Workshop Wednesday; Casey Childs’ Painting Oil Portraits From Life

Casey Childs’ finished portrait demo of our lovely model Nataliya.

When I take my copious notes during workshops I have a system of highlighting certain passages by assigning a number of stars to them or by calling some things out as “money tips” (my terminology for thoughts that truly add value to your painting). When I looked over my notes for Casey Childs’ painting workshop, I found stars and comments littered through out the pages. What I am giving you here is some of the best advice to painting that I have heard, at least that is the way it struck me. Part of Casey’s genius as an instructor is that he is a really good communicator and can easily explain both his working process and (more importantly) his thought process in ways that students can digest.

The following  notes I took during Casey’s Painting Oil Portraits From Life Workshop in October of 2017 at Francie’s Studio in Purcellville VA:


Casey Childs in action during the block in stage of his demo.

-Casey believes it is good for your painting to work on charcoal drawings in between, because it forces you to work on values.

-Working with a limited palette is also good if you are having problems with color.

-It is well documented that Sargent used lots of paint. You should too!

-Casey uses a palette of 3 reds, 3 blues and 3 yellows. Ivory Black, Flake White (lead white -does not use titanium white). Genuine Naples Yellow Light (Vasari), Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, Transparent Red Oxide, Cad Yellow, Cad Red Light, Alizarin, Ultramarine Violet, Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Viridian, Bice (Vasari), Ultramarine Blue,  [Writer’s note: may not be transcribed as a complete list of his palette nor in the correct order].

-Casey believes in pushing primaries together to make subtle grays. He finds & mixes color accordingly.

Casey Childs’ demo just past the block in stage,

-Makes his own panels with gatorboard and linen canvas that he glues together using  Beva Glue Film. He hand irons it together.

-When beginning a new painting he lines up the canvas at eye level.

-Starts with a thin wash of neutral color. A red + a blue + black.

-If anything is too warm he hits it with the complementary color. He is always thinking  what he needs to adjust.

-Then he begins to wipe (with a blue paper shop towel) out shapes which immediately makes him think only in regards to lights & darks.

-Raw Sienna + Alizarin + Blue for the under-drawing. Today he is pushing the mixture towards warm because of the models red hair.

-“Get the shapes to relate to each other and you can start to get a sense of likeness without even drawing.”

–“This simple block in approach is so important – spend the most time on that. You can’t fix poor drawing with colors or edges.”

-“Try and be a perfectionist. If you are tackling portraiture you have to be.”

-Maintain the relationships of light & dark. Meaning, keep the values in the general same range.

-Starts working with color by jumping  into the darks (Aliz + black).

-Observing where else you can use a specific color is a good way of harmonizing a painting.

-“Think of the biggest brush you can use for something then go one brush bigger. You get better marks that way.”

-Uses the following mixture as his initial flesh tones; Ultra Violet + Lead White + Cad Red Lite + Yellow Ochre + Bice.

-Lays in color swatches to test value.

-“I’m slowing down. Just looking at big shapes.”

–He purposefully dulls down the flesh color so he can sneak in more primaries, pushing the greys into one chroma or another.

-Casey observes on the model a blueish tint in between the shadow & the light (known as “the last light”) and paints it that way. He uses subtle color to turn form. It is one of the cornerstones of his painting.

“I am trying to build the eye without building the eye (by building the large shapes). I put in my shadows, then suggest a color and then another value change. All those little notes come together & build the eye.”

With this photo you can see Casey’s approach to painting eyes, literally laying the color onto shapes of value.

-“The areas that are not necessary I blur out or leave intentionally out of focus. With eyes for instance, I take my time & detail them well and in focus.”

-“I often draw something by drawing the things AROUND it.”

-“People often make the value of the crease near the nose way too dark”.

“You can hold more paint in a bristle brush than you can with a soft hair brush so I often switch brushes to lay in more detail.”

-“As I lay down piles of paint, I utilize them in creating new colors– it helps harmonize the whole painting.” Grabbing from the “mother puddle” to create new tones.

-When working on larger paintings he often starts the under drawing in charcoal and then works in a similar way to his demo, working general to specific. He works ALL the figures up at the same time. This allows him to bring areas into fuller focus and leave other areas more finished which gives more life to a painting.

-“Notice that I haven’t really drawn the eyes or nose. I’ve been concentrating on the big shapes but because I have done that it suggests the other parts.”

