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.


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.





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.





Impasto Logs 6: Pure Awesomeness

Impasto LogsI have been anxiously awaiting the latest installment of David Cheifetz’s awesome painting podcast. It is one of my absolute favorites to listen to when I’m in the studio. Not too long ago I went on a bender and heard ALL of them while painting and was left wanting more. So I was really happy today to discover that he had published a new one, #6 in the series, on the subject of composition which was a topic he covered in great depth at the recent workshop I took with him. Imagine my surprise then when I heard him mention my name, in particular the copious notes & blog post I wrote about his workshop. I was literally grinning from ear to ear when I heard it and somehow managed to keep a paintbrush moving in my hand.

Thanks so much for the shout out, David! You totally made my day!

To listen to David Cheifetz’s wonderful podcast, please click on the Impasto Logs logo above.

Technique Tuesday: Cleaning Up Your Act {and Brushes}

Last week I brought you Teresa Fischer’s20140114-090741.jpg tip to clean your brushes with walnut oil. And because I had begun to hear similar things from other artists and because even Rosemary herself of Rosemary & Co. recommends cleaning your brushes with oil, I had decided to try it for myself. Then last Friday at my weekly class with Rob Liberace, my art cohort Carter Corbin brought in this product called Jack’s Linseed Studio Soap and offered to let me try it. When I looked at the bottle I instantly remembered that I had a little sample of it waiting for me at home that I had never opened. So thanks to Carter, I then did something I never do after workshops & classes, I actually cleaned my brushes. It was such an amazing experience with this product! It is all natural, made simply of linseed oil & soap. And like conditioner on hair, my brushes eagerly soaked it in. I am proud to say I have officially reformed my ways and now clean my bushes everyday with a combination of Teresa’s technique (wiping the color off with oil in between uses) and then using Jack’s Linseed Studio Soap at the end of the day to thoroughly clean them.

Goodbye stinky, toxic OMS! Turns out I never really needed you after all.

I want to thank Teresa & Carter for opening my eyes to this new Technique Tip and also Susan Gallagher O’Neill for serendipitously picking me up a large bottle recently at our local art store. I have the best art friends!

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.

‘Tis the Season for “Plein Air”

My allergies are at an all time high which can only mean one thing, it must be “plein air” season! Plein air is a fancy French term referring to landscape painting on location. Apparently the tradition goes all the way back to the French academies and the atelier system. It was common back then for artists to spend the Fall and Winter in the studio producing finished work, and to spend the Spring and Summers plein air painting.

I have been dreaming all week of plein air painting myself but my traitorous allergies prevent me from doing so. {Insert colorful French curse words here} Instead, I will study up on my technique by watching this You Tube video by artist Sara Linda Poly who happens to also be a phenomenal instructor and teaches locally here at The Art League (I can tell you that from personal experience).

Enjoy this video and then get out there and enjoy Spring in all her glory. Jouir du beau temps!

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!