Adventures in Portrait Painting

Taking classes to continue my personal artistic growth is something I always love doing but finding the time (and money) is difficult. Last month I took the third class offered in William Cochran’s Trompe L’oeil Mastery Program- Portraiture. Each time I take a class with William I find that take away something that doesn’t present itself until later. The immediate return is usually that I suck and I should hang up my brushes. However, after a few weeks the information absorbed at the time somehow begins to come together.

Our first day was revisiting color theory. Elementary as it may seem, there are hundreds of pigments and we each chose a palette to work from. My colors were Hansa Yellow Opaque, Phthalo Blue Green Shade, and Pyrrole Red Dark. Adjusting for the intensity of the pigments, we each created a value scale moving through each color as well as across the wheel through neutral grey. Once complete, we began the portrait workshop in earnest.



We worked from a live model as well as a photograph. This was extremely difficult. Ideally the model would be present the entire time, but that isn’t practical. We began with setting up the backdrop and her attire, changing things based on how they reflected against her skin and hair. Once we settled on the look we shot a series of photos. This whole process took an entire day. The photography process could be a class in and of itself because there is so much to understand like lenses, lighting, distance, etc.

Copyright William Cochran 2015


William working on my friend Deb Watson’s piece.


One of many, many discussions and critiques.

The difficulty in this class was having to move from the photograph to the model when she was present. In the photograph the values and temperatures were completely different. In real life these things were much clearer and more vibrant if you really studied her. In starting out I did my usual thing of blending tiny brush strokes and by the end of the first day it had no dimension. Up close, yes, but when you stepped back everything collapsed. So I began round two and finally hit my stride. I stood back at arms length with a long handled paint brush and contemplated each stroke of color. This also made it easier to paint with the type of paints we were using; Golden’s Heavy Bodied Acrylics. I’m used to using Golden’s Proceed line of mural paints which have a much longer open time and are less opaque, thus requiring a different method of application- multiple translucent layers.

My first go.


Sometimes working upside down allows you to see the errors you’ve made.



Painting skin is a whole different ballgame than painting other surfaces. There is a luminosity and depth that is hard to achieve. The tricky part is capturing the subtle temperatures of the values; warm darks, clear and vibrant midtones, cool lights. And this can all change depending on the lighting. I spent more time looking and studying than I did putting paint on the canvas. I hope with practice I’ll be able to identify these types of things more efficiently.


Third Round. This is much closer temperature wise in some areas, but needs to be refined.

I am usually a fast painter and I think that I should have stopped while I was ahead but having about a day and a half left I continued to tinker with it. Which is fine because no one is paying me for this! I switched over to Golden’s Open Acrylics which are similar to the Proceeds but have a heavier body like their regular line. This allowed me to blend a bit more and smooth out some values. But stepping back again, things began to fall flat. I wasn’t worried as much this time because I felt I had gotten what I wanted from the exercise.

(this is a really bad cell phone picture but you get the idea.)

My dear friend Jeanne stayed with me during the week and we had amazing philosophical discussions about art and life. Jeanne and I met while working for William on his project, The Dreaming, in Downtown Frederick, MD in 2006.  She came up a few summers ago to help with the Extreme Makeover Project I was involved in. Jeanne is a free spirit, full of energy, extremely talented, and I wish she lived closer.


On Saturday after the class, Jeanne and I headed down to DC to visit the National Portrait Gallery. Its a shame that I live so close to such amazing museums and I’ve never been to this one. We spent the day there, seeing as much as we could. With new eyes, I was able to really study the brush strokes and color. Some of my most favorite are below.

Detail of Toni Morrison by Robert McCurdy


Thelonious Monk by Boris Chaliapin (I love the use of such cool colors in the face with such an intense background.)


John Waters by Joseph Sheppard (his neighbor)


Spanish Dancer by John Singer Sargent. (The way this was displayed was so sensual.)


Detail from Portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver by David Lenz (the reflection is due to the piece being under glass.)


Detail of The Man with the Cat. (I love how deft the brush strokes are, and look at the stoke of purple on his forehead!)


John Singer Sargent


Bill Clinton by Chuck Close


Close up of Close


Henry Louis Gates Jr. By Yuqi Wang




5 Replies to “Adventures in Portrait Painting”

  1. I loved your article here. I wanted to come take this class…but marriage …new home…new location and very limited work / income is making for very slow start up again. But!!!! I am taking time to paint dog portraits. Anyway this was so well written and i felt like I was right there along side you just like our other classes with William we took. I need help in skin tones…hardest by far to paint right. All these photos you put on were perfect! So cool what you are doing. I also am very interested in your cabinet class with Henri. Does he have his own school? You learned about lacquer and cat finushes? You also got new sprayer? I need to know more!!!!

  2. Hi Dee. Very interesting — these images really give me a much better appreciation of the art of portraiture. (I think the one labeled George Clinton is really Bill (William Jefferson) Clinton. Have a great summer.

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