-Highly recommends Harold Speed’s Painting Book.

-“Sneak up around the eye. Find the eye socket first then suggest the eye –only then do you add eyelashes.”

-Thinks darkest dark, lightest light. The highlight on the eye is the purest white. All other lights are local color.

-Always maintain the relationship between shadows and lights.

-Local face color usually appears in the following “banded” manner (based on the amount of blood seen under the skin)—Forehead: Yellow, Nose: Red and Jaw: Green.

-Around the eye sockets things lean more blue.


-“Lead your viewer to the areas you want to stand out by how much refinement you do to that area. Think Rembrandt. Closer to the light has more detail. You can focus on a couple of features and bring them to refinement–but be choosy.”

-He prefers filberts in bristle rather than flats.

-Makes corrections first (color, drawing etc.) when choosing what areas to start back into.

-“I paint like I am a millionaire (meaning use paint like cost is not a concern).”

-Color has a tendency to cool as it goes into shadow (last light) although on fleshy areas like cheeks & nose it can be warmer.

-“When painting the iris I am going to make that whole circle dark & then place the color on top. It is more pleasing that way.”

-Likes using Trekkel Brush Restorer for keeping the shape of his brushes.

-Likes to paint with the corner of larger flat brushes.

“I think in terms of time when painting, especially in front of the model. For instance I will say to myself “spend 20 mins on that eye and then 20 mins on the other eye.”

-Eyebrows–make lighter initially and then darker as it turns.

-Paints the darker circle of the pupil and then places the highlight on top.

-Don’t paint a hard edge around the pupil.

-Load up the brush and add the lead white highlight to the eye, but be careful & delicate when placing! For this application he uses a Rosemary 279 flat 0 though he would have preferred a 2 or 3.

-In general key the nostrils lighter.

-“Refinement of value is all you need to turn the form on the nose.”

-“It is important to work in value strings so that you can go up and down in value as needed.” Incidentally, his value strings are not grouped by color so different colors merge together according to value to create his value strings.

-“Value is more important than color. If the color is close that’s good but what is important is the value.”

-He built his eye (with this particular model) using the value of the neck shadow and then simply adds more strokes of value on top, either lighter or darker, to build form as needed.


-Lays in a middle value then will paint the darks & lights over that. Using a #6 brush or bigger. #10 for laying in the initial color. Used a palette knife on the shoulder to scrape back a little.

“Squint and paint the passages of light over the hair. Paint hair in one session because it will change.”

I will end this post with one of his best tips so far: “Start everything with the middle tone value & then paint lights or darks into that (air, jewelry, features etc). And paint back to forward, always thinking about things in terms of depth.”

Casey Childs’ demo nearing the finished state.

Casey will be returning to Francie’s Studio to teach another Oil workshop this April. He is honestly one of the best instructors I have studied with.  I would highly recommend him to all of you and there are still spots available in this workshop. If interested, please email me at for more details.

Workshop Wednesday: Casey Childs’ Charcoal Portrait from Life

Casey Childs demonstrating his charcoal drawing technique.

The following are my personal notes that I took at Casey Childs charcoal workshop last Fall. Altogether I have taken 4 workshops with Casey.  With each opportunity to study with him, I truly feel myself growing as an artist. And as a rather frequent workshop attendee–I can tell you that is a rare thing.

Normally I am happy if I can walk away with one or two new aspects of technique or approach in my painting after a workshop. Rarely do you attend a workshop where the instructor literally changes the way you THINK. And that my dear artistic friends, is really where improvements happen. We could talk all day about what brushes to buy and what paint to use but what truly matters is what you are thinking in that complex brain of yours that drives the brush in your hand. Seek enlightenment and your painting will automatically get better.

Casey himself is a friendly, laid back and humble kind of guy. He does not carry airs—he does not need to. His work speaks for itself. Casey is a regular finalist in the Portrait Society of America’s International Portrait Competition. He is a sought after portrait and gallery artist and is represented by Principle Gallery, Haynes Gallery, Meyer Gallery and Illume Gallery.

Without further prologue, here are my notes from two relatively recent workshops I took with Casey at Francie’s Studio, a private and intimate work space in Purcellville VA.  I will divide up these notes between two blog posts that I will release over the next two Wednesdays as part of my “Workshop Wednesday” series. This particular blog post will concentrate on Casey Childs’ Charcoal Portrait Drawing From Life Workshop. The second post will be on his Painting Oil Portraits From Life Workshop.

