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Skull Oil Painting 💀 Still Life from Start to Finish

October 24, 20181 Comment

Hey guys, Stan here! I’m in New York filming some more masterpiece series demonstrations with 3 different artists. You’ll hear more about that next year.

So I asked Pavel Sokov to help me out with an oil painting demo. He’s really awesome. You can check at his work @pavelsokov on Instagram. And make sure to check out his new podcast Creative Mastermind, where I will be a guest soon. Happy Halloween everybody. Take it away, Pavel!

Hey guys! My name is Pavel Sokov. I’m an oil portrait painter and fine artist. Today I’m in my buddy Alex Kasyan’s studio, where I’m going to paint a spooky skull for you guys in one session.

Setup and Preparation Stages

Before I start a painting, I like to come up with a couple of thumbnails to nail down the composition. I do these from imagination usually. So in these ones, I played with the placement of the skull, the direction of the lighting, and the orientation of the canvas. After coming up with these 4 thumbnail sketches, I got kind of a better idea of what I actually want from my painting.

Also, it sort of helps to have a thumbnail completed to use as reference when I start my painting because if I don’t have anything to look at it’s possible that when I start from scratch on my canvas, my subject will end up too big, or even worse, run off the page or something.

Composition is a bit of a feeling thing along with some guidelines. It’s not like stiff rules that you must follow. So having said that, I think I like sketch 1 and 3 the most.

Thumbnail sketches

You know, since the color temperature plays such a big role, I digitally painted this sketch with some invented color before actually making the setup, just to give an idea of what kind of mood this painting would be. And it also gave me an opportunity to plan some of the painting methods and steps that I’ll use in the actual painting process.

Digital painting concept

Okay, so with the sketches in mind, let’s put together the setup that I will paint from today.

Execution of the painting

So a big challenge to overcome here with this skull is that I want to paint it in the dark for a more dramatic and moody atmosphere since it’s Halloween and all, but at the same time, I want myself and my easel to be in the light so I can see and we can make this video.

Sadly, the candle doesn’t provide a strong enough light during the day, so we’re going to use a warm lamp instead.

Since we don’t want to burn the house down though by lighting that black box on fire, I think our candle shouldn’t be lit at the beginning stages of the painting.

Still life set-up

Still life dramatic lighting

I’m using a portable paintbox today that makes it convenient for me to paint anywhere I go.

For my brushes, I plan to use a lot of bristles because I want to load this painting up with a lot of thick paint, but I also packed a few softer brushes to get some soft edges in there too.

As my painting surface today, I am using an 11×14 linen panel. It’s actually one of my favorite sizes for life paintings.

I paint with a few different brands of oil paint, but there’s no need to name them or be concerned with what they are. What’s really important about that is that they’re professional grade and they’re not the student grade which are very difficult to paint with. It just doesn’t work, it’s like toothpaste, so just don’t even get it.

Okay, let’s squeeze out our paint. And don’t be afraid to use a lot. For the longest time, I’ve been so shy with squeezing out my paint. It’s been taking me years to paint thicker and thicker, and I gotta tell you, if you can skip all these years of being shy and just get straight into it and load up a lot of paint, it will save you a lot of trouble.

On my palette today we have:

Titanium White,
Warm White,
Cadmium Yellow Light,
Cadmium Yellow Medium,
Cadmium Yellow Orange,
Yellow Ochre,
Transparent Yellow Oxide,
Cadmium Red,
Transparent Red Oxide,
Transparent Brown Oxide,
Raw Umber,
Alizarin Crimson,
and Cobalt Blue.

Oil Paint Palette

Underpainting and Drawing Stage

The very first thing I like to do when starting a painting is to tint the canvas. But you have to select your tinting color wisely, because it’s going to provide the underlying temperature to the whole piece. I often let this initial tint show through all the way to the end of the painting, particularly in the shadows.

In this case we have a very warm light on our subject so we can expect our painting to be pretty warm. I’m going to tint this canvas with that in mind by using something really warm like transparent red oxide, and I will mix it with a bit of Cadmium Yellow Medium in the area where the candle will go because later, all this warm underpainting should give this skull a nice inner glow. I am diluting my paint with gamsol here when I do my initial washes, because makes the paint behave like a watercolor, which is perfect for making a stain.
Oil painting background tint

Drawing the Lay-in

Okay, so now that our canvas is tinted, we can start to draw our linear lay-in on top of our stain. My favorite tool to do that with is actually a hard bristle brush. The reason why is that those stiff hairs, they allow me to get nice straight lines which are the exact type of lines that I find helpful at this stage to simplify the contours of everything that I’m drawing and to find those big shapes.

Don’t worry, we’re going to complicate these lines later when we go to paint them!

