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.


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.





Commissioning a Portrait

“Ben, Anna & Charlie”. Oil on canvas. 27″ x 38″. 2014. Private collection.

There are few things in life as artistically satisfying for me than to have the opportunity to create an heirloom quality portrait for a client. Perhaps it is the exhilaration of observing the client’s emotional reaction to the work that I find so rewarding. But I can’t help but feel that this is the way that I can best share my “gift” with others–by helping people honor and immortalize those they hold so dear.

I can create a pastel drawing or oil painting of your loved one or colleague starting at various price points. Below is an outline of my typical commission process:

  • Personal Consultation: Initial discussion to identify scope of work and client objectives.
  • Subject Observation: Meeting with subject (portrait sitter) to observe & better understand the personality and mannerisms of the individual. If possible, I will sketch and make initial studies from life.
  • Photo-shoot Preparation: Photo-shoot location & date identified along with attire and and other details.
  • Photo-shoot and Review: Photos are taken (for use as painting references), processed and reviewed with the client to identify candidates for the final painted portrait.
  • Painting/Delivery: Typically a year once the painting process begins depending upon the complexity and scope of the work. Note: A 50% deposit is required at the time of booking.

Please contact me directly for my 2017 Commission Prices.


Workshop Wednesday: Rick Weaver’s Abstraction for Realists

Drawing by artist, Rick Weaver.

I’ve had the pleasure of taking two workshops from the artist, Rick Weaver. Rick has extremely impressive credentials having received his formal art training in New York at the National Academy of Design, the New York Academy (now known as the Graduate School for Figurative Art), and the Art Students League.  He studied painting and drawing with a number of notable art instructors, including Robert Beverly Hale, Ted Seth Jacobs, Ron Sherr, Harvey Dinnerstein and he earned his Master of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, where he was influenced by the sculptor Billy Lee.

I can tell you from experience that he is a deep thinker who stretches your mind alongside your skills. He seems to come at things always from a new angle and perhaps this is because he is both a sculptor and a painter, and extremely accomplished at both. I’ve discovered that the best teachers show you how they think which is much more powerful than learning someone’s style. Rick is definitely that kind of teacher. If you ever have the opportunity to take one of his workshops, I would strongly encourage that you do so.

Below are my notes and photos I took during his workshop this past July which was hosted in the beautiful studio of Francie Freitas. Thank you Francie for having included me in this wonderful workshop.

Rick Weaver Workshop
Abstraction for Realists
July 22 2014

[Rick began Day 1 of his workshop by having us look at prints of masterpieces he intentionally distorted digitally (using filters) to better show us the degree of abstraction underpinning the work.]

Here are some print outs of Master paintings that Rick altered digitally to aid in showing us the abstraction and formal properties underlying each painting.

When you look at a great masterpiece in a museum, if you pay attention you will always notice an emphasis on composition.

“Ask yourself why an artist did things. Why a cloud there? Why that shape?”

Great painting is a combination of formal elements; line, shape, color & value organization.

Space is not a formal element but it collects form together for us. So does rhythm, so does light. Visual weight etc.

“There is a natural trade off between the amount of resolution (finish) you want and the base abstract power of the painting.”

“Making a painting is not copying nature. Old masters made significant changes to what they observed in making their paintings. Be aware of this and be sensitive to it in your work.”

“Make yourself make changes for the better in your work.”

There are 3 main elements of painting
1.  Subject Matter, what you see in the painting, direction of etc.
2. Form= line, shape, color (value)
3. Content

Artist Rick Weaver demonstrating how he begins his drawings by using a connective line that unites the objects and helps him to emphasize strong compositional elements from the onset.

The early stages in a painting are an opportunity to give your painting a strong abstract power to build upon.

Don’t think of objects as separate. Think of them as joined, like in their shadows & forms, color.

If you think in terms of object you are ultimately separating. If you think inclusively you will see all kinds of connections.

Like in figure, the shadow is often indicative of the color of the drapery.

Show those connections.

Rounded lines are organic.

Angled lines are inorganic.

There should be a strong connection between form & subject matter.

Square, is a non directional shape, neutral. Look at Lincoln Perry. Be wary of putting something right in the middle because it will be weak.