Our lovely model enjoying her Casey Childs’ portrait in process.

Charcoal Portrait Drawing From Life Workshop

-Casey says he draws and paints in the same way. He thinks the same things when he approaches both drawing and painting.

-He begins by taping two pieces of willow charcoal together to simulate a long handled brush. He uses a razor blade to sharpen it to a “big long needle point.”

-Measures in the traditional way with his arm extended and straight taking comparative measurements, not sight size.

-Uses a brush to gently knock off or soften “area ridges” made from the charcoal line.

-Casey personally believes in using just a little bit of white chalk as an accent in his charcoal drawings. He says to look at the drawings of Fechin and you will see the same restraint.

-Prefers Canson Mi Teintes paper (in Pearl) and uses the smooth side (the side normally with the sticker).

-Be vertical with your easel and keep line of sight (eye level) right at the middle of your paper.

-Use your whole arm when starting out. Place “tick” marks to define the outer dimensions of your subject. Top & bottom, right and left etc.

-Shoot for life size of your subject or just under.

-Outline shapes. Think flat, think proportions.

-He uses the side of his charcoal too so he doesn’t break the point.

-“Charcoal is similar to painting in that if you lay too much down initially you can’t easily work with it.”

-Often uses hard charcoal as a “stump” to push around and refine things more.

-He feels free to leave unintended marks — “because it could add interest later on.”

-He does use some lines as contour.

-Prefers to break up his drawing workshop over two days in this manner: Day 1 focus on shapes and drawing, Day 2 Finish & details.

Casey Childs portrait demo in process. This photo shows the point in his process where he begins to turn the form in the larger shapes (after his proportions and overall values have been well established).

-From the initial 2D block-in he begins to look at large forms first, turning form, thinking planes & light transitions but just on the larger forms. “Only once you have resolved that do you move on to resolving smaller forms and details.”

-“The key to likeness is proportion. It is not hard to get a likeness if your drawing is correct.”

-Casey uses calipers to measure proportions more accurately. He looks for areas where the vertical and horizontal are in proportion. Always measure horizontally & vertically.

-After a while trust your eyes if you have spent considerable time measuring.

-Hard charcoal is used to fill in the value (i.e. the gaps left in the paper from the initial med. charcoal pass).

-Uses soft charcoal to gradate flesh tones.

-“In the painting you can get value relationships much quicker. You must work at it in charcoal.”

-Uses his mahl stick on the second day (details).

-Doesn’t blend with his finger at all or stump. Doesn’t like the look of smudges. Uses a piece of hard charcoal as his stump.

-He is most interested with getting his big forms right (turning forehead, shape of eyes etc. …)

-Uses the hard charcoal to get the turning of the mid-tones.

-Recommends thinking of Andrew Loomis’ “head in a box” when turning facial planes. “Helps you to think in a more structural way”.


-Casey avoids working in a “window shading” kind of way (where one fully renders an area before moving on to the next) so that he doesn’t get distracted. “You must be aware of the whole form.”

“Form is edges. What makes an edge soft? Is it the light/shadow? Its all about relationships and how they relate.”

-He takes it very slow when modeling the surface. Slow and deliberate drawing built upon observation.


Casey will be teaching his 5th workshop at Francie’s Studio April 14th-16th, 2018 and there are slots still available. As an instructor I could not recommend him more highly. If interested please contact me directly at for more information.

On a personal note I want to thank Casey for his generosity in sharing all that he knows with his students, and in particular with me. 🙂 Thank you so much Casey!

The finished Casey Childs charcoal portrait demo of our lovely model Stephanie. Notice the restraint in his application of white chalk highlights and the “unintended” random marks deliberately included in the final piece.


Root to Bloom at Principle Gallery


I am really thrilled to say that I was juried into the Root to Bloom exhibit at the famed Principle Gallery in old town Alexandria (VA) by the amazing Teresa Oaxaca. There are so many great artists in this show that I feel humbled to have my painting, “Feedsacks” (above) included. I am told that they had nearly 1,000 submissions to the competition and only 73 artists were selected overall.

There is currently a social media competition happening at the Principle Gallery for this exhibit. The artist who gets the most “likes” on their painting in the link below will win an award. I would really appreciate your “like” on my painting. Simply follow the link and click on my painting and hit like.

