Workshop Wednesday: Kathleen Speranza

“Yellow Cluster”, Oil on panel. 11” x 11”. Artist, Kathleen Speranza.

“Yellow Cluster”, Oil on panel. 11” x 11”. Artist, Kathleen Speranza.

There are few floral painters today who can conjure up the sublime in their paintings, Kathleen Speranza is definitely among the best of them. There is a palatable, moody atmosphere in her paintings which envelopes her still life subjects. This atmosphere simultaneously ensconces and reveals the delicate forms of her subjects, often English roses. And since I have been in search of the sublime recently in my own work, I jumped at the opportunity to study with her when she came to the Art League in Alexandria VA this past summer.

She will be returning to the area to teach a private sold out workshop in Purcellville VA in early December 2019. If you are interested in getting on a wait list should a slot open up, please contact me directly.

The following notes and photos I took myself so that I could continue to study on my own. Hopefully they will inspire you to spark a little moody magic in your paintings.

Day One/June 11, 2019:


-Kathleen has been working with the subject of roses for the past 4-5 years. She is still working on unlocking the secrets of subtly.

-”The growth habit is more beautiful in a garden rose”. A living plant twists and spirals into form. In nature this is called “Equiangular Spirals” or in design it is known as “Dynamic Symmetry”. Other terms for this are the Golden Mean and the Fibonacci Spiral.

-When she does work from florist roses (long stemmed), three of her favorites are “Juliet”, “Patience” and “White O’Hara'‘, all from David Austin. She recommends purchasing the cut flowers from, an on-line retailer of flowers.

-When working from the rose she thinks of it as occupying space, and the background around it as space as well.

-She often composes her arrangements with a tiny vase so that flowers spread out - not tall and narrow. Also loves using just the floral frogs to allow for “more air”.

Kathleen Speranza’s charcoal drawing on Fabriano Ingres laid paper.

Kathleen Speranza’s charcoal drawing on Fabriano Ingres laid paper.


-She does drawings constantly. Her drawings help her to “think” about her compositions.

-She uses her prepatory drawings to help her edit her vision for the painting. Kathleen has discovered that if she works directly from the roses when painting that she often ends up painting everything and losing the essence of subtly and restraint.

-When working with charcoal she prefers Nitram and will lay down the charcoal & then lifts the light. “The light is everything”.

-She will also draw with graphite.

-Prefers Fabriano Ingres laid paper. Tip: Place a thick pad of paper behind the Ingres paper when drawing.

-She draws and paints in natural light. Natural light is ambient - it envelopes the subject.

-She thinks in term of “light to dark” and “dark to light” when setting up her still lifes and also when drawing/painting.

-”Feel the gesture, the curvilinear marks”. Create compound curves w/straight edges.

-”You can’t get momentum if you hold the pencil like you are writing - that kind of detail comes later in the drawing”.

-”Make an ugly drawing first - structural, a boxy block in”.

-Lays down several lines with each angle - “feels'“ her way through. Makes cross hatches to indicate the end of a petal. Angled dashes that break the edge.

-”The edge tells you everything about the interior. They are hugely important”.

-”Veils in” the overall shadow.

-Recommends watching Sadie Valerie’s video on shading a sphere.

-”The viewer will see your experience- not your goal. Slow down and enjoy every detail”.

-”The background creates your edges.”

-“Laid paper slows down your darks - allows for the marks to breathe. Much more interesting that way”.

-”The more shapes you put down the more variation in tone you will have”.

-”The whole thing is straight lines. Take extra care around strong contrasts. Make sure each petal is where it should be exactly at this stage of the drawing.

-”if you go into details too soon you will make it too complex. This is not what you want. You want to simplify and go for subtly”.

-Use a grey scale with 9 steps and work toward those values in your drawing.

Kathleen’s paint mixing demo using the Munsell Color System to dial in on the exact value, hue & chroma of the rose petal above.

Kathleen’s paint mixing demo using the Munsell Color System to dial in on the exact value, hue & chroma of the rose petal above.


-Comes out of the French Academic system.

-Hue + Value + Chroma = Subtly

-It is based on 9 value color chart.

-Kathleen creates a mixture she calls “blumber”. 2/3 ivory black + 1/3 raw umber. She then adds white to this mixture to achieve the correct value and finally adds a color hue to arrive at the final value and color of whatever she is painting.

