Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dawn Whitelaw Workshop

I first met Dawn Whitelaw quite a few years ago, at a Portrait Society of America conference, when I showed her the one and only oil portrait I had ever done. Dawn was very encouraging and I immediately decided I would move heaven and earth to get the chance to study with her one day.

Dawn is a knowledgable and talented instructor, and a prize winning painter, who is down to earth and well organized. Upon arriving for a five day workshop with her, participants are not only graciously offered refreshments, but also presented with a binder containing favorite inspirational quotes, books and websites. The binder includes a supply list, easel positions for the week (to make sure you have a variety of lighting situations) and even suggestions about where to eat lunch! There are also tips on drawing, value, procedure, color mixing, varnishing, brushes, stretching canvas, and cleanup. You are also provided with a CD with images to view on your computer.

For painting people, Dawn uses grey acrylic in a thin, watery wash to stain her alkyd primed canvas. She uses a warmer stain for landscape outdoors, because of all the green.  Dawn tones her canvas the value of her hand, the general value of skin in light or sometimes a darker tone for a low key painting.

The palette Dawn uses consists simply of Winton Red #6, French Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light. That’s it.  She mixes the secondary colors herself and lays out the colors from left to right, on a large wooden palette, starting with 4 “worms” of white and then yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, green. The advantage of using just these three colors is that color harmony is easily achieved and at the end of the day you can mix what you have left and save it in the fridge on a paper plate to use the next day as a useful gray.

Dawn occasionally may add lemon yellow or cerulean to her palette to achieve aquamarine (perhaps in a tropical setting), but she would make sure to use that color throughout the painting to ensure color harmony.

Dawn does color charts, by taping out squares on 18x36 foam core which has been treated with acrylic matte medium to seal the surface. It is surprising how great a range of colors can be obtained with this palette. Dawn likes inexpensive Winton paint because it has less pigment and is more oily, so mediums are not necessary.

With regard to composition, for plein air, Dawn spends a lot of time walking around to decide on what to paint. When painting a model, she tries various lighting situations for maximum interest and flattery and talks to the sitter while she is doing this to obtain information. Thumb to middle finger is approximately the face length. You need to take your time when doing this and look carefully at the negative space.

Dawn writes notes immediately after a meeting with her subject in order to record her impressions and she tries to describe the subject succinctly so someone could pick them up at the airport after hearing her description. This helps her to find her way back to her original intention if things begin to go astray.

Some notes on Dawn's procedure:

To begin, you can draw in paint or charcoal. Gesture and measurement are both important, so work on your weakest area!

Start with the darks. While you have paint on your brush, look for other areas that are that color and value. Simplify – mass the shadow on the side of the face with the hair at the start. First, separate the light and dark. For dark colors, keep mixing in the same pile of paint, variations of color.

Hold your palette up to the model and compare the value of the shadow – can the palette stand in for the shadow or is it lighter? If the shadow is darker, you mix a color that is darker than your palette. Trust your palette. Reserve your darkest dark. Work in the middle range of values. Accents of the darkest dark and lightest light finish off a painting.

Mix light colors separately. Light areas have to be calibrated. Most skin is neutral. A close up of pixelated photo shows many colors in skin, but they are all muted. To identify color in light, start with white, add a speck of color and then neutralize it. You can either use the mosaic method of placing spots of color or you can mass in light areas and then vary with color temperature, which is sometimes easier to maintain the correct values. Don’t rely on value when modeling in the light – use temperature and color changes. Turn form with temperature.

Use thin paint and keep your options open. Lay in paint with sides of brush.
Bounce color from clothing into hair and skin when you see it. For a highlight on the lower lip, instead of white, use an intense, pure color in a light value. Hold the palette up and look for what is the exactly the same tone.

Painting is really just correcting mistakes. Fear of getting things in the wrong place is paralyzing, so just put something down and know you can fix it. Is the color neutral? Put something up and then adjust the value. Don’t hyperfocus.

The range of values in reality is greater than what we have in paint. We are limited by our materials – lightest light and darkest dark. Painting is all about relationships.

To finish, ask yourself: What do I need to simplify? It’s not just about detail. If the face is rather rough, the hair cannot be finely rendered. If you keep simplifying, the details will take care of themselves. Finish with a big brush, pull things together and take things out. And remember that no amount of detail will correct wrong shapes and proportions.

