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A Simple Palette for Luminous Skin Tones

The “Go To” Palette For Oil, Acrylic, and Pastel

As an instructor I find students have a hard time translating value into color.  While the simplicity of a monochromatic painting is easy to understand, once students put a range of colors on their palettes value is forgotten and color becomes overwhelming.   I was looking to simplify this transition and help students bridge the value into color transition with a palette that would give them success regardless of the lighting conditions or the local skin tone.  Last week during my “Gesture Portrait” workshop we began our color studies with what I call the “Go To” palette.  At first they struggled but being the terrific class they were they gave it a couple of tryouts with tremendous success in the end.  I have posted them at the bottom of the blog.

The “Go To” palette mimics a cool light source and warm shadows.  It is not about replicating what you see but instead using a predetermined color scheme to get a painting that looks luminous.   It is a palette that an artist can "Go To" when they are not sure of the color.  The palette is limited, and the concept is simple. 

  • Everything in the light is being influenced by blue. 
  • Everything in the shadow is being influenced by the complement of blue which is orange.  White is blue, therefore white is not used in the shadows. 
  • The middle tones that transition from light to shadow is where the brightest colors reside.   To start, begin with your gesture then block out the light/ shadow pattern.  Everything in the light will have white somewhere in the mixture. 

The “Go To” Palette for Oil and Acrylic

Burnt Sienna, Ivory Black, Cadmium Red, White – you can mix an wide range of colors and values with this palette.

Go to palette- how to mix

  • Shadow- Make a thin wash from Burnt sienna, and a bit of black to tone the canvas.  Darker tones can be made from Burnt sienna, black cadmium red. NO WHITE IN THE SHADOW!!!
  • Lights- White, burnt sienna, cad red,
  • If you need a blue in the light area mix the white and black.

  Small Gesture 5x7 oil

For a step by step demo of this palette go to my previous blog post on gesture portrait.

The “Go To” Palette for Pastels

Most of your sticks are premixed pigment.  You can mix by glazing and layering.  Know the value range of your pastels as well as their intensity range.  You can mimic the palettes of oil painters.

  Hubby 8x6 Pastel

2 dark values of brown

Mid –dark brown

Darkest brown

You can also add in yellow/ greens and red/violets into this value range.

2 light values of pink

Mid Light value of pink

Lightest value of pink

You can also add in blues and blue/violets and blue/greens into the light.  Just make sure they are the same value as your lights.  I compare values by holding one pastel next to the other.  If you squint at the two pastels and they appear to fade into each other they are the same value.

Middle values – violet, blue, pink, green. - These are your most saturated colors and are used to transition or “walk” between the light and the shadow.  Make the transitions subtle to round the forms.

Highlight –White


For this painting I used my Vianna Szabo Terry Ludwig Portrait Set.  I chose the palette by tipping the pastels in their slots.  This made it easy to find what I needed to create the painting.

Below are samples of the students work using the “Go To” palette.  These were all painted in under an hour.



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Anatomy of a Gesture Portrait

Many artists find portrait painting frustrating.  Most beginners skip the gesture and structure of the head and focus their energies in rendering unnecessary details.  This leads to portraits that are never quite right and feel lifeless.  In gesture portrait the goal is to capture the structure of the head as it moves in a particular lighting situation.  Many details are left out and only forms that add to the gesture and the light are enhanced. These are not painted for capturing a likeness but rather accentuating a mood. The following is a synopsis of a gesture portrait in oil.

First Stage:  The Foundation

  1. The palette is toned with a light wash of burnt sienna and ivory black. 
  2. Using a thicker mixture of sienna and black, I find the tilt, turn, and tip of the head.  This records a sense of movement.  This guides me in placing the features so they fit on the head in the correct perspective.
  3. The value pattern of light and dark shows the direction of the light as it falls on the forms of the head.  As sloppy as this looks, I now have enough information to begin.  If I do not have these in place, I do not proceed.