Look at subject matter and see it as pattern within the rectangle. (Matisse)

There aren’t really any definitive books on composition out there that I am aware of but these books are a start:

Erle Loran book on Cezanne composition

-Andrew Loomis’ book on perfect mean

Things you can physically do at the start of a painting to think formally:

Connectivity/Unity-literally make things connect in the beginning.

Always make a rectangle on your page to set up your boundary, picture plane.

“As soon as you put a silhouette you are making an object”. Draw a two dimensional shape showing how the subjects link into each other from edge to edge, line to line. Work from the edge of the picture plane in. You can get in touch very quickly with the whole thing this way. Picture remains open, promotes flexibility.

You can use a more organic or architectural line.

No line has anything to do with the object. It functions just form connectivity. Same thing with tone, divide the subject into 2 or 3 values.

Here Rick organizes and classifies his values into 3 distinct tones which help unify his drawing.

“If I can’t get a preliminary sketch to say/do what I want it to in 3 values, I never go further with it.”

What seems to visually connect to you? You got to want it. Make it connect. Be on the hunt for those 3 values and only those values.

Vertical spacing pushes things towards you.

Horizontal spacing pushes things away.

Pay attention to your “sit down” (object touches plane) spacing will give you the horizontal space.

Paying attention to negative space will give you the vertical spacing.

Ideally make your circuit within a minute round the entire drawing for that first exploratory line.

Exercise to just allow things to connect more than anything else (mine was too slow).

Am I able to move into the picture? Is there ground plane? Foreground, middle ground, back ground?


Day 2

4 color palette, primaries + white
Permanent rose, Ultramarine blue (or thalo blue), cad lemon

The underpainting of Rick’s demo in ultramarine blue.

Subject of demo: Hue-the most problematic issue of color.

Gestural start, linking forms. One continuous line.

Thinned down ultramarine

Uses a brush larger than he’s comfortable with to keep him from drawing objects.

Holds brush perpendicular to surface, carving shapes as he masses in.

Tries to think in terms of three values, light, dark mid tone.

When he starts adding local color he looks to see where else it shows up, shadows, reflections etc.

“As I am working I am trying to reinforce my idea (initial gesture/approach) with the way I paint. Being consistent with the same approach through out the painting.”

“The last thing I want to do is complete an object with this approach. I want to keep things open.”

“I am starting to think about the quality of lights anything in the light has both yellow and red to it. You must use both.”

“I really try to keep it formal, stay away from object making as much as possible.”

“With the figure, I approach the same way but if I want a more traditional approach I take more care with the drawing. ”

I will go back and introduce the (unifying) line in drawing while painting (as many times as needed).

Here Rick adds two more primary values which begins to reveal and emphasize the strong abstract composition of his painting.

On a personal note I want to thank Rick for helping me to stretch both my thinking and my technique. I will be back for more workshops. You can count on that!

Technique Tuesday: C – Thru Rulers

My trusty 12 inch clear ruler. And no it is not a “dirty” trick as you might think from the label. Just my stockpile of dirty brushes that await cleaning.

Some fancy artists out there will use calipers to help them make adjustments to their work. You don’t get fancy around here, just useful and sometimes cheap. This trick of mine falls into both categories. I use those cheap and abundant clear rulers you can pick up anywhere to measure both my subject and my paintings when they get out of whack proportionally. That is to say if I am working at life size. Normally I have a really strong sense of proportion when I am drawing or painting, but I don’t always “nail it”. That’s when I pull out my trusty little ruler. It is such a useful tip that I keep one of them always nearby with my brushes while I am painting.

A note of caution: if you are painting from a model, they usually prefer for you to ask permission to measure them. Just saying.

Technique Tuesday: Drawing Revelations with Dan Thompson

Dan Thompson’s “open” charcoal portrait about 30 mins into the pose, drawn from life. Notice how there are no harsh contours, just lots of hatch marks that make up the mass of the drawing.

