Michael Britton

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Learn to draw portraits

The Blackboard Blog on Drawing

Michael Britton, Arrangement in Phi
Michael Britton, Arrangement in Root Phi, Graphite Cartoon / Watercolor

Current Issue - February 2014

Breaking Through Walls

Occasionally getting stuck and trudging across a plateau is the lot of every artist. Some plateaus are crossed quickly. A week or two of unsatisfactory drawing and painting will give way and a remarkable work will practically paint itself. Assuming, of course, you have the fundamentals under your belt.

Then there are the long plateaus where exceedingly little progress is made for weeks, even months, on end. Sometimes these desert crossings just need to be endured. They will eventually work themselves out. Othertimes an honest appraisal is called for.

En plein air experience
Michael Britton, Water Hole, Oil on Paper

The Plein Air Experience

Painting en plein air dictates that we forget about our training and put it aside. Of course our training is ingrained and will always be there. The intent of en plein air is to let go and paint purely -- easier said than done. The result are paintings that are as fresh as hot biscuits and something that studio paintings often fall short of.

The purpose of this month's Blackboard is to outline a study process which will prepare you for the en plein air experience. First, let's look at our timeline: the depth of winter is hardly an enticing time for venturing forth into the frozen wilderness. But in a scant three or so months' time spring will burst forth like a freshly prepped palette. Now is the time to start getting prepared.

Michael Britton, Derelict Dhow, Mandvi, India, Oil on Paper, 23x19.5cm

December 2013

Still Crazy ... when your muse stalls

In 1974 the talk show host Dick Cavett interviewed Paul Simon who was at an impasse writing 'Still Crazy After All These Years.' In the segment Simon talks about several possible directions he is considering.

The creative process is fickle. Somedays an artist's muse, like an aunt who has indulged in far too much rum-laced eggnog, spills forth easily and unencumbered. Paintings practically paint themselves. Those are the joyous days.

Other days a painting will stall leaving the artist with a baleful eye clapped onto the canvas glumly pondering and unsure of where to go. Anguished ambiguity is often our lot.

Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Portrait Study, Watercolor

November 2013

Resilience & Focus

One of the great joys of teaching is when you are fortunate to come across those truly dedicated students who are committed and serious about their art no matter what their age; students who are passionate about learning their craft and understand the sacrifice and time it takes to develop their skills and are willing to make the effort required to achieve their goals.

These students usually recognize something in the teacher’s work that resonates with what they wish to create themselves, and they are willing to try what you ask of them, rather than protest with reasons and excuses for why it won't. They are a sheer pleasure to teach and they quietly work away until they see results. They have the qualities of resilience and focus.

JMW Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839
JMW Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839

October 2013

How Great Paintings Begin

For the artist who is 'in training' the ability to render three-dimensional form, mix and apply color accurately, etc., are all highly important skills. In doing so, the common and effective method of painting is to first lay in the drawing on the canvas and then proceed to fill it in beginning with an underpainting.

This is an illustrative approach and although used by the majority of artists is not the most powerful way to paint. The result of an illustrative approach is usually not much more than a colored drawing. There are exceptions to this, of course.

A great painting, like a great musical symphony, possesses sweeping movements of rhythm and tempos that enhance and give depth to the melodies of color and form.

September 2013


James M. from the United Kingdom sent me this plein air painting that he had recently painted asking me for my comments on how he could improve it.

For this lesson I will focus on how punching up the Notan and using Color Paths will take this painting up a few notches.

Color Paths Workshop

Summer 2013

Color Paths

For the past three months I have been travelling and painting my way down the Mekong River from the Chinese border in Laos through Northeast Thailand to Cambodia. The Mekong River itself is a wide river sluggishly wending through a flat alluvial strip and, to me, offered little in subject matter. The view of the Mekong in Vientianne is identical to that in Phnom Penh–a view that only a severe Minimalist could love.


June 2013


Notan is a Japanese word that means light/dark harmony. It is one of the four principles of pictorial design that literally stick paintings to the wall and grab the viewer. When paintings work in black and white--they work.

For every artist who strugges with wishy-washy paintings and strives to become a better painter there is no surer route than acquiring an understanding of the Notan.

Portrait Drawing Lessons 2

May 2013

GRIT: Amy's Story

In the late 1990's Amy was in the audience of the taping for Painting the Figure in Watercolor where I was demonstrating the process of rendering a near life-size figure in a single afternoon. Amy decided then and there that I was the teacher for her. She immediately signed up and remained a student of mine for the next six years.

As is often the case Amy had graduated from an university art program stuffed with oodles of post-modernist theory but lacking the requisite skills for actually making art.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam

April 2013

The Power of Persistence and Discipline

Curiously, painting only when inspiration strikes often results in less than satisfactory work. Perhaps it is the expectation of a preconceived result. Expectations usually lead to disappointment.

The days when I literally have to drag myself to the easel can result in surprisingly good work. Perhaps it is because I have no expectations of a result and instead I lose myself in form and color.

Beginner Drawing Lessons

March 2013

An Art Education | The Straight Dope

Being led down the garden pathway, entreatied with hollow accolades of how wonderful you are doing, is the unsettling fear of every serious art student.

In the scramble for students many promises are made. Criticisms are softened, content is rendered to an unobjectionable palaver and, above all, the instructor must appear infallible. The dismal result is that college and university programs are little more than sausage factories expunging a similar and consistent product.

Watercolor Painting Figure

February 2013

Developing a Painting

One begins with an idea for a painting. In this almost life-sized watercolor the idea was sparked by a line thought by the protaganist in V.S. Naipaul's book Half a Life. I was reading this book while on vacation in Australia and casually watching these large white birds with long arcing beaks scavenging on the sidewalk.

Michael Britton, Torajan Hut, Oil on Paper, 2012

December 2012

Being Original

Original expression is the wont of every artist; it is the primary compulsion that drives us to the easel. Yet as soon as a mark, however discrete, is made on the canvas the whelming weight of art history comes tumbling forth.

The first question we need to consider is: What is the self? Are we born with a self that requires nurturing and hard-won discovery to be released and expressed? Some of us travel in a quest to discover, or perhaps more accurately, uncover, our self. But what if there no innate self to be unwrapped and flowered.

Edwin Dickinson - Provincetown - 1935

November 2012

Consolations in Failure

When a painting fails, particularly one that a significant amount of time and effort has been invested it can leave us gutted. Sometimes we convince ourselves that maybe it isn't as bad as we fear. This psychological filter is something we all need to be wary of. The remedy is to trust your instinct and if still unsure put the painting out of sight for several weeks. Or months.

Conte study of Sonya. Detail.

October 2012

Panic in the Village | an intrepid portraitist takes on New York

Once upon a time, a little over a quarter century ago, in a gentler, more assured America I was summarily dismissed from the confining cell of my corporate cubicle, lined up against the wall with my fellow confederates (a failed bid for better working conditions) and shot through the heart with a pink slip.

Michael Britton, Boat House - Yamba Harbour

September 2012

For the Love of Painting

Painting en plein air (in the open air) is one of my greatest pleasures. It gets me out of the studio and into nature and after a short two hour session I am fully reinvigorated and ready to tackle whatever life decides to throw at me that day.


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