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It was a hard week -- the news about the new vaccine collided with the news about the newest strains of the Coronavirus. Our family struggled to stay focused on maintaining our school routines. We all need a much needed break.


I've been working on the Portrait with Coffee and Black Gouache lesson in the #PortraitsWithKarl course with @Sktchy. This was my initial attempt at the portrait and laying a few washes of coffee on the page.


Painting a Portrait with Coffee - First Try

The more I worked on it, the more I noticed how frustrated I felt. The coffee was very weak. My drawing didn't look very much like the subject. The head was very small so it was hard to add the coffee to specific areas. And I had so much of the pencil leftover in the drawing that it was smearing when I added the coffee.


A year ago, I would have just kept going with this painting since I had already spent so much time on it. And I would have just gotten angrier and angrier at myself and hating what I was making until I could stand looking at it anymore.


But this weekend, I gave myself a break and put the drawing away for a day. And then I started over.

9x12 graphite on paper
Sketching Gen - Do-Over

I've noticed that getting a strong likeness is important to me. It doesn't need to a hyper-realistic rendering, but I want the portrait to closely resemble how and what I see. Getting the drawing to get to this point - just an outline - took me about an hour. The tilt of the head challenged my sense of proportion and I had to measure and remeasure to get the placement of the features more accurately. I used a harder pencil lead and I took time to erase any unnecessary lines in my drawing so I had less graphite to smear when I started painting.


From there, the next step was to start the initial washes of coffee. I was using my regular Kona coffee that I brewed in my French press. But this time I used 2 tablespoons of coffee to 2 ounces of hot water and I let it steep for 15 minutes. My coffee was notably darker.

Initial Coffee Washes with a Stronger Brew

The larger drawing made also made a significant impact on my experience. I used a round tip Size 2 brush and I carefully added new layers, allowing a layer to dry before adding another on top. Instead of just brushing the coffee onto the page, I also experimented with lightly dabbing globs of coffee and dragging over areas to fade. The coffee can also be reactivated with water and lightened. When dry, the coffee looks much darker than your initial wash.


What Happens with a Stronger Coffee Brew and Patience

I spread the process out over a few hours, allowing the coffee to fully dry. And today, I noticed that my coffee had evaporated into a syrupy, thicker liquid and made excellent dark marks. In the future, brewing the coffee up to 2 days ahead of when I want to actually paint might be a good way to get a darker paint.


I added black gouache to my 6-well palette and wet it with a little water, then I used a separate well to mix the paint and the gouache together. The resulting mixture is a very warm black that I loved. I added the black to the shadow areas and experimented with using more detailed line work to contrast with the washes.


And here is where I am today.

Black Gouache and Line Work

At first I thought I was finished. But now as I look at it, I think I can continue to build up the shadows and add more lines to it so there is more of a dramatic contrast. I am a little afraid that I'm going to overdo it and it will turn into a big black mess. And if that happens, that's ok because I can just do another one.


Look how far I have already come.


I think my biggest obstacle right now is overcoming my fear of failure and inner critic. Making art is hard because you are constantly faced with new problems and there isn't one right answer. Our fear is our response to being placed into the unknown. For a long time, I thought I had to fight my fear, squash it, shut it up. But that only makes my fear stronger and the focus of my attention is on not being afraid.


What I'm practicing now is to recognize when I feel the fear and to acknowledge it exists and then, as Sharon Salzberg says, "Give it a nice cup of tea." The fear needs to be soothed and put aside so the rest of your mind can focus on solving the problem. Yes, this is new but I'm not in danger. I am safe. I am happy. I am healthy. We can figure this out.


And looking at these two versions, I see there are several improvements and more interesting effects in the more recent version. I like the darker washes and I like the hair in the eyebrows and the mustache. The way it is now, the emphasis is more on the eyes and the face. How much do I want to invest on the hair? It feels kind of nostalgic and vintage to me right now. Is that where I want to be?


No answers right now. But maybe something to think about for the future.