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Discover: Lucian Freud’s painting technique

What’s the idea?

Lucian Freud’s painting technique is a source of fascination for many artists who admire his uncompromising portraits and nudes

What’s the story?

Lucian Freud is one of my absolute favourite artists.

This is particularly because I myself paint, and specialise in portraits.

I have made a point of going to see as many of his paintings as possible (including in 2018’s exceptional ‘All Too Human’ exhibition).

Like many artists, I’m intrigued by Lucian Freud’s painting technique.

In particular, how he created such sculptural, monumental nudes.

As an artist I can tell you, it’s very hard to do!

Lucian Freud was a very private man and so very little is known about his painting technique.

So when I was first learning to paint, I made it my mission to understand all I possibly could about how he painted.

I had to piece together lots of different pieces of the puzzle – which I’d like to share with you now.

People should do this because…?

People should discover Lucian Freud’s painting techniques because…

  • He was a true master of his craft
  • If you are a painter, you will learn something
  • Individual artists’ methods are always fascinating (to me at least!)

Discover: Lucian Freud’s Painting Techniques

Background

The first thing to say is that Lucian Freud’s painting style changed significantly in the late 50s – early 60s.

He was frustrated with the time it took him to paint in his original ‘hyper-realistic’ style, using very fine sable brushes – as in the painting below: ‘Girl With a Kitten’.

Girl with a Kitten,1947 - Lucian Freud

Just look at the detail in the hair!

Very different from his later ‘impasto’ style.

He was also inspired by Francis Bacon, with whom he became very good friends in the 50s, sitting for him over 40 times.

The first painting considered to fully reflect Freud’s later style, is ‘Sleeping Head’ from 1962 – below.

Sleeping Head, 1962 - Lucian Freud

Clues!

In my research over the years, I’ve found quite a few sources for clues as to how Lucian Freud created his impressive portraits and nudes.

Firstly, there are a smattering of interviews (filmed and written) with Freud himself.

Whilst these don’t necessarily talk about his painting technique explicitly, you do get a sense of what was important for him, and how he ‘viewed’ painting.

I’ve provided links to these at the bottom of this post.

Secondly, there are reports from people who sat for Freud and, in effect, watched him paint.

Included amongst these is David Dawson, his studio assistant, who sat for him 7 times, and David Hockney (another of my favourite artists!).

And there is an absolutely brilliant book on his experience of sitting for Freud by Martin Gayford, the art critic, who knew Lucian Freud really quite well, called ‘Man With a Blue Scarf’.

Thirdly, a biography of Freud, co-edited by David Dawson, his assistant, and contributed to by numerous friends and family members, has just been published (‘Lucian Freud: A Life’).  

It gives a fascinating insight into the great artist’s mind and work.

(See both of these books below.)

Lucian Freud’s tools and materials

Freud’s choice of materials made a great difference to his style from the late 50s and 60s onwards.

He moved on to larger hog bristle brushes, instead of fine sable, which meant he was forced to step away from the detail.

And in his later years also started using a palette knife to apply paint.

(Incidentally, he also started standing up to paint, which tends to create broader, looser brush strokes.)

He always used a hand-held palette – as you can see in the picture below, which is a section of one of Freud’s own self-portraits:

Section of ‘Painter Working, Reflection’, 1993 – Lucian Freud

He worked in oils, preferring the Winsor & Newton brand of oil paints.

In particular he used a certain white called ‘Cremnitz White‘.  This is what gave his paintings their heavy, textured quality and provided the luminous quality of the flesh tones.

In fact, Cremnitz White was so important to Freud’s work that when he heard it might be discontinued due to the high lead content, he bought up every tube he could find.

Lucian Freud’s studios and schedule

Freud famously painted every day of the year.  

He had 2 studios – a ‘day’ studio and a ‘night’ studio.

The day studio was completely without electric light, and Freud would paint there from early in the morning until lunchtime.

Then he would rest for the afternoon, before painting all evening, sometimes into the small hours, in the ‘night’ studio.

He could take a very long time on a painting, sometimes up to a year, especially as he was often painting at very large scale in his later years.

Because he always painted from life, the progress of a painting was dictated by the availability of the sitter.

Because of this he would typically have 3 or 4 portraits on the go at once, so he always had something to work on.

Lucian Freud’s approach to painting

Before we look at Freud’s actual technique, it’s important to understand his more general approach to painting. 

There is only one published statement from Freud himself called ‘Some Thoughts on Painting’, originally published in 1952.

Here is the opening paragraph:

“My object in painting pictures is to try and move the senses by giving an intensification of reality. Whether this can be achieved depends on how intensely the painter understands and feels for the person or object of his choice.”

(Read the rest of the statement here.)
 
From ‘Some Thoughts on Painting’, I deduce 2 things:
 
Firstly: Observe, Concentrate, Observe!  Freud was famous for the intensity of his gaze and the slowness of his work. This was down to him trying to truly understand what he was looking at, before attempting to render it in paint.
 
Secondly: the painting is YOUR painting.  For Freud, the whole point was that he was painting a subject as he, Lucian Freud, interpreted it.

So I try very hard to live by these principles in my own painting.

Lucian Freud’s painting technique

So, what have I learned about Freud’s painting technique? 

Here is the basic process:

Freud would firstly sketch out the composition and/or location of key features in charcoal – very lightly and loosely.

(Remember he was a master draughtsman, mere mortals like myself might take a bit longer!)

Between each brush-stroke, he would scrutinise his sitter intently, before mixing paint to the exact tone he wanted.

After each stroke, he would discard the unused paint on his palette and start afresh for the next stroke.

He never used paint straight from the tube, he always mixed each colour individually.

He preferred soft, natural colours, once telling his assistant that he liked ‘all the colours which could be found on the native British birds’.

When he started a painting, he would work from the centre outwards (very unusually), often starting from the nose if painting a portrait.

From there the painting would build up, spiralling outwards, as you can see in the unfinished examples below.

He rarely went back and adjusted anything, unless he felt the painting wasn’t working.

 

Lucian Freud - unfinished self portrait
Lucian Freud - Portrait fragment

Perhaps most importantly, Freud himself is on record as saying that he always wanted the painting he was working on (in his words) ‘to be the only painting he had every done.

So being really committed to creating a great work of art is crucial (even if you don’t have quite all the skills and experience yet).

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