As you draw your lay-in, don’t forget to focus on the big shapes and the proportions of what you’re drawing. Don’t get carried away on details and things like that because it’s way too early at this stage. Simplify everything to its most basic elements. Find the big shapes and don’t mind the secondary forms for now. It also kind of helps to keep your horizon line in mind when you draw your lay-in. For example, in my case, I’m sitting below the skull and looking up at it.

You have to ask yourself, are you looking up at the your set-up, or are you looking down at it? And, whatever the answer is, you have to design your lines with that in mind.

So if you’re noticing that your drawing is off at this stage, don’t be shy to move lines around until you get it right. Trust me, you’re gonna be saving yourself a lot of headaches if you fix things at this early stage than if you try to fix them later on when you have a lot of opaque paint down on your painting.

So right now I’m filling in the dark shapes on my underpainting because I find that it helps me see my mistakes better when I fill in the big dark shapes. With these dark shapes filled in, it’s much easier to judge the distances on your drawing.

Opaque Painting Stage

At this point I often like to take a kneadable eraser, or more often a napkin, and rub out the lightest areas. This helps me establish the light source a lot sooner before I even lay down the opaque paint. Just make sure to do this before your stain is dry, or else you won’t be able to do it anymore. You usually have about 10 minutes max depending on your surface before your wash dries, so be careful.

My goal here is to establish the big values, shapes and color temperatures as soon as I can, so to do that, I am going to cover the entire skull with some opaque paint, aiming primarily to tell the story of the lighting that’s hitting our skull. I am thinking a lot about color temperature. Our primary light is warm, so I’m mindful that my the parts that are in the light are going to stay warm. Often times, students want to lighten an area, so they grab a bunch of white. White is actually the coldest color, so the result of that is that the value of the area goes up and it does become lighter, but at the same time, the temperature goes a lot colder.
Filling in major values

This is actually great if your subject is in a cold light, like maybe a North lighting window. But in our case, our subject is in a warm light, so that’s no good for us. When you want to lighten an area that’s in the light, consider using a color to lighten that area. In this case, to lighten my mixtures, I’m going to include some cadmium yellow medium, cadmium yellow, and transparent yellow oxide in my light mixtures to keep it warm. But conversely, if you want to darken an area, a lot of students reach for the black to darken things, and that creates a cold mixture as well. Try darkening a shadow with a warm dark. Something like transparent red oxide, transparent brown oxide, or alizarin crimson.

While you’re putting down that initial opaque paint, a good principle to work by is to paint the lights thicker and the shadows a little bit thinner. So that means you can’t be afraid to lay down some serious paint in the lights. If you keep the shadows more thin and flat, then the lights are going to feel more luminous in comparison. And I also love to let my warm underpainting show through in places in the shadows.

When you have dramatic lighting like this, you are bound to see a lot of contrast. Let’s make sense of all of it this way:

Since most of our subject is lit, make sure that the amount of values you use in lights is higher than in the shadows. In other terms, make the shadows more flat and have less values, like you could make the shadows just one value so that it looks a lot simpler than your halftones and your lights. As a result, the shadows will have less information in it than the parts that are lit.

I am thinking of the skull as an egg, with the closest part receiving the most light, and the parts farther away receiving the least amount of light. If the underlying “egg” of the skull reads well, then you are gonna be in good shape!

Egg lighting

Our halftones are the most chromatic and the most information-dense parts. So in our case they are going to be the warmest parts of the skull. The lightest lights are pretty washed out, but they’re still warm.

Okay guys, don’t forget to wipe down your palette whenever you’re running out of space, and also when your mixtures that you’re using are becoming too thin. I find that when I’m too lazy to wipe my palette, what ends up happening is I’m painting off in some tiny corner of the palette and I don’t have enough space to make a really thick mixture, so I start painting very thin.
Clearing space on the palette

Finishing Stage

Now that our skull reads pretty well with the right values and the right color temperatures, and we can sense that egg shape beneath it, it is time to put on the finishing touches.

Here I am, laying down some serious paint on the back of that skull. Since it’s one of our lightest lights in the scene, and I believe the lightest lights on the skull, I’m gonna paint it thicc!

Since the cranium is just a sphere whose edges recede into the background, I wanted to have a soft edge. For that, I’m dragging a big soft brush around the countour. This is a great time to expand our value range and paint up to the lightest lights and our darkest darks.

At this stage, you want to be mindful of the quality of your edges. So to do that, you have to determine where the light source is coming from. Usually your forms will roll by having a softer edge closer to the light and a harder edge further away from the light. So that happens because that edge further away from the light is actually a cast shadow and cast shadows are firmer than form-rolling shadows. In our case, our light is actually coming from the bottom, which is a little bit unusual. This means our forms are bound to have a sharper edge on the tops of the forms and a softer edge on the bottom. Usually, in a life painting class, your model is lit from above so you have the opposite situation. You have to be mindful of where the light is coming from because every situation is different but the general rule is that whatever part of the form is facing away from the light is going to have a harder edge than the one facing towards it.