Second Stage: Light and Shadow Pattern

The limited palette of ivory black, cadmium red, burnt sienna, and white will help give a sense of cool light and warm shadow.  I am going leave bits of the warm underpainting for my shadow tone.  I mix burnt sienna and white to create a midtone in the lights.  I can go lighter than this and slightly darker than this mixture before I hit the shadow value.  Knowing the value and intensity limits of your palette is crucial to success in your painting.

Third Stage: Turning the Form

After the light and dark pattern has been established, I begin to place the color values that will transition from light to shadow.  Highlights are added to complete the value range within the light.  In the shadow areas I add cadmium red and burnt sienna to black and place the super darks that will recede within the shadows.

Fourth Stage: Refining the Shapes and Edges

Now I move through the painting carefully selecting areas where I want the viewer to look.  In those areas I make certain that the light/dark transitions are sharp.  My few intense colors will also be place in these areas.  I turn my attention to where I do not want the viewer to look.  I make certain those transitions are close together in value and color intensity.



Fifth Stage: The Finish

In the final stages I go back to stage one and make certain that the painting is holding true to the initial gesture.  The tendency is to begin to straighten the head as I work on it.  To compensate for this I cut into the far side of the face with the back ground and drop the eye on that side to set the tilt.  I shorten the forehead to tip the head up a bit more.  I push the warmth around the eyes, put the final touches on the shirt and call it done.  This is a gesture and not a fully fleshed out portrait.  It is also tiny, only 5x7 inches, so to go any further would drive my eyes crazy!

Sixth Stage: Check

I think the painting is solid but I run a photograph of the painting through the “threshold” filter in Adobe Photoshop.  This tells me if I have a simple and strong value structure which is the foundation of a good painting.   That is my approach in gesture portrait. It can vary slightly depending on the medium and the colors I choose, but no matter the medium or the color choices, that first stage is so important. Take your time recording the tilt, turn and tip of the head.  Use those decisions to paint the features as forms being hit by light.  This crucial beginning will go a long way to creating a vibrant portrait.

 In my upcoming Italy workshop we will be starting with gesture portrait and figure, then build on these skills to create finished but expressive work.  We will also be visiting museums to see how gesture was vital to the work of the Renaissance masters.  For more information visit the workshop section of my website.  Only two spots left!



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A One-Eyed Artist's Fascination with Depth

I was pondering what was the thread that runs through all of my work?   Even though I paint in several mediums and love diverse subject matter, there is something that compels me to the canvas and gives a spark of joy each time I paint.

It is the illusion of depth.

This is interesting since I am pretty much a one-eyed artist.  As a young child I was diagnosed with amblyopia in my right eye.  This is a condition where my eye does not communicate with my brain.   The world through that eye is a confusing jumble of shapes and almost images that never quite solidify.  Having one eye also affects my sense of depth perception.  Ophthalmologists say I see the world flat but I do not know any differently.  My brain has adapted so I do not run into walls or fall down manholes.  Toss a ball to me, however, and I will fumble and miss it.  It is fascinating how the brain can adjust for weakness and compensate.  There have been many one-eyed artists throughout history.   Our flat vision helps us translate the world onto a flat surface.   Our ability to compensate for that flatness also helps us identify visual elements that give the illusion of depth.

When I was first learning to paint, a friend, who is a very talented artist, would critique my work.  She told me my backgrounds were flat and that I needed to “paint through” the figures.  At the time I was so enamored with depicting the people that I failed to see what she meant.  Then one day she was critiquing me as I was working on a painting.  I added a stroke to the background where I used the broad side of a pastel to come up to the edge of the figure then lifted the pastel and continued the stroke on the other side.  “Perfect, don’t touch that!” she yelled.  Stepping back I saw the difference. This gave an instant sense of space behind the figures.  I had created depth on a flat surface.

