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.)