Emphasizing the core shadows is great in a dramatic lighting situation. It really helps to bring the point home. So don’t be afraid to push those!

Since these are supposed to be your finishing strokes, you have to not be afraid to paint them with certainty and with boldness, even if you have no idea what you are doing. Honestly, a lot of times, a boldly painted passage still looks a lot better than a technically accurate passage that was painted with uncertainty and trepidation. Generally speaking, to make your strokes look more bold and certain, you have to paint everything in as few strokes as you can. So that means you have to refrain from touching up areas as much as you can, and avoid dragging all that paint around and trying to fix it because it just thins out the paint and it takes out all your brush strokes. Instead, if you want to adjust something, try adjusting it by adding new paint with a brand new brushstroke.

The mood of this piece is very dramatic and it’s meant to be kind of scary, so why not punch out his teeth? To do that, I’m going to paint a scary gap in these teeth that will add some visual interest to an otherwise boring area.

I know for a lot of us, it can be scary to put on a lot of paint when we aren’t sure of what we’re are doing. You’re afraid you are going to cover up your drawing.

Gaps in the teeth

But don’t be afraid of covering it up and covering up any of the work you previously did because you can always repaint things over and over. If you painted it once, you can paint it again, and in fact, when you paint it again, you’re going to paint it even better than the first time! Besides, this isn’t a portrait, so you don’t have to worry about the likeness of the skull that much. Instead, you should worry about the likeness of the lighting.

Ugh, yeah, I think it’s time to admit that I painted that nose cavity too short. I was afraid of having to repaint it now that all that rendering is there but it’s no big deal. It’s a little more hard to fix something now that you have a lot of opaque paint down so it would have been better to fix it in the drawing stages but you still have to do it.

Okay, now that our skull looks decent, let’s take care of that candle. Let me go light it, and at the same time, I’m going to turn off that primary lamp so we can see how the candle burns much better. The candle light is surrounded by a very warm soft edged glow, but the fire itself looks pretty sharp.

Nasal cavity comparison

I will start by rubbing out the shape of the light with with a napkin that has some Gamsol on it. The candle stick itself is very blue which is going to contrasts really nicely with the glow of the hot candle wax above it.

The transparency of that candle wax is carried across by how saturated and warm it is below the light.

Now the fire itself, it looks like around the burning wick is actually very blue so I’m going to note that down in my painting. Unfortunately the scene before my eyes isn’t as dark as I wish it was, because of all the lights that are on in the room, so I’m going to go ahead and paint darks around the candle to help it feel like it is glowing in contrast.

Blue in candle flame

I envisioned painting the light of the candle with one expert palette knife stroke, kind of like the precision stroke of a samurai’s blade. Unfortunately I am not a palette knife samurai, so my stroke goes very wrong and my technique quickly becomes me desperately applying stroke after stroke, hoping it will stop looking bad. You know, the trick in a situation like this is just to make it look like you meant to do that.

Finished session!

Well, that’s it for now. It still needs some touch-ups I think, but I’m going to do those at home in my studio, so let’s call it a day.


So I couldn’t resist doing a few touch ups. I adjusted the composition a little bit by adding this area here. I fixed some drawing errors, and most importantly, I got rid of the outlines between the teeth because if you make them too outlined, it’ll look too separate, so it’s better to merge them all into one mass when painting teeth. And you have to be careful. When fixing a painting from a photo after your life painting session, you might squeeze the life out of it and so be careful not to lose those bold brush strokes.
Touch ups, composition element added

On a different note, I wanted to invite you guys to check out a new podcast that I’m starting called Creative Mastermind, with a friend and fellow artist, Jordan Jardine. So together, we are tackling self development for artists. As you guys know, there’s a lot of material on YouTube, different tutorial videos and workshops you can take to get better at painting or drawing.

But what we feel is missing is the self-development side of things. So once you get good, what do you actually go on to do with that? How do you promote yourself? How do you make money? How do you stay happy? So, to answer these questions, we reach deep into our own careers, but more importantly, we invite very experienced guests, which are artists, gallery owners, and even some business men, to help us tackle this topic together.

So please follow Creative Mastermind on iTunes to check us out. Also, if you guys want to follow me, check me out on Instagram @PavelSokov and send me a DM to say hello.

The final piece by Pavel Sokov

This was a ton of fun, so guys, I encourage you to get out there with some paints and paint your own skull. Happy Halloween!

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  1. Sam says:

    Hey Proko,
    Je vous remercie de nous avoir fait dĂ©couvert Pavel, cet impressionnant artiste. La prĂ©paration d’une oeuvre est tout un art qui ajoute l’originalitĂ© dans le travail d’un artiste. En tout cas, bravo pour cette magnifique peinture!
    Bonne continuation,

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