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One of the things I'm experimenting with is how to create an abstract background for my portrait paintings. I'm exploring how the features on a face can interact with the multiple layers of the painting and how those layered relationships can create a sense of depth. The challenge is figuring our how to integrate the intuitive and unpredictable marks into creating a portrait that has a strong likeness to the original subject.

In this article, I break down the step-by-step process I used today to make the current canvas background. I've added a factual description about the materials and gestures I used at each stage. I saved my opinions about the results for the Reflection section at the end. I also include notes to myself for what I want to try next.

Current State

This is current result of the time I spent today. This came out at the end of painting session as I swiped the remaining blobs of paint from my palette and smeared them directly onto the canvas, It is primarily a dark composition with a combination of scraped edges and etched lines that I created with the palette knife.

Stage 5 Blocking Out

This is what the canvas looked liked before I smeared it with paint. I blocked out some larger shapes with a a Bright. I made some hard edges, but most of this is the image has soft edges because I used a dry brush with little paint. At this point of the process, I was working on simplifying the values and looking for ways to bring similar values together into a larger shape that relates to the whole canvas.

Stage 4 Color Experiments

Before I started building the big shapes, this is how the canvas looked. This phase is about experimenting with different colors and seeing how the colors looked next to each other. I put little swatches of paint everywhere with a brush. I liked find places where a softer layer contrasted with the harder edge of a swatch.

Stage 3 Mark Making

Before the color experimenting phase, I played with mark making. In this phase, I tried to find as many different ways to make a mark on the canvas. I used a bright, a flat, a round brush. I used a couple of scrapers. I used an eyedropper full of ink. And I also used a spray bottle to thin and drip the paint.

Stage 2 Initial Layers

Before I started with paint, I tried using watercolor crayons.I used a Marabou crayon to draw random lines into the raw canvas.

Stage 1 Pencil Marks

In this stage, I used a 3B pencil to make marks and warm up.

Original Stage - White Canvas

And this is what it looked like at the very beginning - 20x20 cotton duck canvas. Full of possibilities and intimidating at the same time.


Looking through these photos now, I see a lot of energy and movement. I felt uncertain about what was going to show up as a composition. Today, I went from making many marks to blocking out larger areas. I felt overwhelmed trying to groups colors and shapes into larger value areas. I noticed that I feel raw and intense when I make my marks. I like shapes with soft edges instead of ones with hard edges. I like lines that are organic and expressive instead of geometric and straight.

At this point, I could continue to add another layer to the surface. I am thinking about making a layer using lighter values to contrast with the existing dark ones. I could add some collage elements. I could also experiment with adding a ground and then drawing on top of it with pastels. I could also try building up the surface using molding paste.

I want to play with the texture of the canvas so it has areas that have thick, creamy areas next to thin, delicate areas. I also want to experiment with putting muted colors next to high saturated colors. I like how certain color combinations appear to vibrate or glow next to each other. How do I make that happen?

How do you treat the backgrounds in your portrait paintings?

Zorn Paint Palette Colors
My Zorn Palette Colors

I'm learning how to paint realistic portraits with acrylic paint and the Zorn palette: Carbon Black, Cadmium Red Light, Yellow Ochre and Titanium White. The Zorn palette is a good one for beginners to use because it is limited to just 4 paint tubes. You mix variations to create flesh tones, including shadows and highlights. In this post, I'm sharing tips on how to mix paint colors and keep your acrylic paints fresh.

Tip #1: Use a Wet Palette to Store Paint

When I first started painting, I spread out the paint into little piles my palette and mix up the paint colors I needed as I worked on each section. The problem I ran into is that I'm still learning how to mix paint, so I spent a lot of time figuring out how to get the color I wanted. My paint would quickly dry up and become tacky, more quickly than usual because I live here in the dry mountain climate of Colorado.

I found out that other acrylic painters use a wet palette to keep their acrylic paints wet while they work. The most convenient (and most expensive solution) is the Masterson Sta-wet Palette - check out YouTube for tutorials on how to use it. The good thing about this palette is that it comes with an airtight lid that helps keep your paint wet for days, even weeks. Instead of mixing new paint for each paint session, I can pull from this reserve of paint that is closer to the colors and values that I need.

