20+ Out-of-the-Box Tools for Applying Paint



20+ Out-of-the-Box Tools for Applying Paint
20+ Out-of-the-Box Tools for Applying Paint
Portraiture Today
How to
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April 2012
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Display until April 2, 2012
Sydney (detail; oil, 20x16) by Marvin Mattelson
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Marvin Mattelson’s portraiture combines
Albert H. Munsell’s color theory, Frank J. Reilly’s palette
arrangement and William McGregor Paxton’s colors—
along with an artist’s intuition.
LEFT: The subjects of Pat
and Jennifer (oil, 40x44)
requested an out-of-thebox portrait, and this “giveand-take” image popped
into Mattelson’s head,
complete with balloons
in the sky and a safety
pin in the woman’s shirt.
The detail at right reveals
translucent fleshtones,
which the artist achieves
with thin, scumbled layers
of precisely mixed colors.
UMINOUS SKIN TONES, reach-out-and-touch
fabrics, verisimilitude of facial features—
these are all characteristics of a portrait by
Marvin Mattelson. He’s a master of
color and form, and yet Mattelson will tell you
he didn’t begin learning to paint until he was
10 years out of art school.
Learning Through Teaching
“I’d been frustrated,” says Mattelson, “by the
prevailing teaching philosophy of the day that
technical instruction stifles creativity.” In spite
of receiving a bachelor of fine arts degree from
Philadelphia College of Art, he says, “I was
convinced that I couldn’t paint to save my life.”
Yet Mattelson was a skilled draftsman and, with
his cartoonlike drawings, he quickly struck
April 2012
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BELOW: “Karin
(oil, 36x30) was
the first portrait I
painted after leaving illustration,”
says Mattelson. He
mixed colors for the
complexion using
the standard Reilly
success as a New York illustrator. Gradually,
his approach evolved into realism and, in addition to doing freelance work, he began teaching illustration at the School of Visual Arts in
New York City. He worked in black and white.
When asked to do something in color, he’d
indicate the appropriate hues with overlays.
In fact, color was one conundrum that had
kept Mattelson from painting until a decade
into his career. “At that point,” he says, “my
drawings had become much more realistic, and
I felt that if I peeled one back, I’d find a painting underneath.” At a lecture he learned that by
painting light into dark, he could make smooth
gradations in acrylic. That was the first technical information about painting he’d ever heard.
Armed with this knowledge, he started playing
with acrylics. “About an hour into this grand
experiment,” says Mattelson, “the art director of
National Lampoon called to commission a color
illustration.” Mattelson offered to do a painting—and he’s continued to paint ever since.
That’s not to say that Mattelson blossomed
to his current virtuosity overnight. “I developed
my methodology in parallel with my teaching,”
says Mattelson, who shared each discovery and
false lead with his students. “I always wanted
to differentiate between what worked across
the board and what may have been working
only for me because of my experience, intuition
and level of talent. If I tried something and it
wouldn’t work for anyone else, then I knew I
had to find a better solution. Universal truths
were what I was looking for.”
Conquering Color
Finding a sensible approach to color proved
Mattelson’s biggest challenge. Within two
years of taking up the paintbrush, he was
creating covers for Time magazine, but his
approach was intuitive. If something didn’t
look right, he’d keep repainting the passage
until he’d resolved the problem, but a
systematic color-mixing methodology eluded
him. “I bought every book on painting I could
find, but was frustrated by what I considered
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Mattelson’s Materials
the lack of a logical approach,” says Mattelson.
“Things like relying on cadmium colors to paint
flesh, using complements to gray down colors,
referring to color recipes and, in particular,
using relative ‘warmth and coolness’ as a compass for color made absolutely no sense to me.
These methods all seemed terribly ambiguous.”