Depth became the focus of my work.  I learned how to step values to bring objects forward and push others back.  I learned how to neutralize colors to make distance.  I practiced different applications and found specific strokes that would enhance the illusion of air. Often the last strokes that I make are those that add nuances of dimension and space.  Knowing how to control these elements has helped me when working with photographic references.  I can translate the flat image of the photograph to seem more dimensional in my paintings.

To me it is pure magic that artists can transform a two dimensional surface into a dimensional representation where the viewer imagines wandering around and through the painting.  The compensation for my weak eye has been the focus and joy of my painting.


I will be teaching a workshop, March 23rd - 25th,  in Ann Arbor on creating the illusion of depth.  The workshop also features a critique session for more information click here.


  This is a work in progress.  I love this composition because it is about layers of depth.  The values and colors are pretty much in place.  I will be finishing this piece by softening edges and neutralizing colors to push them back and adding a few hard edges and brighter colors to come forward. 


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What I Learned About Painting in Watercolor.

What I learned

What a difference thirty days makes.  I began this challenge of painting a watercolor a day for thirty days thinking that watercolor is a fast and spontaneous medium and that I would paint a quick watercolor each morning before I began my regular studio work.  I did not realize how consuming learning the medium would become and much of my free time was spent studying all things watercolor.  I also did not think I would come to love it as much as I did.

Here is a synopsis of what I learned

Paper makes a HUGE difference in what you are painting.  Each surface has its challenges and benefits that suit different approaches.  Play with it and make lots of mistakes to see what works best for you.

Water is pigment

When you mix up a puddle for a wash, mix up a large puddle.  I mean really, really large.  I cut the tops off of solo cups and used them to hold washes.

When you are working in a direct method, lay down the pigment then leave it alone.  No poking drying paintings.

Moleskin Art Journals are great for quick sketches; they do not like heavy washes.

Moleskin Art Journals and small half pan sets are the ultimate light weight plein air set up.

Stretching paper is not too scary and a staple gun and gator board work very well.

Color mixing in watercolor is pretty much the same as mixing color in oil and in pastel.

It was nice to return to line drawing.

Working wet into wet takes trust but creates magic.

You can begin a large painting with a very light underpainting that will give you an idea of your values and temperatures.  This is the same as underpainting in the other mediums.

Texture is an important part of watercolor.  Lean how to manipulate different brushes a lot of different ways.

Fixing problems is not too difficult in watercolor but it has its limits. 

It is best to wait until an area dries completely before you make changes.

Cobalt teal is the prettiest paint color out there.

When you want to control your edges use two brushes, one to lay down the paint and one that is damp with clean water to manipulate the edge.  Keep the brushes in both hands at all times.

Use less water with each layer

The true colors and edges only show themselves once a painting is completely dry.  Reserve your final judgment of the painting until then.

When I began this challenge I felt intimidated by the medium and after a month of painting I feel as if I have just begun to grasp the basics.  I am not intimidated anymore but completely enamored of the challenge and beauty of this medium.  I will continue to work on watercolor and will post paintings in the future.   Keep the comments and tips coming, and thank you for following along on this adventure.

I want to send out a huge thank you to all of you who followed along, commented, messaged and sent me tips.  I am listing some of the resources you suggested below, they were very useful on this journey. Another special thank you to those who purchased paintings, that means a lot and I am using the proceeds to buy more watercolor supplies!

James Guerney Blog:  Amazing blog on all mediums but some real gems on watercolor.

Mario Robinson Video:  I highly recommend this video plus you can ask him questions!

Youtube: type in watercolor and see what comes up!





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Day 30:30 Watercolors in 30 Days - Building form in the face

Day 30 - last official day!

Paper: Arches 140lb, cold press

Pigments: Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna, Aureolin, Quinacridone Red, Cobalt Teal, Opera.


Today is the last official day of the challenge, hooray!  Obviously I will not finish this painting during the month of January, but I will continue to post on my blog about the progress.  I will probably take a few days off however, my oils and pastels have been feeling neglected.

