A Watercolor Portrait from Life

watercolor portrait

Particular subjects bring out a certain response from me, so while considering the few hours that we would be working with our model Lance, I decided that a watercolor portrait from life would be a refreshing way to capture this intriguing fellow…and introduce something a bit different to my students.

I don’t often advocate watercolor as a portrait medium because it’s drawbacks are pretty formidable, often outweighing whatever benefits one hopes painting a portrait in watercolor will bring.  No corrections in the drawing are possible after a certain point.  And transparent paint has color values that are limited…you can reach color notes in the high and mid range somewhat, but richness in the mid-darks and lower are a lot of work to achieve, and often not very successfully.



But if one wants a suggestive,  informal piece in somewhat short order, this is a good way to go.  There are certainly lovely  qualities that watercolor brings to the table, and I like to take a crack at it from time to time.  The great John Sargent’s portrait heads in watercolor have always been an inspiration…even serious oil painters like them!   So despite my reservations,  beautiful things have been done in the right hands, and we can try to emulate them.

Anyway, this painting was completed over two separate evenings in  perhaps 4 hours;  the first two being devoted to working out the pencil  drawing as best as I could. So much hangs on the drawing being in place, especially with a watercolor portrait!  Everything else came together very gradually, which is what I prefer.  I’m not a great believer in quick production though it’s fine if it looks that way.

It’s painted on Arches #300 lb cold press, and measures 15 x 12 “. Watercolor, graphite, and opaque white.

Thanks for having a look, let me know if you agree or not with my assessment.

The Artist at Work, Kailua Beach

I get photographed quite a bit, often surreptitiously. People do funny things because artist’s can be funny people,  and that’s okay.    Happily in this case the young lady doing the shooting offered to send me an image.

Ayse U


I’m setting up my palette in preparation for a 1/4 size late afternoon color study (for a 28 x 36″), which can be a hard thing for me to pull off.   I always make a point of having my easel perfectly level with the horizon.  A perfect day for what I was after, but ended up with a horizontal rather than vertical composition. More on that later.  Kailua Beach, I believe July 28.  Thanks to Ayse Uzan for kindly sending this.

A Small Portrait Head in Oil from Life

Ala Prima oil

I’ve just had the pleasure of completing this small  (10 x 8″) oil portrait from a model that has been sitting for the portrait class that I lead Tuesday evenings a The Honolulu Museum of Art School.

Noil is a rare find, he has a great look and focus, and maintains a pose with great accuracy.  At one sitting, (perhaps more than one, now that I think of it), he stayed in pose for the entire three hour session without a break.  Our kinda model!



Anyway, I managed this small piece while teaching, and it’s grown on me over time. There’s a simple and direct “thing” it seems to possess.  “Noil” is painted on masonite primed with Gamblin oil primer.

Halona Cove Oil Painting-Part Two Painting the Ocean in Hawai’i

Welcome back.

The painting of Halona Cove was at this stage where I left off in the last post.

DSC_0006 Divers,  Halona Cove  16 x 20″, oil on stretched linen

At this stage of the painting the pattern of the shapes (land masses, “whites” of the waves, the shape of the dark shadow, figures, and simple color)  are all in place and ready for further development where appropriate.

This stage is the structure of the painting;  if I have any misgivings about the composition they must be addressed by now. A figure is suggested among the rocks, and  in the water as well.

Step back before moving forward

Before I move forward in this next plein-air session, I pause to refer to my original concept sketch to see if I’m heading where I’d intended.

NOTE: When painting outdoors, and probably even more with the ocean, it’s very easy to get seduced by all of the activity in the subject…and led away from what is important, the strategy of where the viewer’s eye travels in the painting, and what it finds along the way.  I always have to watch this carefully.

halona pencil   Using the original sketch to reaffirm my goal of the work  (essentially, capturing the light of this time of day in this particularly powerful  place in an energizing way) I set up my easel for a third , (or is it now a fourth?) session.

Building and refining the colors and values

The weather has been really kind. That means the light is the same as last session, and  I’m able to get down to work on the various “notes” of color, and developing the dark/light relationships.

I’m also trying to keep the brushwork  fresh  and descriptive, and especially while capturing the colors in the water.  Unlike some other painters, I seem to use a number of brushes at this stage, possibly as many as 12-15.  This way I can keep each note of color distinct and  get the stroke in the shape I want.

