The human face is fascinating. Not only are its features such as eyes and nose specific to each of us, but the color variations are also endless. This makes for a challenging undertaking for the portrait artist. What combination of colors do you use? How do you even know where to start? Russell Harris, represented by the John Pence Gallery in San Francisco, talks about color value and temperature in The” artist magazine> (July/August 2013, “Portrait Palettes,” edited by Christine McHugh). The following is an excerpt from this article.

Start with a midvalue ground: On my palette, I arrange my colors from light to dark, and warm to cool. I enjoy placing a variety of thin color washes on my canvas in order to tone down the white. A color wash gives me a midvalue ground to paint on. This method also gives me the flexibility and opportunity to use a rag to wipe paint off sections of the canvas in order to show light patterns.


Every day I grind a new array of 15 pigments and mix them with a palette knife with black oil, which is cold-pressed linseed oil and litharge (lead monoxide), cooked for three hours,” says Russell (www.russellharrisart.com). “I arrange my colors, right to left, from light to dark and warm to cool.

When viewing the model, I look for the color temperature in the light, middle, and dark tones. I like to start with dark values by using a mixture of cobalt blue and burnt sienna, or Davy’s gray and alizarin crimson. I can quickly adjust these color combinations if the shadow on the model calls for a warmer or cooler look. I then pay attention to the color temperature in the middle and light values. As I apply these colors, I place one color next to the other without blending to keep the colors from becoming dull or muddy. 


Neelamjit (oil, 10×8) by Russell Harris

Painting alla prima: In each alla prima portrait, I try to capture the mood and the drama of the particular model by requesting a number of head positions in order to find an exciting and interesting angle. After I’ve settled on a position, I apply colors adjacently without blending them, which is instrumental to my technique. (Read” alla prima: applying color without blending>.) Painting in an alla prima style forces me to see how light affects color in a quick manner. These paintings are created in about three hours from start to finish. There’s no time for the glazing and scumbling techniques that I normally use on my long-term paintings, which take months to complete. Painting directly allows me to sharpen my understanding of color relationships and hone my visual problem-solving skills.

Carl, oil portrait painting by Russell Harris

Carl (oil, 10×8) by Russell Harris

Students’ limited palette: The students I teach at the Latin School of Chicago use a simplified palette: ivory black, titanium white, cadmium red light, and cadmium yellow medium. By using this limited palette, they learn how to use a wide range of color temperatures and values. A limited palette helps to reduce the anxiety level for beginning painting students when they’re learning skin tones. Due to the overwhelming color selection that students face in an art store, it’s good for them to know that they can achieve a wide range of values and colors with a handful of paints. ~Russell Harris

As you may already know, each issue of The Artist’s Magazine includes profiles of some of the best artists working today; these artists share their techniques so that readers like you can find both inspiration and instruction. Subscribe” today> and get issue after issue of articles on all subjects and all media, delivered to your digital device or mailbox. Download” the july issue and read full article on portrait palettes>, which also features Robert Armetta, Jean Pederson, and Judith Carducci.

With warm regards,

Cherie Haas, online editor**Click” here to subscribe the artists network newsletter for inspiration instruction and more>



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