In August I attended yet another workshop with Dan Thompson. 2 actually, back to back. Both of them on drawing. I see Dan as a cosmic guide on my life long journey as an artist. He leaves little bread crumbs of wisdom to follow on the path to improvement. Most recently he left me with two life changing concepts. The first is the revelation of what “closed” and “open” drawings are. Closed drawings are those with specific contours. They are precise, drawn from the outside in and do not allow much room for alterations. Open drawings are the opposite. They are built from the inside out. They are more mass than contour, they are flexible. They are forgiving. I had never heard these terms before, perhaps because I did not attend a particularly traditional art school. Hearing these terms allowed me to understand my own frustrations with my drawing–most noticeably a tendency for strong contours. To think that I could simply reverse engineer my drawing technique to get at the quality I want in my work was literally mind blowing! And the last revelation I received from Dan’s workshop was to approach each effort in drawing and painting as if making a “proposal”. If you get it wrong, so what! Just alter your proposal. Brilliant right? And it totally takes the pressure off.

Dan Thompson 4 Color Chalk Workshop

Dan Thompson with his diagram explaining the anatomy of the nose and mouth.
Dan Thompson with his diagram explaining the anatomy of the nose and mouth.

Back in December I had the real pleasure of attending my first Dan Thompson workshop at the Art League in Alexandria VA. Dan happens to be teaching another workshop next weekend on March 23 & 24 and believe me when I tell you that it is completely worth your time and money to attend if you can. I had pages and pages of notes from his first workshop on anatomy alone, something I had not expected from a 4 color chalk portrait drawing class.

In full disclosure, Dan and I have some shared history–as in we both attended the Corcoran College of Art + Design back in the 90’s. Dan graduated two years before me but I still remember his amazing realism and sensitive self portraits which stood apart from every one else’s work simply because no one was painting like that at the Corcoran then or even since. Flash forward 18 years post his Corcoran BFA, an MFA from the Graduate School of Figurative Art of the New York Academy of Art and Dan is now a highly respected artist & teacher. In 2006 Thompson co-founded the Grand Central Academy of Art in New York. In 2008, he co-founded the Janus Collaborative School of Art in New York. In addition he has instructed privately at Studio 126 in New York and is on the faculty of Parsons the New School for Design, the New York Academy of Art, The Art Students League of New York, and Studio Incamminati, in Philadelphia, PA. In 2007, Thompson was selected an ARC Living Master Artist. To say I am proud to know this generous artist & gifted teacher is an understatement.

And now without further ado, my notes from his 4 Color Chalk Workshop, straight from my archives of workshop “awesomeness”:

Thompson explaining the rhythmic planes of the face on his écorché sculpture.

Notes of Materials & Drawing Aids

-Uses Othello & Conte pencils in red, black, yellow & white.
-Capitalize on chalk based material early on in your drawing because it is easy to remove.
-Also uses Kremer pigments, Lapis Lazuli, Smalt Blue, Red Ball chalks, vine charcoal & shammy.
-Be careful when working on a toned paper not to lift the ground when erasing.
-Best watercolor wash for paper- raw umber, ultramarine blue & dioxazine purple. Shoot for a cool colored neutral.
-READ the John H. Vanderpoel book, “The Human Figure” published in 1907. A must for understanding proper figure construction based on anatomy.
-“Figure out someone’s technical model for planes of the head & use it!”
-Likes Strathmore 400 artist’s series paper or semi tooth laid paper like Ingres etc. Must be ph neutral and 100% acid free.
-Get yourself a resin cast skull for serious portrait drawing ($250 –Bone Room, Berkley CA.)
-Take an écorché class (without skin) for accurate muscle awareness. Steve Perkins @ Janus School–excellent écorché instructor.

Notes on Anatomy of the Face

-The temporal ridge, where the side of the head meets the front resembles a covered bridge.
-The back of the skull resembles a pentagon in shape.
-Planes in the face follow each other, upward planes flanked by downward planes creating a rhythm.
-The underside of the cranium & jaw is shaped like a woman’s high heel when viewed from the side.
-Occipital bone is the lower point on the back of the head.
-There is a “triple curve” from the outside flare of the nose stepping along the outside of the mouth.
-The eye socket drops in a series of steps & terminates in the the lower eyelid furrow.
-The node of the mouth is the convergence of different muscles.
-Lines or creases form perpendicular to the muscle fiber (look for this).
-You can craft the nose out of a block, “door stop” form of the nose.
-Emphasize the under plane of the nose.
-A common mistake when rendering the nose is to not go past the eye lid with the nasal bone.
-“Alar cartilage” is the ball of the nose, shaped like an olive. It comes from the tear duct, twists & drops into a V shape
-The nose is a lesson in triangles.
-There is a rim in the enclosure of the nostril that often gets overlooked, make sure to include it.
-Develop your own secret figure reference (canon) for what anatomy should look like so that you know when it differs in an individual.
-There are 5 transitional planes in the nose when looking at it in profile beginning with the bridge, curving around the tip and ending in the plane before the lip.
-Ears will get bigger as people age.
-From the side an ear looks like a little capital D within another D.
-The ear comes out from the head like a door suspended open by the “concha” or hollow next to the ear canal.
-The helix is the upper curve of the outer ear.
-The anti-helix is the y shape with the ear.
-Draw in pairs when you can; feet, hands etc. Each completed form helps define the other.

