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.

Technique Tuesday: Debra Keirce, Miniature Art and the World of Tiny Tiny Brushes

Artist Debra Keirce at her (field) easel. Notice she is working under a magnifying glass and has an xacto knife close at hand.

One of my earliest memories of art is of my Aunt’s miniature portrait, painted of her while she was a young woman growing up in Havana. I was completely fascinated by that painting, by its scale, by its highly realistic rendering, by the simple IDEA of it. I think that early memory has always been somehow in the back of my mind as I became an adult and an artist.

Flash forward to now. I have a good friend named Debra Keirce who is a very accomplished artist and specializes in miniature fine art paintings. Ever since I have known her she has tried to recruit me to the miniature art world. And I will admit the temptation has been there, to at least dip my toes in it, all because of my Aunt’s portrait.

Contemporary miniatures are often defined as being less than 25 square inches and smaller than 1/6 original subject size. Some societies and shows define them as being smaller than 8″x10 or 12″ in any dimension. All require a tightly rendered artwork such that it appears similar to a much larger painting when viewed under magnification. This is why most miniature artists, Debra included, use 5x to 20x magnifiers while painting.

Debra has graciously agreed to answer some questions for Technique Tuesday for all of you who are also curious about making miniature art.

SLA: Can you please acquaint our audience with the origins of miniature painting? 

DK: Probably not as well as Google can. But basically, miniature fine art started with the manuscripts produced by scribes in Renaissance Days… 1600’s. With the advent of the printing press, miniature artists began selling portraits instead of text. Wealthy Europeans prized miniature portraits that fit in their pockets. When they were away from loved ones, they would keep their miniature paintings in lockets on their persons. This is where the tiny metal frames became popular. The advent of photography caused miniature art to undergo major changes, and is really where the modern miniature fine art societies, collectors and artists were born from.

SLA: Please describe the historical substrates, mediums & traditional techniques of miniature painting:

DK: I really am not so interested in history, unless I can use it today. Google can answer that question better than I. Modern substrates include polymin and ivorine, which are smooth synthetics meant to mimic ivory. Piano keys are often used. Feathers are sometimes seen in shows. Vellum made from animal skins is a popular surface. Most of us use smooth substrates like panels, dibond, artboard, illustration board.

Mediums used today have been used for hundreds of years, but obviously they have evolved over the centuries. Oil and acrylics, gouache and transparent watercolor, egg tempera, silverpoint and other metal points, gold leaf… These are all used in modern miniature paintings.

Traditional miniature painting techniques include cross hatching and stipple.

Acrylic on board. Artist, Debra Keirce.
SLA: What modern techniques are being utilized by miniature artists today?

DK: Modern techniques vary a lot. Each artist finds their own way to adapt to the challenges of painting. I know artists who literally paint entire pieces in stipple, like a computer assembles images from pixels. Other will use a mische technique of painting in opaque and transparent layers. This is especially popular with egg tempera painters. Many painters use dozens of delicate glazes.

I can tell you what I do. I use acrylic or oil paint, and I typically first paint a grisaille underpainting, but often I will let some of my conte crayon drawing show through, along with some of the ground. I lay in the local color with a transparent glaze. Then I will paint the details and textures, but the whole time I will use an exacto blade and embossing tools to literally sculpt the paint and the top layer of substrate. In this way, I can achieve finer details and lettering. I like to paint on substrates like maple panels, illustration board, dibond, clayboard, artboard. Depending on the subject, I will choose a substrate with more or less give. Harder substrates are better when I want softer edges and less sculpting. Architecture is better on softer substrates that allow me to cut crisp edges.

SLA: What is your favorite painting tip you can share with us?

DK: My favorite painting tip is to paint what you see, not what you think you see. For me, the best part of the painting is when I go into a place of abstraction. I am painting the dark shapes, then the midtone shapes, highlights, feathering edges, etc. But I will not be thinking about the object. Instead, I am feeling the value changes, admiring the colors, sensing the light paths. Then, I step back and enjoy seeing the photo realism that sprang from that totally abstract experience.

SLA: Where do you buy your tiny tiny equipment for your miniatures, i.e. paintbrushes, frames etc?

DK: I buy paintbrushes from everywhere, but my favorites are Kalish, an Irish company when I have money, and Creative Mark when I need to budget. In either case, I prefer watercolor synthetic brushes…Rounds with very pointy tips are best. I like the number six rounds for most of my painting. I will pull in a quarter inch flat or a 20/0 liner on occasion. But mostly, I want a brush that will hold a lot of easy flowing paint and deliver alternately a very thin line or a thicker smudge.

I do my own mounting and wiring, but buy my custom frames from They are very reasonably priced, they have beautiful moldings, their workmanship is top notch, and they are one of the few frame suppliers with equipment suited to small miniature frames.

My magnifiers are lighted full spectrum lamps available at office supply stores, and I have several tabletop easels I use.

SLA: What miniature societies do you belong to?

DK: I am a signature member of The Hilliard Society at named after Nicholas Hilliard who was the official miniature portrait artist for Queen Elizabeth 1 in the 1500’s.

My budget precludes me from pursuing membership in The Royal miniature Society, but it is the oldest of the miniature societies, founded in 1896. Here us a link to the history they describe on their site:

I am a signature member of The World Federation of Miniaturists and Miniature Painters Sculptors Gravers Society of Washington D.C. You are required to be part of the societies for a number of years, participate in a number of juried exhibitions and receive a number of awards to receive the invitation for signature membership.

I am also a member of the Miniature Art Society of Florida. I have not been a member long enough to meet the eligibility requirements for their Miniature Artists of America designation, but fully expect to be part of this prestigious group one day.

SLA: Feel free to showboat a little here. Where can we see your work in person? Where can we follow you on-line?

My website at lists all of my social media contacts, newsletter sign up, current exhibitions, the galleries I am represented by, which include in Rockville, MD and in Nags Head, NC.

SLA: Thank you Debra for your thoughtful answers and for sharing your beautiful art with us!

“Where are my glasses?”. 9″ x 7″. Acrylic on board. Artist, Debra Keirce.
Finalist in the prestigious 2013 Art Renewal Center’s “Salon International”.