In The Artist’s Magazine‘s July/August issue, four artists share techniques and tips for distinguishing and then conveying compelling fleshtones in Christine McHugh’s feature article, “Portrait Palettes.” Russell Harris is one of the artists featured, and here he describes his own method for capturing a portrait.
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Alla Prima: Applying Color Without Blending
by Russell Harris
1. Begin with a tonal wash: I apply a tonal wash of warm and cool colors on the canvas with a No. 9 Robert Simmons flat bristle brush. To make the paint fluid for the wash, I use a combination of pure gum turpentine and Maroger medium. This mixture allows me to move the paint around in a loose manner. I then use a rag to wipe out the large shapes of light patterns that I see on the model’s face.
2. Map out proportions and shapes: I begin to use a No. 4 Monarch brush to map out the facial proportions and shapes of shadows. I like to use a mixture of Davy’s gray and alizarin crimson to draw these proportions on the canvas. If the background wash is on the warmer side, I add more Davy’s gray to cool down the drawing color. It is important to resist the temptation of adding details at this stage of the painting. Keeping the drawing loose at the beginning helps me have flexibility to move things around and prevent a static painting.
3. Work on expression and skull planes: During this stage, I start to focus on the model’s expression and the plane shifts of the skull. This gives me an opportunity to show the personality and dramatic characteristics of the sitter. My north-facing skylight provides a great directional light source to highlight the model’s features.
4. Lay in value colors: I start laying in my dark-value colors first and proceed to the middle and light tones. Starting with the dark shadow colors allows me to see form and structure faster. The warm and cool colors are placed beside each other without blending. I like to place these colors side by side so they can optically mix on the canvas. I use a mixture of cadmium red light and raw sienna for the warmer colors in the cheeks, and raw umber and grays for the cooler tones in the forehead and chin area.
5. Adjust and refine: The final stage of my painting consists of making small adjustments to the drawing, colors, and values. To make the colors richer, I use an impasto in the lighter areas of the painting. The darker tones are thinner and more transparent, which allows some of the wash color to show through. Here you have David (oil, 10×8).
Oil: Winsor & Newton
Palette: (tube paint) titanium white; (all others, hand-ground pigments I mix with black oil; see Light to Dark, Warm to Cool, bottom page 40)—titanium yellow, Naples yellow deep, cadmium yellow medium, yellow ochre, raw sienna, cadmium red light, terra rosa, burnt sienna, alizarin crimson, burnt umber, raw umber, ivory black, Davy’s gray, cobalt blue
Russell Harris currently teaches visual art at the Latin School of Chicago. He is represented by the John Pence Gallery in San Francisco. Learn more at
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