And I hope some of you will come out to the opening on November 11th from 6:30-9 PM. Thank you readers!

Abuelo and Alexander

“Abuelo and Alexander (Portrait of the artist’s father, Carlos Lago and her son)”, Oil on canvas, 30″ x 40″, 2013-2016

This past August I finally finished a very personal family portrait of my father and son which turned out to be a true labor of love, begun 3 years ago. My patient father simply waited until I was able to work on it, a little at a time, in between my portrait commissions.

My father is a passionate gardener and the background of this painting is my father’s very own garden depicting his collection of azaleas, deciduous azaleas and rhododendrons. It is a fitting tribute to him and to the loving relationship he shares with my son. My favorite part being the tender gesture of their hands touching each other.


2016 WLAST Studio Tour


A small sample of the artwork I will have available for sale on the WLAST tour.

I will be exhibiting again with the Western Loudoun Artists Studio Tour (WLAST) next weekend June 18 – 19, 2016. Come see my work along with the work of potter, Carrie Althouse and jeweler, Dana Jansen at STOP #1 on the WLAST tour. In addition I am excited to share that all 3 of us will all be conducting art demonstrations,  Tarara Winery will be giving wine tastings, Jules BBQ will have his yummy food for purchase and there will be LIVE music performances on both days of the event! Pack a picnic blanket and make a real day of it. Afterwards continue your tour at the other 30 open studios across Western Loudoun Co. If you live in the Washington DC area, this is an event you will not want to miss!


June 18 – 19, 2016
10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
42498 Farm Lane, Leesburg, VA 20176

The sign on RT. 15 North in Leesburg, VA  marking STOP #1 on the WLAST tour.



Workshop Wednesday: Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson demoing during his recent workshop, June 2016.

Twice now I have had the  pleasure of taking a Robert Johnson workshop. Both at the private studio of a wonderful friend of mine in Purcellville, VA. This most recent workshop occurred during the record breaking deluge of rain we received in Northern Virginia. However, despite the rain spirits were bright and the painting “spell” cast by Johnson was magical.

Robert Johnson is a master painter of exceptional skill and technique. His marks are in essence calligraphic–and he admits to having been inspired early on by the Japanese art of Sumi-E painting. This influence is evident in his work and separates his approach to oil painting from his contemporaries. The way he  applies paint is a performance all on its own. He delicately controls the lift & pressure of his brush to  accurately render the ephemeral quality of his subjects.  Any opportunity to study with him is not to be missed.

One of the highlights of this recent workshop for me personally, was meeting an honored participant, the noble Statesman from Virginia–Senator John Warner. Senator Warner  stands with other notable Statesmen (such Winston Churchill), who have turned from  politics to painting later in their career. I thoroughly enjoyed the Senator’s recollections of his time both as Secretary of the Navy and as a United States Senator as well as his anecdotal stories of celebrities and personalities he has known along the way.

Below are my notes that I took during both of Robert Johnson’s workshops. I have placed them in categories to make them easier to understand and apply:


Robert Johnson’s initial drawing in Transparent Red Oxide from the first workshop, June 2015.


-Decide which direction the viewer will travel through your painting.

-Concentrate on negative shapes, variety, design. Decide whether your design will go off the canvas–if so, let it go off in several directions or it will look like a shortcoming.

-You want variety in your set – up. Its inherent in nature.

-Seek a feeling of movement. Good proportion: mass of flowers to greenery to container.

-Using the convention of “polarity”-the juxtaposition of opposites, allows both objects to acquire visual impact. i.e. vertical/horizontal, bulky/delicate.

“The function of the background is to support the “prima ballerinas”. It should not detract from the main event. The background should not be as thick, the values not as saturated ed, the edges not as hard, etc.”

-“Strive to get depth, even on a front to back composition.”

-“The eye goes to hard edges, more paint & bright colors. Be aware of this and design accordingly.”

Robert Johnson further along is his demo. Here he is working on the design of the rug, June 2015.


-Works on double primed lead supports.

-Preferred medium mixture: 5 parts stand oil, 5 parts Gamsol (OMS), 1 part damar varnish.

-Lays in an “imprimatura” wash with cobalt, viridian & transparent red oxide. Puts down marks on top in a rhythmic patter which he sometimes allows to show through in the final product.

