Liberace's "The Classic Portrait from Pencil to Watercolor" Workshop, Nov 30 - Dec 2



Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending yet another of Robert Liberace's fabulous workshops at the Art League in Alexandria VA, this one on drawing & painting portraits (watercolor). Every time I find myself in one of Liberace's classes, I am made aware of how much there is to learn about this thing we call "art". Specifically for me I am interested in learning how Liberace makes his work look so elegant and at the same time so dynamic. Every stroke has its purpose and I am working towards accomplishing that same thing (er... at least attempting to).

Here are the notes and photos I took from the workshop (click on the photos to enlarge). It is my honest wish dear reader, that something in the post will resonate with you (and with me) and we'll walk away as better artists or at least more enlightened ones. And how could we not when we are privy to the inner thoughts of a modern day master?

Day One, Drawing the Portrait:


  • Mechanical pencils, bic

  • Works mostly in HB, uses harder or softer pencils occasionally to achieve his values

  • Anything beyond 2B gets too dark in his opinion

  • Nibs

  • Watercolor

  • Ink


  • Follow the (Charles) Bargue idea

  • Strong light & shadow

  • Liberace loves TwinRocker paper, Canson "Mi Tientes" too

  • Looks at Ingres for fabric

  • Treat every detail of the picture like a portrait

  • Likes to paint in watercolor on a smaller scale like Fortuny

  • Box out your shadows, map them out then slowly add midtones

  • Ingres faces are almost decorative--like and engraving but with "spots of action"

  • Really study Ingres--get a good book on Ingres' drawings!

  • Make shapes that are so clear & obvious, terminator shading

  • Add pentimenti flying through there

  • Tieopolo liked to add "marks of 3" in his drawings, very Venetian technique. Sargent employed this as well

  • Looser shadow & animated but still differentiation of light & dark

  • (Tiepolo) Begins with charcoal before ink

  • Simple mass of shadow

  • Fortuny used black, umber & sienna in his watercolors, shadow always finding form

  • Zorn used monochromatic watercolor with opaque white on top for emphasis & highlight

  • If you ever need to steady your drawing or watercolor readdress area with a contour line

  • You can add a little water to a brush and dilute an area of a graphite drawing (works the same way as in a watercolor), good for evening tones or for contours





Day Two, The Portrait in Watercolor:


  • Begins sketching in pencil, then jumps into watercolor

  • Quick assessment of light/shadow

  • Will often begin by doing a quick "Tiepolo" style study with one tone, maybe throw in an accent

  • Loosely sketch in pencil, then adds a gestural contour in watercolor

  • Adds mass & shadow

  • Try not to be too specific with lines, be more suggestive--"it is what gives that romantic feeling"

  • "Your job is to find out where the light is ending, the more you break that up the harder your job becomes"

  • "Melt" the detail into your shadows if you aren't so sure where they begin

  • Connect half tones to the shadow & "feather" it out

  • "It is really all about editing what you see"



Day Three, The Portrait in Watercolor:


  • Burnt Sienna,

  • Black,

  • Chinese or permanent white,

  • Cadmium Yellow Light (or similar bright yellow),

  • Cadmium Red ( or similar bright red),

  • Ultramarine Blue.

Optional Palette:

  • Alizarin Crimson,

  • Manganese Violet,

  • Cerulean Blue,

  • Pthalo Blue,

  • Viridian Green,

  • Pthalo or Hookers Green.


  • When sketching his gesture he holds his pencil at the end

  • Puts in markers (enveloping)

  • Blocks in his "axis lines"

  • Liberally throws crimson wash over the whole face & "melts" it out

  • Drops in yellow & violet for the beard

  • Throws in black for the uniform

  • Shadow on face, a warm green made of black & yellow & sienna

  • On the nob of the nose uses a little extra red

  • Drops in extra water for the fold of the eyes--orbital fold

  • Draws eye, ties it in to the shadow then carefully marks the lower lid with it

  • Goes back and forth between different temperatures

  • Will add half tones in when there is not a lot of shadow to delineate form

  • Thinks in planes, color & temperature all the time

  • Ties a lot of the elements of the eye together to simplify

  • Soften edges

  • Loves TwinRocker heavy text, light art weight, calligraphy cream paper

  • On halftones he is careful not to leave heavy block ins

  • "I don't want to plan things too much. Sometimes watercolorists work to tightly--allow spontaneity"

  • Moves in with smaller brushes

  • Will use watercolor & a bristle brush to scumble areas

  • Puts color in shadows

  • Will refine edges on strokes he doesn't like so that is will dry as a mass that he can paint on later

  • Really "feathers" a lot of these edges out

  • Likes to see a lot of shape & pattern to a form like Sorolla & Fortuny

  • Will erase at the end with a "perfect pencil" (eraser pencil with brush at the end) & then uses a white charcoal pencil to add highlights with

  • Chinese white paint is used at the end over dry white paint when needed (alla Zorn)



Hope your holidays were as wonderful as ours. Wishing you much artistic growth and success in the New Year!