Dan Thompson's beautiful finished 4 color chalk demo.
Dan Thompson’s beautiful 4 color chalk demo.
Detail of Dan Thompson's 4 color chalk demo.
Detail of Dan Thompson’s 4 color chalk demo. Just look at all that amazing mark making he does!

Notes on creating the 4 chalk drawing

-Test out your pencils on your paper.
-Red pencil + stump = warm
-Red pencil +white pencil= cool pink
-Red pencil+ yellow pencil= warm orange
-Red pencil + black pencil= cool violet
-Black pencil + yellow pencil= warm green
-Helpful to have a pencil the same color as your toned paper should you erase too much of the base color away.
-Shellacking makes paper more resilient.
-Look for the simple design in light & dark.
-Think more about what’s there and not adding to what you are seeing.
-Focuses on his “scanning eye” that sees quickly to give him information of the forms.
-Pulls lines through & out of drawing-trajectory.
-Works at life size of slightly smaller.
-Focus on gesture, that way you get into the spirit of the pose.
-Abbreviate what you see to encourage the mobility of the eye around the portrait.
-Keep areas (measurements) open, allows flexibility to accommodate change & correction.
-Flat patterns of dark & light.
-Charcoal vines are great for the initial layout. They make you think broadly, no detail & are very forgiving.
-If you pretend not to “focus” on the model you see big forms better.
-It is useful not to think of features in the beginning, only shapes & their proportions to each other.
-Search for the 2D. Squint to see “flat” shapes.
-Find a fixed variable based on life size and note it down on your drawing. Then allow for “flex” in other directions to improve your drawing.
-Does not lighten his darks in the beginning. Instead keeps them a a false value–all shadow the same tone to help him arrive at the underlying forms.
-Pay attention to the things that artists ignore like the neck & ear. It will make you better than the average artist.
-Be careful when your drawing transitions from the 2D to the 3D. This is where the integrity of the drawing can begin to break down.
-Be aware of your eye level & what impact that has on your drawing.
-Turn the light off to see what your model’s head movement is (and not what the light is doing).
-Highlights should be indicated in a directional manner along anatomy references. They are place holders.
-Often uses two whites when drawing. One is kept really sharp for detail, one more blunt for softening edges.

My drawing from Dan Thompson's workshop.
My drawing from Dan Thompson’s workshop.

To register for Dan Thompson’s portrait painting workshop at the Art League in Alexandria VA on March 23 & 24 click here.

Hope to see you all there!

Liberace’s “The Classic Portrait from Pencil to Watercolor” Workshop, Nov 30 – Dec 2

Portrait drawing created by Robert Liberace on Day One of his drawing & watercolor workshop.

Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending yet another of Robert Liberace’s fabulous workshops at the Art League in Alexandria VA, this one on drawing & painting portraits (watercolor). Every time I find myself in one of Liberace’s classes, I am made aware of how much there is to learn about this thing we call “art”. Specifically for me I am interested in learning how Liberace makes his work look so elegant and at the same time so dynamic. Every stroke has its purpose and I am working towards accomplishing that same thing (er… at least attempting to).

Here are the notes and photos I took from the workshop (click on the photos to enlarge). It is my honest wish dear reader, that something in the post will resonate with you (and with me) and we’ll walk away as better artists or at least more enlightened ones. And how could we not when we are privy to the inner thoughts of a modern day master?