After the monochromatic wash I decided to focus on the face.  If the face is not working in this painting then the whole thing will never be correct.  Going in tight on the face and keeping the rest of the figure soft is a time tested trick of artists.  Sargent was brilliant at this, his faces in his commissioned portraits are always beautifully rendered and then other areas in the dress or figure are just suggested.


I began by adding a wash of cool flesh tone over the face and neck.  After that dried I began to add washes into the shadows and focused on getting the edges I wanted by keeping two brushes in my hand.  One to paint pigment with and one that was damp with clean water to paint along the edge to get the degree of softness I wanted.  For color I painted the light areas cool using, pinks, yellow greens and blues.  The shadows I painted with a burnt sienna and ultramarine blue mixture.  The reflected lights are blues, greens and violets.

I ended up lifting some passages that had gone to dark, then laying a wash of clear water on top to soften the entire area.


This is a very different surface than the Aquaboard, the paint sinks in and it is much harder to make corrections but much easier to layer washes.


This was a great adventure and learning experience.  I am grateful for all of you who followed along and left comments.  A huge thank you to those of you who wrote me privately to suggest materials, techniques, or websites to check out. Another huge thank you to those who purchased some of my paintings.  I am happily turning turning that money back into watercolor supplies. 


What I learned:

You can keep laying light washes to turn the form.

You can lift areas that are dark but only once the paint is completely dry


Tomorrow I will write my final blog on what I learned during this month. 

Happy Painting!

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Day 29: 30 Watercolors in 30 Days - Monochromatic Underpainting 2

Day 29

Paper: Arches 140lb, Cold Press

Paints, Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna


I decided to end this challenge with a more of a challenge.  Can I use everything I have learned over this month to create a finished 16x20 figurative painting?  The reference is from a workshop I taught last fall.  One of the staff members posed for a photo shoot and was terrific at playing up expression and using the props.


I decided to use the underpainting method I learned about in the Mario Robinson video.  I did change it up a bit and decided the underpainting would also reflect color temperature as well as value.  Since the model was posed under a cool light source anything in the light is cool and the shadows are warm.  I used ultramarine blue and burnt sienna to give me two washes.  One had slightly more blue and one had more sienna in the mixture.  I know from the last painting that much of this will disappear as I progress and deepen the values.


This is my first time working on a stretched paper and it is harrowing to see how the paper will buckle when I put on the background wash but then magically flatten out as it dries.  Maybe I did not stretch it well enough, guess I will just keep painting and find out!


What I learned:

I like the absorbing quality of the the Arches paper.  Corrections may not be as easy to make as they are on Aquaboard but I like the look of the paint as it sinks in.

Using two different washes to map out the temperature as well as the value should help me set up my color mixtures easier.

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Day 28: 30 Watercolors in 30 Days -Light Check

Day 28

Paper: Ampersand Aquaboard

Paint: Ultramarine Blue, Quinacridone Red, Cobalt Teal, Aureolin, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Lemon Yellow, Chinese White


Today was all about refining a watercolor.  That is my happy place with any painting and not something I have done during this challenge.  Mostly I have been dashing off a watercolor, exploring new approaches, usually going a bit too far in the painting then repeating the next day.  With this particular painting I wanted to take my time and really see how I could use watercolor to fully develop a portrait.  Based on a video lesson with Mario Robinson, I began with a monochromatic underpainting, the second day I laid in layers of thin color washes, then yesterday I went full value and rich color. 

Today I focused on edges and texture and had a very good time.  Because this is Aquaboard I can lift out lights pretty easily which I did with a damp brush. I gently laid a clear wash of water over some of the shadows to soften the transitions of color and half tones. I wanted the painting to be good composition and not just a portrait on a board so I washed and rewashed the background and the clothing.  In the light I added layers of yellow green and violet to create a feeling of illumination and depth then added violet along the left side of the head to give a sense of shadow. 

I really enjoyed adding the texture and felt that it took the painting to it's final finish.  I used a broad synthetic flat brush to wash in a final glaze of the background and found I liked the linear marks it left behind.  I ran the same brush over her shirt and through parts of her hair.  For a final touch I added lemon yellow onto a frayed brush and gently described the edge of the hair.  I may be partial, because the model is my daughter, but I was happy with how the portrait came out.