“What do mediums add to your painting? They loosen up piles of paint, make longer brushstrokes like in the background and can create transparency”

-“You need flat brushes to get at the delicacy of the flowers. Paint them with the thought that if you blew on them they would move.”

-“All brushes should come to a nice sharp edge. Even your filberts.”

-Begins laying in his drawing very loosely-brush held way back, long brushstrokes. Thins down paint with turps (OM).

-Paints with only one glove on his “painting” hand.

Robert Johnson’s palette.


On levels of importance: Values, then Edges, then Colors

-Johnson wipes out the flower masses with paper towels from his initial drawing to set up the structure . He lifts quite often.

-He recommends creating charcoal drawings on toned paper to get used to “lifting out lights. Wipe out like an artist–your touch should have the feel of going over a peony.”

-“Paint the subject as if it is a under single source light. Ignore the ambient light.”

-“Don’t ever leave anything on your canvas that is confusing. Make it clear.”

-Johnson often redesigns as he is painting. He will mutter to himself, “Let’s make this little guy (a yellow peonie bud) white.”

-“The moment you touch your canvas, everything should be done with artistic intention.”

-“Don’t think about sugar bowls and roses-think about shapes and how they relate to one another.”

-“There is no democracy in art. The big forms always win.”

-“Get to your final painting stage quickly so that all you have to do are revisions. Finish the big statement as quick as you can.”

-“Always remember that perpendicular planes reflect the light the most. If you are having problems seeing or drawing try to remember that principle.”

-“Try to put the light down horizontally-it will stand out more. Implies ridges.”

“The Rembrandt effect”: Horizontal then vertical marks, ending on the vertical.

-THE 5 MIN RULE: “When you make a bold statement there is this instant fear that you have done something wrong. When you have that urge to change it-ignore it. Take a deep breath, recognize what is happening. Give yourself permission to modify it–but only after 5 mins.”

-“Strength and boldness lead to more strength and boldness. This is the purpose to the 5 min rule.”

-“Learn to make good descriptive brushstrokes. As the painting evolves each stroke should be laid down as if it is never getting lifted.”

-“Maximize the utility of the highlight. Give them breathing room in your design.”

-“The light (within a painting) can describe the intensity of the light on the subject, the surface texture, direction of the light, the contour that it is going over.”

On painting flowers: “Start with the outside shape of the flower, get that accurate. Then strive for the dimensional -the light and dark of it. Only then have you earned the right to paint a petal. Work abstract to detail.”

-“Say the most with the least. Be precise and you can get away with suggestion.”

-On the second day of a painting Johnson begins reworking the canvas by reapplying the background color so he has something to paint into.

On painting rugs: ” Try to establish a pattern. Don’t be a slave to it. Rugs should have a clear, paintable pattern to them. Use the weave of the canvas to describe the weave of the rug (sometimes scratches the paint away with the side of a palette knife to reveal the weave). Say the most with least. Allow the materials to do the work for you. Go back in and restate the design of the rug but avoid getting mechanical & uniform with your brushstrokes. Use a light touch, get the paint just on the tip of your brush and drag it into place.”

-“Brushwork should be a muscle memory thing. You should be able to render the object just by looking at it with your eyes.”

“Just lay the paint on. No scrubbing. The paint will look better if you just allow it to do what it naturally does.”

-“You need a blend of soft and hard edges. Let the soft edges dominate. Use hard edges sparingly. Especially in the background. ”

-“If you can do it in one stroke it looks better. Start with a very light touch and then apply pressure-the stem will be painted naturally going from thin to thick.”

Detail from Robert Johnson’s finished demo, June 2015.


-Follows thick lights/thin darks rule.

-Gets a highlight on quickly to key in the values.

-“A trick from Sargent’s portraits: Add more light/color to the shadow of a subject–just past its contour. It helps turn form more and gives a sense of air.”

-“Within the dark areas there are accents. The opposite in value of highlights.”

-“We never think “dark” (values) with flowers but we should.”

On foliage: “Layer light over dark, dark over light–adds dimension. Overlapping planes also give you dimensional”.

“Cast shadows are extremely important. Get them in early. They keep everything honest, related. The main thing I think about here is getting them dark enough and in the right places.”

On greenery: “Ultramarine blue + Cad yellow pale + something from the red family. Always sneak red into your greens.”

