having the whole painting covered in shallow water would not be as good as having a rock or earth edge to add contrast and further suggest to the viewer that these were mushrooms growing in a kind of swampy pond or deep puddle. Later I found a slightly similar pond area in real life to what I was trying to paint but photos and observation of it again weren’t very helpful. I’m often trying to create these very dark and dramatic lighting effects without a reference, so I’m just kind of guessing as I paint as to how it should look. I’m getting over the laziness and working more on learning what something might actually look like in that lighting, for instance I could have created a scene with some of the properties of what I was painting and lit it similarly in a dark room…in this case I guessed and that caused me some trouble. Of course it also makes sense to do studies and planning first for the tone of the painting, I’ve been doing that more in Photoshop lately so that the tougher-to-change oil painting does not need to be altered. In Antonov’s technique the shadow layer also helps plan that tonality out in monochrome so you can easily set up and alter the light and shadow areas of the painting.

I liked the way the rocks came together, they were pretty quick too and fun to paint. In the last couple sessions I glazed over most of the background and a lot of the water area with raw umber in a fair amount of bleached linseed oil, this really helped to unify stuff and overall helped the painting a lot. I added some yellow to the water droplet which was too white, added my signature, and finally decided I was done (about 3 months after I had started). I put a layer of retouching varnish over it a week or so after I finished it. In a year or so when the paint is completely dry I will use a final varnish.

It was really difficult to get a good photo of this one without glare, I finally took some pictures in the morning indirect sunlight that were good enough to use.

One Response to “My first dead layer painting – Two Mushrooms”

  1. Deborah Elmquist Says:

    I applaud your journey into the old Master’s classical approach to painting. I too found myself reading many resources to understand this process, Antonov’s included. I found a lot of help on a website that is a wealth of knowledge. The site focusing mostly on portraits but it is transferrable to still life. Check it out–http:karenwells.blogspot.com

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