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 πŸ™‚

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, 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.


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,Β 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 πŸ™‚

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.

Self portrait drawing

I need to get better at drawing so I can execute huge masterpiece oil paintings full of flowing figures flying through floating fauna and the eldritch ruins of towering arcane architecture rendered in Van Eyck-like detail. So I have been drawing each day. One thing I have been doing is the projects in “Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain Workbook”. I have not read the actual separate book, but the workbook has been useful on its own and I like having structured little projects to do.

This was not a specific project from the book but I have been wanting to do a self portrait anyway for a while since I have only done one other shaky self portrait sketch. I will do an oil painting later, perhaps from this drawing.

I really like drawing on toned paper, I had not tried it until a week ago when I read about it in the workbook. Weird that I never saw this in my high school art classes or anything…anyway I love it and it makes me want to draw more often.

Here’s the drawing:

Self portrait drawing by Airn LeBus

Self portrait drawing by Airn LeBus

This is on 9 x 12 inch smooth paper that I toned with 4B graphite. I sat in front of a mirror and drew this over a few sessions with 2B, 4B, and 6B pencils. At first I thought I finished it but went back and changed some features so it looked more like me. It probably took me about 5 hours total.

Stuffs I am working on – January 2009

Here are the projects I am currently working on, I have not posted about any of these yet and felt like putting up some pix. I’ll do separate posts for each painting later too.

I am working on an oil painting for a portrait exchange with another artist, this is a digital version I did to plan the real oil version, I just finished it today. It took me a while to realize that the expression is kind of like the cracky-chan painting, but this is based on a photo so the similarity was not my doing πŸ™‚ The oil painting itself will be 11×14 inches, on canvas for a change (I mostly have been painting on panel).

Mishka portrait digital version

Mishka portrait digital version

I’m also working on wrapping up this mushroom painting, which I have not posted about yet but have a big-ol draft post ready for when it’s done, since this was my first dead layer painting. This is oil on panel 8×10 inches:

mushrooms work in progress

mushrooms work in progress

I’m in the early stages for one that’s currently called “Dream City Girl”, I have the face painted so far but there is a bunch more in the painting and I am doing a bunch of Photoshop planning to figure out what to do with this, here is the face underpainting detail, oil on panel 11×14 inches:

dream city girl underpainting work in progress (detail)

dream city girl raw umber underpainting, work in progress (detail)

Finally, I’m still working on the angel painting which was in the last post, and another older small panel of a stern-looking angel or something, this is oil on panel 8×10 inches:

stern angel work in prog (detail)

stern angel work in prog (detail)

Angel painting update 2

I’ve put a few layers of glazed color on my angel painting:

Angel work in progress 2

Angel work in progress 2 (oil on panel)

This is the first time I have glazed flesh tone over an underpainting and I like the way it’s working out! The above pic has 3 layers of color on it over the raw umber “dead layer”.

After the underpainting was done (although I kinda wish I had worked on it a bit longer) I took a photo and experimented in Photoshop, especially to figure out the background color, wing colors, and how it would look in the frame it will be going into with different schemes. I have been doing that sort of planning a lot lately with several new paintings…it’s absolutely invaluable! I can try anything and not have to worry about screwing up the actual painting. I have an old Wacom tablet I use for that purpose. It’s fun doing virtual glazing over the underpainting with transparent colors and works better than I would have thought πŸ™‚

For the flesh tone I am using vermillion and yellow ochre over the raw umber. I am keeping all layers very thin and not rushing it. I added some yellow ochre and vermillion to the clothing shadows too. Colors used for wings and jewels are cad yellow light hue, viridian+yellow, vermillion, prussian blue, phthalo+permanent rose. Eyes are cobalt blue so far. I am just using bleached linseed oil for the medium, very thin layers, and lightly ‘oiling out’ before applying the glazes. I believe that the thinness of the layers will prevent any sort of cracking or other nasty problems. Using turps or other mediums like galkyd have yielded funky results for me, I am not using turpenoid for anything (oh except the imprimatura-ish layer) at this point, not even to clean brushes anymore…I just use bar soap after a session to see if my brushes will survive better that way. Actually they have been a lasting pretty long time nowadays anyway, they used to get thrashed really fast but that was when I was leaving them bristle-down in a tub of turps whilst painting and trying to clean them and use for other colors, ugh not a good practice! Now I keep at least one separate brush for each color and one for darker raw umber+white mix, one for lighter, etc. I end up using a boatload of brushes in a session on this angel though, like 15 brushes or something crazy this last session, since there are a lot of colors and some are used for shading and blending.

Angelic palette

A much more varied and brilliant palette than I normally use:
Palette of colors for my angel painting.

Palette of colors for my angel painting

Those are the colors with which I have been glazing my angel painting.