On painting red roses: “Don’t make lights, lighter- make darks, darker. White only makes red look chalky.”

-“Be careful painting yellow roses. It is the color most easily adulterated. It turns the key way down when other colors are accidentally introduced to it”.


Recommended Reading

-“Painting Techniques of the Masters”, Hereward Lester Cook

-“Russia, the Land, the People”

-“The Painted Word”, Tom Wolfe


A comparison of Robert Johnson’s subject and painting from the second workshop, June 2016 (unfortunately the photos are not taken from the same exact position). Notice how beautifully nuanced he pairs the background color to his rug. He changed the hue to suit his artistic statement.He also turned up the chroma in the design of the vase for the same reason.
The finished demo painting, June 2016.





Art Tourist: Seeking Andrew Wyeth

Suzanne Lago Arthur Outside A. Wyeth Studio
Here I am proudly standing in front of the door to Andrew Wyeth’s studio in Chadds Ford, PA. Imagine being so famous that you need a sign like that in order to get work done. Love it!

Last November, my family and I made a very special pilgrimage to the Brandywine Museum, but more specifically to the studio of the late great Andrew Wyeth and to the Kuerner Farm that he immortalized. I have been a huge fan of Andrew since my childhood and a couple of years back was also able to visit the Olson property in Maine that he made famous in his painting “Cristina’s World”. Little did I realize that the great man is buried there or I would have introduced myself to him properly, paid my respects and thanked him for all the years of inspiration.

Every year since my trip to Maine, I have promised myself that I would go see his studio in Chadds Ford, which is only open for part of the year. And every year it seems I would miss the window. But finally during last November I made it and on the very last weekend that it was open. Hooray!

So you may be asking yourself why I am writing this post now? Because the studio is open again for tours from April 1st – Nov 20th. Chadds Ford is beautiful during this time of the year. If you are a fan of the Wyeths as I am, you will not want to miss the opportunity to experience their world and the huge impression they left behind in the Pennsylvanian countryside.

Andrew Wyeth’s studio in Chadds Ford, PA.

Andrew’s studio is set up exactly as the artist left it. As if he has just stepped out of his studio for one of his regular walks in the surrounding countryside. There are drawings (reproductions) strewn throughout the floor. Egg tempera supplies still await his skillful hands and jars of luminous dry pigments line a window’s ledge.

Copy of A. Wyeth drawings
Watercolor and graphite drawings (reproductions) are tacked up on the wall just as Andrew would have kept them.
Jamie Wyeth’s corner of his Dad’s studio showing preliminary drawings of Robert and Edward Kennedy.He used these studies to help him achieve a likeness for the commissioned posthumous portrait of  President John F. Kennedy.
A partial view of Andrew Wyeth’s personal book collection. The “art nerd” in me rejoiced upon the very site of it.

We were able to see the Kuerner Farm as well which was a huge treat considering that Andrew produced over 370 works of art on the property. There is a wonderful book documenting his time and productivity on the farm called “Wyeth at Kuerners”. It is out of print now but if you are able to get a hold of a copy I would highly recommend it. It contains a personal narrative told by Andrew on each of his paintings from this series including all the preliminary drawings. It is an invaluable insight into the process of a great American master artist. I got my treasured copy from a wonderful friend (thank you again, Karen) but I have seen them available any where from $8 – $249. The curatorial staff at the Brandywine even reads from it during their tours.

Kuerner House
Here is the Kuerner House seen from the window.
Kuerner House_Evening At The Kuerners
(Above) Another angle of the Kuerner house with one of Andrew Wyeth’s painting’s, “Evening at the Kuerners” for reference (Below). My husband and I once owned a similarly aged  “4 Square” farmhouse. I wonder now if I was drawn to it subconsciously from spending all that time staring at these Kuerner paintings.
Sink in Kuerner's Barn_Spring Fed
(Above) Just inside the Kuerner’s barn is the original spring fed sink. (Below) Andrew Wyeth’s “Spring Fed”painting.
My son, standing on the Kuerner porch watching the sun set at the end of our excursion.

What’s on my easel: “Abuelo & Alexander”

WIP_AbueloandAlexanderWIP. I am almost at the finishing line of this portrait of my Dad and son. Yay! The reference here was taken 2-3 years ago. I started it and then had to put it on hold for a while due to commissions.

