Learn to draw and paint portraits

Lesson 7: Creative Process

The Pochade

Curiously most professional painters will do studies for their paintings; most amateurs just plunge in with a reckless haste.

There is also a common fear that studying the craft of drawing and painting will dent their delicate muse, render it impotent and voiceless. The reality is that the opposite is very often the case. With very rare exception paintings done by untrained artists have a sameness to them. They are for the most part indistinguishable.

To say this, to pronounce this unsavory truth, is tantamount to suicide as an art instructor. But I'm not looking to corral hundreds of students to watch me paint on Zoom and video hoping to pick up a few tidbits of information; I much prefer the serious student whose ambition is to create work with substance. Whether one is a beginner, intermediate or advanced the fundamentals of striking shape remain the same.

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#1: Intro and Notes on Drawing

#2: Unity

#3: Elements of Composition

#4: Architecture of Design

#5: Beginning a Painting

#6: Color Harmonies

#7: Creative Process | Pochade

#8: Creative Process 2 | Watercolor Study of A Young Girl

#9: Getting the BIG Shape

#10: A Walk in a Frozen Wood

#11: Drawing Hands

#12: Drawing the Skull

#13: Velazquez: Alla Prima

#14: Creative Process - Redux

#15: The Power of Triangles

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For beginner and intermediate artists the initial goal is to acquire the skill of consistently and accurately striking the big shapes. For the advanced artist there is the need to understand and acquire the practice of rendering fractal relationships in their forms and brushwork.

No one is born with these skills; they need to be acquired through training. And to be blunt, these skills can be acquired in the same amount of time most artists will spend on their next painting. Which in all likelihood will be at the same level as the last one. Harsh words, I know. Consider it tough love.

Delacroix Liberty study

The creative process begins with an idea which is then synthesized into a concept whose concluding resolution is a well-constructed painting.

Pictured here is one of the French Romantic Eugene Delacroix's large studies for Liberty Leading the People. Painted in 1830 it remains as fresh as hot biscuits and would fit in well in today's painting mileau.

Unlike with the finished painting in the Louvre there are no madding crowds clamoring for a selfie in front of this study. One can easily spend hours studying and contemplating this magnificent work with only an increasingly apprehensive security guard as company.

A Pochade is a generally a small thumbnail sketch, usually around 8 x 10". It can also be done large. There is no hard and fast rule here.

It is in the Pochade that the big idea is worked out: the arrangement of major shapes, the color harmonies, and the considered treatment of the abstract structural surface.

The creative process is very much like peeling an onion. One layer leads to another. Trite and banal ideas are disposed of. With luck a core is found that resonates with meaning and engages your audience with a common bond. Admittedly that doesn't come easily.

Michael Britton

There is also a very practical aspect to the Pochade. Pochade's have a dismal future, often they are relegated to the trash once their purpose is served. This also explains why there are so few of them for museums to display.

Liberties can be taken with a Pochade that one would hesitate to take with an involved painting. With absolutely no concern for the painting's archival values I scratch and scrape and layer and curse and plead to the uncaring gods to my heart's content. Should the paint crack, flake off of the panel, pack its bags and flee forth into the great smoggy yonder ... I could care not a whit!

Frankly I haven't a clue what I am after here except for a portrait of a little girl. I am definitely not interested in a happy little girl. Nor does another teary, life is cruel, please give me some candy pleading.

I much prefer my little girls to be gamine. Oh go ahead, whip out your dictionary before unleashing the authorities upon this witless painter.

For an added treat I wanted to infuse a Renaissance quality to the aura of this work. Albeit with a rough, bravura abstract structural surface.

As with Lesson 5's The Flute Player I chose a dynamic rectangle (the square root of phi - the golden rectangle (1.272)). The geometry is quite simple here. The intersection point A at the rabatement arc and a minor diagonal will establish the top of the head and similary B another intersecting arc and rabatement diagonal will fix the mental protuberance of the chin. Finally, C yet another intersection point at the rabatement, a diagonal and an arc -- a hat-trick! -- will place the side of the head.

This underlying geometry will not only relate the head to the canvas with a concordant unity but will also convey that oh-so Renaissance feel.

Need it be said that the Renaissance was the rebirth of the Greek ideals of order and harmony. Nope. Not at all.

Dynamic symmetry

Color theory

To use a musical analogy my underlying geometry is the bass line (no pun intended, of course) and the color harmonies the melody.

My intended main color harmony will be a linear arrangement of Yellow/Black. These are Primary Compound Complements. You'll learn about these beautiful color harmonies when studying color theory.

Basically, the Primary Harmonic Triad of Yellow/Blue/Red begets the Secondary Triad of Green/Orange/Violet which, in turn, begets the Tertiary Triad of Olive Green/Russet/Slate thus begetting the Compound Triad of pretty much nameless hues. It's all quite bibilical.

Of course, it is usually nice to have a few riffs of color paths traipsing about one's painting. A playful path of tinted blue and red will play off of the yellow of the background. And a couple of discrete touches of orange and green will play upon the violet tinge of the gamine's shadowed head. The really big question here though is is gamine a noun or an adjective?

Nevertheless, following this word from our sponsor, me!, is a 30-minute video on painting Frans Hals pochade for Gypsy Girl. (Another world-shattering tidbit: she wasn't a gypsy.)


I studied with Michael for 4 years in Vancouver when he had the Vancouver Academy of Art. Micheal offered several courses including composition using euclidian geometry, color theory, drawing with graphite and sanguine, and painting the figure and portrait with watercolor. I took every available course during those four years. I have never had a teacher before or since who was able to impart a system of detailed learning including every stage to accomplish a finished work. Years have passed and I was easily able to translate the watercolor studies to oil which I believe gave me a unique advantage in understanding how to keep color vibrant and applying paint in a conscious approach. I still use all the information that Michael passed on from his years of studying in NYC. The information is solid and practical which always grounds my work in structure, composition, and color.

Vancouver, Canada

The Pochade

Upcoming 2021 Virtual Art Classes via ZOOM

Painting Portraits in Oil | Foundation to Bravura

Oil painting art class

Michael Britton, Monique, Oil on Panel, 11x14", 2021

In this five-session workshop you will learn how to paint a dynamic portrait in oil from a photograph.

The language of the photograph is different from that of painting. In this workshop you will learn the process of how to translate the photographic image into a painting that is much more than a mere copy of the photograph.

You will learn how to accurately block-in the big shape before fixing the facial proportions to establish both your composition and the likeness.

Learn how to construct value structures to render three-dimensional form and the practice of spotting color notes mix accurate flesh tones that breath life.

The full course description and materials list.

Materials List

Saturday, 10:00 - 1:00
Pacific Standard Time
September 18 to October 16, 2021
5 Sessions


'I've learnt more from your online workshops than I have from my previous face to face courses combined and at a fraction of the cost. Your teaching is comprehensive, yet clear and engaging.'

P. Delaney
Sydney, Australia