By way of example, Mattelson describes
a typical color-mixing episode using what he
considers the illogical, yet commonly accepted
methods: “You mix a color, and then you have
to make it lighter, so you add white. White
has blue in it, which makes the color cooler,
so you have to make the color warmer. You
make it warmer and then the color becomes
more chromatic so, to bring it down, you add
the complement. The complement makes the
color darker so you have to lighten it. It’s absolutely insane. I refer to this as ‘circuitous color
The first glimmer of a solution actually
came early on when Mattelson was selecting a
paint brand. One line, Liquitex Modular Color
System, stood out from the others. Rather than
name the colors after pigments (such as ultramarine blue or veridian green) or giving them
ambiguous descriptors (such as pine green or
canary yellow), Modular Color System named
its colors in terms of hue and value (such as
value 8 yellow or value 3 blue-purple). This
approach was based on the Albert H. Munsell
color system, which relied not on relative
determinations of temperature, but on clearly
defined gradations of hue (color), value (lightness and darkness) and chroma (brightness or
Mattelson also heard other illustrators
speak of the late Frank J. Reilly, who had
taught at the Art Students League from the
1930s to the 1960s. Apparently, Reilly had
addressed many of the questions that plagued
Mattelson. Not until 10 years into Mattelson’s
painting sojourn—20 years removed from
his formal education—did Mattelson find a
LEFT: Mattelson first used his current palette colors on
Steve Fishbach (oil, 36x28). “I had painted the client’s
complexion using cadmiums,” says Mattelson, “and
I called him, explaining that I wanted to repaint the
complexion using my new palette.” The miniatures on
the bottom right of the painting, from the client’s collection of 19th-century porcelain portraits, were Fishbach’s
motivation for commissioning his own portrait; he
wanted insight into the sitter’s experience of posing.
Paint: Michael Harding Artists Oil Colours yellow ochre, raw umber,
Cremnitz white, ivory black, Venetian red, Indian red, burnt sienna,
ultramarine blue, viridian green; Royal Talens Rembrandt madder deep;
Michael Harding Naples yellow and Old Holland cadmium vermilion
when needed
Brushes: Silver Brush long-handled Ruby Satin synthetic filberts
and, for small touches, No. 1 round; 2-inch hog-hair varnish brush for
Surface: Fredrix Rix portrait-grade linen
Palette: balanced palette handcrafted by artist Lee Boynton and
painted midvalue gray according to Mattelson’s specifications
Mediums: cold-pressed linseed oil, sometimes with sun-thickened
linseed oil added; Natural Pigments Oleogel, used between paint layers
to regain the luster of wet paint
Brush cleaners: Utrecht safflower oil followed by Jack’s Linseed
Studio Soap and water; a little Gamblin Gamsol for the varnish brush and
palette, but never for a synthetic brush
Easel: Mattelson combined parts of a Windmill and a Hughes easel so
he can adjust the height and latitude and also rotate the painting.
mentor in John Frederick Murray, a former
student of Reilly’s. For three hours a week,
Mattelson would meet with Murray, who
would re-create Reilly’s lecture series. This
evolved for Mattelson into life painting and
the transition to oils.
“What attracted me to the Reilly program,” says Mattelson, “was that at its core lay
Munsell.” Mattelson received confi rmation
for using neutral grays rather than complements to desaturate colors and for sidestepping
considerations of temperature. “When I mix
a color, rather than say it’s too warm or too
cool, I address it in three different dimensions,”
says Mattelson. “I look at the hue and I say, ‘Is
the hue correct? For example, if it’s a yellow, I
compare my mixture to the yellow I’m painting. On the color wheel, yellow can go only in
two directions—either yellow-green or yellow-red. Yellow can’t go more toward blue. So
that’s one dimension—hue. Then I consider
value. Should it be lighter or darker? And
lastly there’s chroma or intensity. Do I need to
increase or decrease the saturation?”
Mattelson found that not only he, but also
his students, quickly became efficient at mixing colors by this method—a surefi re sign that
he was on to something.
In addition, the fact that Reilly’s system,
based on Munsell’s, used a controlled palette
See Mattelson’s
Portrait Artist Hall
of Fame, at www.
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Mattelson’s Palette
for Fleshtones
Mattelson uses a controlled palette—one based
on value strings. For fleshtones, he lays out, at
the top of his palette, a string of neutral grays.
Below these is a string of yellows calibrated to
the same values as the grays above them. Next
comes a value string of yellow-reds and finally
a string of reds. By adjusting for hue, value
and chroma separately, he can easily mix the
precise fleshtones he needs.