Two notes of caution: 1) The lid can warp so make sure you store the lid with your box and keep it out of the direct sun and 2) the sponge can get moldy. Clean the sponge monthly with add a capful of bleach and dish soap. Or you can use wet Scott shop towels instead of the sponge and change them out.

Tip #2: Use a Disposable Palette to Mix Color

Another thing I've noticed when I mix paint is that I rapidly run out of space to mix paint in the Sta-Wet Palette. Keeping my paint piles clean and separated helps prevent the colors from getting muddy. And trying to mix paint in the box seems harder to me because the edge of the box keeps getting in the way.

I finally started using a separate disposable palette pad just for mixing up paint. I used one page to mix a color string, such as all the variations of black values that I might want for my painting. This is what my mix for a warm black (black with a little red) and a cool red (red with a little black) looks like in my color string.

Color Mixing on a Disposable Palette
Color Mixing in a Disposable Palette

Mixing on the disposable palette makes it easier to mix ALOT more paint. I mix up large piles and then I transfer them to my Sta-Wet palette for storage. Here's what my Sta-Wet palette looks like right now.

Sta-Wet Palette Paint Puddles
Paint Puddles in my Sta-Wet Palette

I ran out of the regular palette paper, so I'm experimenting with using Reynolds Kitchen Parchment Paper. As you can see in my photo, the Parchment Paper tends to wrinkle. I have also tried using tracing paper, but the tracing paper dissolves so you have to change the paper often.

Tip #3: Keep your paint puddles clean.

Since adding very little black or red to a paint mix can drastically change the value and hue, I have learned to wipe my palette knife with a paper towel whenever I pick up a new paint color.

First of all, a large, metal palette knife makes it easier to scoop and mix large piles of paint. Plastic knives don't rust, but it's harder to pick up all the paint from a surface. I also prefer an offset palette knife, one with a bend in it, so it's easier to scooper and scrape the paint. I will also use a second palette knife to scrape off all the paint on the first one.

Wiping paint with a paper towel while you mix seems like common sense, but it's something I have to mindfully practice. It's too easy to just scoop up a little new paint color when you're in the middle of mixing. I like to keep a paper towel flat on the table next to me and wiping my knife on the table instead of holding it in my hand so I don't get so much paint on my hands. I feel like you use up more of the towel this way.

Tip #4: Mix Your Colors in the Same Lighting as Your Painting

One of the early mistakes I made when I worked on my initial mixes was mixing my colors on beside my easel. The problem is that my side table was under my overhead incandescent light while my painting was under a daylight bulb. The result is that my paint mixes ended up too dark.

Now I mix paint directly under the same lighting as my painting. I'm currently using an LED daylight floodlight bulb, 5000k and a CRI of 95 in my basic clamp lamp from Home Depot.

I'm also doing some research into vertical palettes - a palette sitting next to your painting on the easel. The paint from my Sta-Wet palette acts as my "tube colors" and I added extra puddles of the 4 main colors to adjust colors.

Tip #5: Make a Color Wheel or a Color Chart

Making a color wheel can be tedious, but one of my teachers said that most painters waste money trying to mix up paint colors as they work. Making a color wheel before you start painting makes it easy to learn what colors you can mix and exactly how to mix them. Here's my color wheel for the Zorn palette:

Zorn Color Palette
Zorn Color Palette

I used the rings of my color wheel to learn how to mix complements of each color and their related tones. In the Zorn palette, Carbon Black acts as a Blue. Doing this chart, I noticed that black and red are very strong tinting colors - a little goes a long way. Compared to black and read, I used large amount, maybe 10 times as much of Titanium White and Yellow Ochre to mix the flesh tones in the chart.

Colors. Cpmplements and Graus
Color Wheel Rings

Next Up: My Easel Setup

I hope these tips helps other beginning painters mix up paints with their paintings! Next up, I'm looking at how to set up my painting area: lighting fixtures, photo references, and my little painting table. Subscribe now and stay tuned.

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