My palette for the water  includes Ultramarine, Cerulean, Viridian, and Yellow Ochre, possibly a touch of a Cadmium Yellow. Darks can be helped in the water by a bit of Alizarin Crimson and Viridan, which creates a fascinating transparent grey that is very suitable for this work. At this stage the “whites” are keyed down to a lavender gray of varying warmth and coolness.  There is probably no “straight”, pure white in the painting. I’m also using a Schmincke Manganese Cobalt Blue that I believe is helpful. And there is Ivory Black on my palette, which I find helpful  and useful in the darks.


Halona 3 detailjpg

Painting the figures

The figures are ready to be placed directly into their positions and I do so, referring very loosely to actual figures in the scene before me for color, but still relying on the sketchbook drawings for position and gesture.  They form a generally pyramidal  shape as a group, and I push the gesture and color as far as I can without losing  the simplicity of the brushstroke.

The water and especially the whites of the waves also receive more attention. I’m building up the paint so that these loaded whites physically catch the light falling onto the canvas in a way that contributes to the sense of foaming, breaking , dazzling white water.  These whites are a powerful compositional tool….where they are placed is where the eye will go, and their shapes should work on the canvas as an effective design  pattern.  I find that to be much more important than clutter or details in the water, as I mentioned in the first post.  The whites are also warmed or cooled, sometimes rather subtly,  to create variety.

DSC_0003 - Version 2

So as I develop these concerns,  I’m aware that the painting is reaching a point where any further work will not really help the overall look of the painting, but actually start to work against the vitality that I would like it to possess.

After adjusting some more elements, and defining ever so slightly the island of Molokai off on the horizon,  I then back  away from the painting for a day or two,  then give it a fresh look and decide that it’s ready to be signed. DSC_0003 - Version 3Divers, Halona Cove  oil, 16 x 20″   January 2013

Thanks for your interest in reading the post, I hope it’s interesting and helpful!


Halona Cove Oil~ Part One

I’m really enthused over working out of this lovely cove again, and the watercolor (see previous post) was an ideal way to break back into it.

I like to paint with a goal for the work, and by that I mean a motivation or reason for pursuing it artistically.  This subject has distinctive elements and challenges that make it quite unique… it’s beautiful and it’s a bit dangerous here… and it doesn’t “pose” for me, it’s all in constant motion.  Very challenging to work directly from.

Opposites Attract

Consider lights and darks; in one glance you have the brightest of whites  in the light and the darkest of shadows,  for color there are warm earth tones opposed by our shattering blue-greens. Lines are jagged or curvaceous, or even perfectly straight. The masses are dense, bulky and immobile in the rocks, or fluid and streaming in the water.  Everything is in opposition, and  it’s all interconnected within itself.

So with all of this packed into one small area, it warrants my best effort.

My first composition, from the prior watercolor, has led me to focus more on the distant figures and the contrast they present against the rocks as that incredibly dark, end-of-day shadow quickly draws itself across the cove.

But before any of that, I have to design and place the big shapes.

Here’s the first afternoons progress:

Halona Cove, first lay-in 16 x 20"

I worked until the light failed, after 4:00, and then made some mental notes of the figures that I observed around the rocks.

Back to work

I was fortunate to have several consecutive days that offered essentially similar light, so returned at the right time to continue on the painting.  This is a matter of seeing that large shapes are where I want them, and making certain that the color, which is perhaps one of the things I try to be most genuine about, is true to nature. The motion of the waves has to be thought through…the powerful white of the waves draw the eye by contrast, and I want them to create a rhythm that moves across the painting successfully.

Halona Cove ll

At this point I’ve begun to indicate a key figure, but haven’t yet made up my mind about the pose or position in the painting. Colors have developed another step, and the rhythm of the waves is being worked out.  I find that this stage is much more important than noodling the painting of the waves in a more precise manner…that sort of work won’t help a bad pattern.

This was a good afternoon’s work.

Working out the figures

I spent some time and sketched out some possibilities from memory.  Since they are tiny, I’m not concerned too much with the figures beyond their possessing an accurate sense of the light,  good proportions and gesture.


Halona Cove  oil in progress, 16 x 20"
Halona Cove oil in progress, 16 x 20″

I’ll continue this post when I have more time!  Thanks for reading.

12/04/13 A Small Portrait Head

If you are at all interested in painting people, you probably will understand what I’m about to write.