Day One, Drawing the Portrait:


  • Mechanical pencils, bic
  • Works mostly in HB, uses harder or softer pencils occasionally to achieve his values
  • Anything beyond 2B gets too dark in his opinion
  • Nibs
  • Watercolor
  • Ink


  • Follow the (Charles) Bargue idea
  • Strong light & shadow
  • Liberace loves TwinRocker paper, Canson “Mi Tientes” too
  • Looks at Ingres for fabric
  • Treat every detail of the picture like a portrait
  • Likes to paint in watercolor on a smaller scale like Fortuny
  • Box out your shadows, map them out then slowly add midtones
  • Ingres faces are almost decorative–like and engraving but with “spots of action”
  • Really study Ingres–get a good book on Ingres’ drawings!
  • Make shapes that are so clear & obvious, terminator shading
  • Add pentimenti flying through there
  • Tieopolo liked to add “marks of 3” in his drawings, very Venetian technique. Sargent employed this as well
  • Looser shadow & animated but still differentiation of light & dark
  • (Tiepolo) Begins with charcoal before ink
  • Simple mass of shadow
  • Fortuny used black, umber & sienna in his watercolors, shadow always finding form
  • Zorn used monochromatic watercolor with opaque white on top for emphasis & highlight
  • If you ever need to steady your drawing or watercolor readdress area with a contour line
  • You can add a little water to a brush and dilute an area of a graphite drawing (works the same way as in a watercolor), good for evening tones or for contours
Watercolor portrait by Rob Liberace.
An assortment of Liberace’s watercolors that students are free to handle & study up close.

Day Two, The Portrait in Watercolor:


  • Begins sketching in pencil, then jumps into watercolor
  • Quick assessment of light/shadow
  • Will often begin by doing a quick “Tiepolo” style study with one tone, maybe throw in an accent
  • Loosely sketch in pencil, then adds a gestural contour in watercolor
  • Adds mass & shadow
  • Try not to be too specific with lines, be more suggestive–“it is what gives that romantic feeling”
  • “Your job is to find out where the light is ending, the more you break that up the harder your job becomes”
  • “Melt” the detail into your shadows if you aren’t so sure where they begin
  • Connect half tones to the shadow & “feather” it out
  • “It is really all about editing what you see”
Liberace’s painting from Day Three of model Steve dressed as a Union soldier.

Day Three, The Portrait in Watercolor:


  • Burnt Sienna,
  • Black,
  • Chinese or permanent white,
  • Cadmium Yellow Light (or similar bright yellow),
  • Cadmium Red ( or similar bright red),
  • Ultramarine Blue.

Optional Palette:

  • Alizarin Crimson,
  • Manganese Violet,
  • Cerulean Blue,
  • Pthalo Blue,
  • Viridian Green,
  • Pthalo or Hookers Green.


  • When sketching his gesture he holds his pencil at the end
  • Puts in markers (enveloping)
  • Blocks in his “axis lines”
  • Liberally throws crimson wash over the whole face & “melts” it out
  • Drops in yellow & violet for the beard
  • Throws in black for the uniform
  • Shadow on face, a warm green made of black & yellow & sienna
  • On the nob of the nose uses a little extra red
  • Drops in extra water for the fold of the eyes–orbital fold
  • Draws eye, ties it in to the shadow then carefully marks the lower lid with it
  • Goes back and forth between different temperatures
  • Will add half tones in when there is not a lot of shadow to delineate form
  • Thinks in planes, color & temperature all the time
  • Ties a lot of the elements of the eye together to simplify
  • Soften edges
  • Loves TwinRocker heavy text, light art weight, calligraphy cream paper
  • On halftones he is careful not to leave heavy block ins
  • “I don’t want to plan things too much. Sometimes watercolorists work to tightly–allow spontaneity”
  • Moves in with smaller brushes
  • Will use watercolor & a bristle brush to scumble areas
  • Puts color in shadows
  • Will refine edges on strokes he doesn’t like so that is will dry as a mass that he can paint on later
  • Really “feathers” a lot of these edges out
  • Likes to see a lot of shape & pattern to a form like Sorolla & Fortuny
  • Will erase at the end with a “perfect pencil” (eraser pencil with brush at the end) & then uses a white charcoal pencil to add highlights with
  • Chinese white paint is used at the end over dry white paint when needed (alla Zorn)
Here is a drawing I did on Day One of our model Steve–dressed as a sailor. My family however decided he had a striking resemblance to someone else and promptly displayed him on our Christmas mantle.

Hope your holidays were as wonderful as ours. Wishing you much artistic growth and success in the New Year!