There will still be some refinement done to the figures and background before I am done. The next time you see this painting will be when it is finished and I have had my photographer take the official picture of it. I will blog about the creation of the painting then. For now, please ignore the glare in this cell pic.


Workshop Wednesday: Teresa Oaxaca, the Figure in Charcoal

“La Primavera (self portrait)”,  charcoal on paper,  by artist Teresa Oaxaca.

This past weekend I ushered in the New Year with a bang by attending Teresa Oaxaca’s “Figure in Charcoal” workshop at the Art League in Alexandria, VA on Jan 2 – Jan 3rd. Considering that just the day before the workshop I was a little sleep deprived–and ok, maybe still “recovering” from the festivities, I was really happy and perhaps a little surprised when everything “clicked” for me during the workshop. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been, Teresa Oaxaca has a lot to share with her fellow artists so listen up.

Full disclosure: I have been a big Teresa Oaxaca fan from the very first moment I met her in Rob Liberace’s classes at the Art League. In fact, I own two of her self portrait drawings and one of her etchings (hint: when she says something is unsold over social media, that is your cue that you can purchase it). Teresa is one of my favorite contemporary artists and in my opinion the most promising. I just love the boldness of her charcoal drawings, the mixture of the gestural abstraction and rendered form. They are exquisite.  And the fact that Teresa herself is super sweet and down to earth–I just knew I could learn a lot from her and I definitely did.

The following are my notes from the workshop and I hope you gain as much enlightenment from them as I did.

Teresa Oaxaca during her charcoal portrait demo.

-Teresa’s block-in is a big envelope, very loose, light & gestural.

-Sometimes the looseness (gesture) from the beginning is kept through the piece {I would add that it is this initial gesture that gives so much life & contrast of textures in her drawings}.

-She begins with a jumbo soft charcoal piece and initially adds a center line, eye line & forehead line followed by the shadow shapes of the eyes and nose. The rendering of the mouth and chin come second.

-Prefers Canson Mi Tientes paper (smooth side) and vine charcoal.

-Teresa uses a lot of straight hatching lines. “Easier to get structure in and keep it that way.”

-Usually works life sized and steps back from the easel often to check her drawing.

-If you want to use crazy, energetic hatch lines like Sargent did in his charcoals (and Teresa does) you must have a solid geometric structure underneath {This subtle but powerful advice was one of the things that really resonated for me}.

In process shots from Teresa Oaxaca's charcoal portrait demo.
In process shots from Teresa Oaxaca’s charcoal portrait demo.

-“Geometric shapes render & anchor the drawing.”

-Her subjects start off looking more exaggerated in the beginning and then get more accurate as she continues working.

-She spends most of her time developing the light & shadow areas and then will knit them together.

-The nature of charcoal is that it is just dust. Get used to the fact that you will be constantly readdressing your darks throughout the process  of creating a drawing.

-Uses a brush to soften along the core shadow on a cheekbone or will just drag the charcoal across.

-Shadows are solid, mid tones are a combination of blending or hatching (veiling).

-“I like to put the directional changes in the shadow shapes.”

-She will often put a little speck of white chalk highlight in order to key her values {again, advice worth the price of admission right here}.

-“If your drawing is failing it is because you are not obeying the light/dark patterns.”

-Ask yourself on the simplest of Master drawings, “What makes this really work?”. Dissect and understand it.

-Most of the drawing will be carried by the in-between places that are either smudged or hatched.

-Make sure the shadow pattern is correct, even on a smaller form like the eye. The big shapes still need to be rendered on the smaller forms. Same rules apply!

-If you know you don’t have time, stick to developing structure.

-She often veils in highlights on the planes of the forehead.

-Sargent spent all of his time on the structure and would throw his characteristic slap-dash bravura mark at the very last minute.

-If you don’t plan on rendering an area leave it as a block-in or else you will be forced to fully resolve it.

-Gesture is the foundation of a minimalist drawing.

-Take pictures every half hour, it will reveal your own process to you. It also works as a mirror to show you your mistakes.

Process shots from my drawing of James created during the second day of the workshop.


My completed drawing of James.

I want to personally thank Teresa for a wonderful workshop experience. Prior to this workshop, I never felt completely in control with Charcoal but I definitely feel more in control now and intend on practicing with it more often.

You can follow Teresa Oaxaca and her blog at her website, on Facebook at, on twitter and Instagram at @teresaoaxaca.