Walking into a party last August, I was by chance reintroduced to this gentleman, Dr. Paul Brennan and his wife Dorothy. I will admit, and you’ll likely understand,  that upon first seeing Paul again from across the room, the painter-part of me immediately took to conniving and scheming about asking this fellow to sit for a portrait of some sort. How embarrassingly crass of me. I fought it successfully for a bit , but after getting reacquainted over a friendly conversation  with the two of them, I took the plunge and inquired (with understandably high hopes) as to whether he would be interested in sitting for my portrait class.  Thankfully he was willing and available, and in November we had the happy privilege of working with him for five three-hour sessions at the Honolulu Museum School of Art.



Paul Brennan

Dr. Brennan Oil on stretched linen, 14 x 11″

Though I worked on this while teaching, which means rather sporadically, it was still a pleasure to tackle this distinguished, noble character. With his vast interests and wealth of life experiences, Paul kept all of us entertained as we chipped away at our studies.

Simply painting a head adequately is challenge enough, and the skills in painting and problem -solving are acquired slowly and require honing. My own emphasis in this particular piece, which is only 14 x 11″, was to try to get at the truth of the subject’s color and to state the color notes as succinctly as I could, using the brush and knife as directly and expressively as possible, working towards surface interest and texture as well as light, shade, and color. I’ve been interested in some of the heads painted by artists such as George Clausen, where the verity of the likeness is equal with the knowledge that  you ‘re looking at pieces of paint. I find that to be a very rich experience.

Such little assignments within the task of painting the head keep me and the students on our toes and looking ahead to the next sitting.


A Studio Solution to a Plein-air Problem

Responding to a surprising  improvement

While working outdoors on a watercolor, I ran into a situation…a scene before me greatly improved as I was working by the unexpected addition of a pair of figures that were not part of the original concept.

Since I’d already begun applying paint to the piece, these characters couldn’t simply be added into the composition.  But I knew their addition would  make such a vast improvement that I couldn’t just let the opportunity pass me by.  I decided to make a completely new painting, but I knew that there would be no time to do so directly and at the location.

So, my first step was to sketch these two figures hastily in my sketchbook. These guys, who happened by and were now sitting only yards away, weren’t likely to cheerfully respond to a request that they pose for me, so I dashed them off rather secretly…their silhouette and relative position to the horizon…so I could place them into a new composition and have them be the correct size. I then made some mental notes, watching how they interacted, their posture, gestures, and so forth.

kaimanu sketchbook                     The sketchbook drawings

This accomplished, I was free to leave the location with a plan to start a new painting  in my studio the next day, relying on my incomplete painting, the new figures in the sketchbook, and hopefully some luck.

A Studio solution to a Plein Air problem

I have a background that includes having worked as an illustrator.  Illustrators are pragmatic artist/craftsmen and  accustomed to solving problems efficiently. They’ve developed a large playbook of applied techniques and one of the great tools of the trade is the use of tracing paper for refining and transferring drawings.

To shape the quick sketchbook notations into viable figures that would hold up in my painting, I would need to refine them from memory and a certain amount of invention. That’s where tracing paper came in….I created overlays of the rough drawings, gradually adding details from memory, refining and retracing until I had two figures of the correct size that expressed what I was after in the painting.  Because I did so on tracing paper, that stage of  work was all done without touching the delicate watercolor surface, which does not enjoy erasure and revision.

After a couple hours work, the elements of the entire composition were  combined on tracing paper and were ready to be transferred to the quarter sheet of watercolor paper for painting.

WC graphite

For this I used a simple graphite transfer sheet(above) that one can easily make themselves with graphite, a piece of tracing paper, and perhaps a bit of rubbing alcohol to liquify the graphite on the transfer sheet.  I placed  my graphite transfer sheet (graphite side down) between the securely positioned tracing paper drawing and the watercolor paper, and traced with a ballpoint pen over the original drawing.

kaimanu dwng 1a

The tracing paper cartoon positioned over the watercolor sheet. The transfer has already been accomplished, and is visible beneath the tracing paper, which has been moved aside slightly to reveal the transfer.

The next step was to fold back the tracing paper and strengthen the graphite transfer with the usual pencil work.  One can flip the cartoon back into position if anything hasn’t transferred.

Kaimanu dwng 2

The transfer on watercolor paper, strengthened with my customary pencil work

At this point I have a pristine sheet of watercolor paper with the drawing positioned exactly as needed, with all of the figures worked out adequately, and without any erasure damage to the watercolor paper.

I then resumed my normal painting sequence, beginning with the figures because of their difficulty, and moving outward and around from there.  I’m referring to the prior painting from the location for color and some details.

Kaimanu dwng 3


Kaimanu 4

And on it went!