-Always add dark to your white. If you go the other way you will use too much white. Conserve your white.

-The student Munsell book contains 60 colors.

-Practice the color system by doing master copies. Use Google Art Project for references of the highest resolution.

-Be aware that the influence of black in the Munsell color system makes everything you mix a little greenish.

-It is a good idea to tube your paint in advance (blumber + white to achieve the 9 values in a value chart).

Underpainting block in

Underpainting block in

DAY TWO/June 12, 2019:


-Kathleen set up a split compliment for her demo composition. Yellow & grey.

-”Color is relative- edge to edge”.

“The classic still life is light to dark, or dark to light”.

“Look for structure, large mass & contrast”.

-”I have to believe the space I am making. Sometimes I get it right away. Other times I have to sand it, mash things around first”.

-Quotes Flannery O’Connor, “I don’t know what I think until I read what I write”. Feels the same way about her work.

-Uses a colored sheet, studio wall or box as her background.

-Degreases panel first with gamsol on a brush.

-Starts the underpainting with yellow ocher and plans to work in values 1 - 5 with a little darker for the leaves.

-Her set up has a nice horizontal arc so she is creating her composition horizontally on her panel.

-Does not start with “darkest dark” works in mid tones first.

-Starts her under-paintings with a floppy brush. For this demo a large comber.

-Masses in background with fluffy brush. Leaving object as negative space within.

-“You are making a space, not an object”.

-“Don’t think roses, think midtones, large shapes etc”.

-Consider light, height and spread of plant when composing.

-Wipes out as needed.

“The one thing your eyes can hold is light. So we are after that one thing our eyes can truly hold. Think about that for a minute”.

-”You have to look at the whole thing or you won’t make a space”.

-“It is much better to do a “raw underpainting”—meaning not too developed because otherwise I won’t want to cover it.”

-“If I put an edge there it will pull everything forward. I want to delay those decisions until later”.

-”If I am struggling with a painting I will overlay a grid on it to look for the path of composition. But I don’t start out rigidly with the grid”.

-”I work around an object until I understand how something is unfolding”.

-”Keep the edges soft”.

“Save your best drawing for the end of a painting. Delayed gratification”.

“Think about the paint and not about what you are painting. You have to trust that you can paint your way out of anything”.

Underpainting with background lay in.

Underpainting with background lay in.

Establishing the darkest green shapes of the painting.

Establishing the darkest green shapes of the painting.


-The understanding of color is all about relationships.

-The color of roses is deepest always in the center or in the creases (unless it is red). The color compounds by the overlapping of each petal. In other words the petals are all actually the same color but they appear darker as they overlap.

-She uses just a simple yellow & black mixture for her leaves & stems. Try black + yellow ocher, black + lemon yellow, black + cad yellow med and black with indian yellow.

-For blue greens try; lemon yellow + ultramarine blue, cad yellow med + cobalt blue, or cad yellow med + cobalt blue + ultramarine blue.

-Think “dark, blueish green”. Think in 3 descriptive terms when mixing, it will help.

-When people paint flowers they tend to use too much chroma.

-Sargent is known to have said “Use fewer colors & more values”.

-Kathleen uses the following colors from Marvin Mattelson’s flesh palette (with whom she has studied) , terra rosa, indian red and yellow ocher to use when painting roses.

-”Here’s a tip for painting clouds and skys. Start at the top of the painting with ultramarine blue and as you get closer to painting the earth, switch to cobalt blue then cerulean blue and finally manganese blue. The color of the earth affects the air around it - so it becomes greener as it gets closer to the ground.”

Kathleen’s demo at the end of Day One.

Kathleen’s demo at the end of Day One.


-”If you copy from a photograph you are not making space”.

-Do not paint all the edges the same, it will not have a life force. It will turn out flat.

-“Hedge the whole painting with edges that are “open” so that when you harden an edge it leads the eye immediately”.

-When working, Kathleen often pushes the subject “out” and then paints the background “in” towards the subject. She then works that edge. {Sargent is said to have also worked this way}.

“Get rid of the word background. It doesn’t exist. Everything is relative in color. Color exists edge to edge.”

Do not make pictures.
Make experiences.
— Kathleen Speranza