Here is a close up of the face.


What I learned,

A thin wash of clear water will soften an edge with out disturbing the painting underneath.

Texture is an important part of the finished watercolor.  The rough textures really help the smooth passages glow.

Really thin washes of transparent color are a wonderful way to create delicate color changes, just pay attention to the edge and be ready with a clean brush to soften where you stop.



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Day 26: 30 Watercolors in 30 Days - Full Value

Day 27

Paper: Ampersand Aquaboard

Pigment: Ultramarine Blue, Quinacridone Red, Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Aureolin


Still working on the portrait of my daughter.  The whole thing felt to delicate and I wanted to push the values of the hair, shadows, background and clothing darker for more contrast.  I painted the hair darker and the shadow on the face then the entire light side of the face went too light.  I glazed the light side of the face with a wash of quinacridone and raw sienna then added a dash of ultramarine blue to ish it.  The highlights in the hair became way too light I had to add several glazes of violet.  All in all I am happy with the value range.  Tomorrow the real fun takes place.  I will be refining the form with light washes and dry brush.


What I learned:

Once the Aquaboard is completely dry you can use a damp brush and brush back almost to the white of the board

Start off much darker in the lights than you think you need to!  It is way to easy to get dazzled with the pretty colors and ignore the impact of contrast.

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Day 26:30 Watercolors in 30 Days - Color Wash

Day 26

Paper: Ampersand Aquaboard

Paints:Ultramarine Blue, Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Aureolin, New Gamboge, Quinacridone Red.


Today I laid color washes over my watercolor monochromatic block in.  I am still using the video lessons from Mario Robinson to guide me and see if I can get very soft transitions that round the form.  My daughter was filmed under a cool light so anything in the light is getting colors that lean toward blue so the skin tone is made from washes of quinacridone red and aureolin which is a yellow that leans slightly towards blue.  I am painting the highlights a sunny green and the half tones tend towards violet.   Anything in the shadow is leaning more towards orange and red.  For edge control I was careful to wet the area before I dropped in the color and if a hard edge did appear where I did not want it I quickly ran a damp brush along the edge.   I really enjoyed putting the layers of color on and feel as if the painting is properly prepped for some big dark value masses tomorrow which include the hair, shirt and parts of the background.  Hopefully the face is not too light and I will not have to rework the whole thing!


What I learned.

Layers of delicate washes can make skin tones luminous.

Keep three brushes handy, one to mix with ( It can be a cheap one), one to lay down clear water ( my squirrel mop brush is good for this) and one to paint with ( my lovely sable)

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Day 25: 30 Watercolors in 30 Days- Monochromatic Underpainting

Paper: Aquaboard, Ampersand

Pigments: Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna


A monochromatic underpainting in watercolor?  That's a thing????  I was so excited this morning when I came across Mario Robinson's online course called " Painting Realistic Watercolors".  I have long been a fan of this young man's figurative work and when I read the course description I had to have it right away.  What intrigued me was an approach to watercolor that was balanced careful planning of drawing, values, form and color while respecting the unpredictable nature of the medium.  It is the best instruction I have watched on how to manipulate the medium and when to leave it alone.  I plan on building my last two portraits for this challenge using his approach.  I did an underpainting of my daughter on Aqua board using a very thin wash of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna.  I began covering all the lights then adding layers of the wash for the midtones and darks.   The wash is very light and as you see the image is barely there but it is a map for me to follow tomorrow when I apply color.  I worked on the Aquaboard because I know changes are easier to make than stretched Arches cold press paper.  I am hoping the Aquaboard gives me the experience and courage to tackle the large version of the study I did yesterday called Page Turner.


 Here is a link to the website:{}

Here is Mario Robinson's website if you are in the mood to drool over some beautiful paintings, Mario Robinson Fine Art

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