When working from photographs, set up a slide show on your computer instead of using just one photograph. For studies – staple alkyd primed linen to ½” gatorboard. Keep your studies – you can use them when painting someone with similar skintones.

Dawn is a fantastic teacher whose methods and materials are very accessible and yield beautiful work. It is somewhat of a revelation to see her achieve these results with just three colors.

(To view examples of some of the paintings I did at Dawn's workshop, go to and scroll back to the portraits of "Bruce" and "Erin", both posted on April 29, 2007.)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


Many artists are clueless when it comes to marketing their work, but thankfully we now have a great resource from art-marketing consultant Alyson B. Stanfield, of

Books about marketing usually present ideas for self-promotion that I just would not feel comfortable using. The strategies that Alyson presents feel sincere and natural, not pushy or forced or artificial.

Alyson talks about how to share your work directly with potential buyers through electronic and traditional communication outlets. She addresses all the excuses we use that lead to our lack of success. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about putting together the dreaded artist statement.

I truly believe this book will be invaluable to any artist who wants to be more successful in promoting their work. It is accessible and easily understood with ideas and suggestions that are realistic and easy to implement.

I'd Rather Be in the Studio!I’d Rather Be in the Studio! The Artist’s No-Excuse Guide to Self-Promotion

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


From a letter to a young artist in 1901 . . .

You say you are studying to become a portrait painter and I think you’d be making a great mistake if you kept that only in view during the time you intend to work in life class, for the object of the student should be to acquire sufficient command over his materials and do whatever nature presents him. The conventionalities of portrait painting are only tolerable in one who is a good painter.  

If he is only a good portrait painter, he is a nobody. Try to become a painter first and then apply your knowledge to a special branch. But do not begin by learning what is required for a special branch or you will become a mannerist.

John Singer Sargent

These words were shared with me by one of my teachers, Everett Raymond Kinstler, and I have taken them to heart. The idea that a painter should work to become well rounded and be able to paint anything, in any situation, led me to request an oil painting class of any type when I applied for a scholarship from the Scottsdale Artist’s School. I had the privilege of studying at this fabulous school the previous spring, when I took a portrait class from William Whitaker and I hoped to have the opportunity to continue my artistic growth. I wished to branch out and challenge myself with new ideas and practices. I believe it is particularly important to work from life and plein air landscape painting requires all the skills and perseverance a painter possesses. You are dealing with the elements – wind, rain, cold, bugs and sun, for instance. You are lugging heavy equipment into rugged terrain and ignoring your hunger and thirst at times. You need to decide on how to render the huge range of value before you. You need to work very quickly to capture the essence of the scene before the light changes too much. You need to convey depth and enough detail without ruining that effect. However, you are also enjoying the beauty of nature and the zen of flow while becoming absorbed in your work.

The class I was awarded, was with Gabor Svagrik, a young artist who specializes in outdoor scenes. I think representational painters naturally gravitate to what they are good at and landscape is a whole different cup of tea from portraiture. When painting the figure, most decisions are made when you set up the pose. What you paint is right in front of you. You certainly don’t change the position of the person’s features, but in landscape painting that is exactly what you do. You must edit and include only part of the panorama you are confronted with. You must simplify the complexity that nature presents and choose the best, most interesting and commanding features of the grand scene before you.

The week spent painting Tucson vistas was exciting and inspirational. I had to push myself out of my comfort zone. I will take what I learned and apply it to my outdoor portraits and continue to work outdoors as much as possible.

I want to sincerely thank Scottsdale Artist’s School and the Windgate Charitable Foundation for their generosity, which has enabled me to continue to expand my abilities. Becoming an artist is a lifelong process, which is why the never ending fascination with painting is such an obsession for many students of art and I am very grateful that they have made it possible for me to advance a little further on that path.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Reilly Palette (Mattelson Version)

As you can see, this palette consists of four strings of color with 9 values plus black and white. The rows of paint daubs consist of:

1. Neutral greys, made with Raw Umber and black with white.

2. Yellows, made with Yellow Ochre and Raw Umber plus black and white.

3. Oranges, made with Terra Rosa, white and black;

4. Pinks, made with Indian Red, white and black.

Make sure when you mix any of these colors together you stay within the same value.

Mixing the palette is rather time consuming and tedious, but it allows for efficient painting and is good practice for anyone struggling with values, the foundation of all realist art.

These colors allow for natural and realistic skin tones. The grey is used to lower the chroma.