“I don’t have a set formula for fleshtones,”
says Mattelson, “because each person is unique.
My premixed piles are like exits on the New
Jersey Turnpike. Nobody lives at the exit. Once
you get off the exit, you have to maneuver to
find whatever location you’re looking for.”
ABOVE: Sydney (oil,
20x16) is a portrait
of a girl at the precipice of becoming
a young woman.
Mattelson says, “I
wanted to focus on
her sensitivity and
of value strings made Mattelson want to
delve deeper into Reilly’s methodology (See
Mattelson’s Palette for Fleshtones, above right).
Lessons from the Past
For years Mattelson had studied the work of
illustrators, but Murray encouraged Mattelson
to examine the work of academic artists, especially those of the late 18th and 19th centuries.
He would regularly visit the Metropolitan
Museum of Art and attend auction previews
at Sotheby’s and Christie’s to scrutinize the
originals. But it was in a volume found in a
bookstore that Mattelson discovered William
McGregor Paxton. “His color harmonies,
value structure, edge handling and compositional sense are unbelievable,” says Mattelson.
Intrigued by Paxton’s skin tones and color
handling, Mattelson was able to discover the
colors Paxton used but had trouble re-creating
the delicate hues typical of Paxton’s fleshtones.
Years later Mattelson happened to sit next
to James Childs at a banquet put on by the
New York Society of Portrait Artists. Childs,
Mattelson learned, had studied with R.H. Ives
Gammell, who had apprenticed with Paxton.
“Come to my studio,” said Childs. “I’ll
show you how the whole palette was mixed
out, and I’ll show you how Paxton mixed his
skin tones.” And Childs was true to his word,
laying out Paxton’s palette for Mattelson and
providing a list of colors. “Paxton painted with
an open palette—arranging his color around
the palette with no premixing,” says Mattelson,
“but I just transposed those colors to the Reilly/
Munsell controlled palette—a palette that
uses premixed value strings. Within an hour
and a half, I had painted the most beautiful,
luminous fleshtones of my entire life.”
What was different? Mattelson had
assumed that all Paxton’s fleshtone mixtures
started with burnt sienna. But although Paxton
included that color on his palette, at the bottom of Child’s list of Paxton’s colors was a note:
“Never, ever use burnt sienna in flesh.” Also,
following Reilly’s teaching, Mattelson had
been using cadmiums for skin tones. “Trying to
paint the nuances of realistic skin tones using
cadmiums is like learning how to parallel park
in a Boeing 747,” says Mattelson. “It’s just way,
way more than you need.”
Portrait Process
But for a portrait artist, sound methodology
and technical virtuosity are only half the
story. A camera can capture a likeness; an
artist reveals a person. Mattelson sees a
commissioned portrait as a collaboration. His
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Layers of a Portrait
I painted Karen demo (at bottom; oil,
18x14) from life as a workshop demonstration piece. Although I prefer painting
from life, due to time restraints, workshop pieces are never as refined as commissioned portraits; however I use the
same basic process for both.
1. I always start my portraits with a raw
umber imprimatura (transparent underpainting). The value of the tone is always
equivalent to the shadow value on the
model or the subject. For a simple painting, such as this head-and-shoulder
piece, I scratch a drawing with a tortillon
into the umber tone.
2. Then I remove the lights with a rag
and add paint with a brush for the darks.
For more complex compositions, I build
up the image with very thin paint, using
more of a watercolor type of technique.
In either case, the point is to establish the
drawing, composition, edges and values.
3. The next layer is where I first address
color, opaquely blocking in the local colors and modeling the values of the larger
forms. At this point, I don’t try to finish
anything or put in any detail. My focus
is on establishing the big color relationships. I’ll smooth out the patchiness later.
4. For the ensuing layers, I oil out the area
to be painted with Natural Pigments
Oleogel. This helps restore the luster and
value of wet oil, which often dulls after it
dries. Then I scumble (apply a thin layer
of translucent paint) into the wet Oleogel,
adjusting color to unify each area. I then
paint into the wet scumble to modify the
subtle hue, value and chroma shifts.
For a link to more
of Mattelson’s portraits, go to www.
5. The number of layers depends on the
degree of translucency or refinement I
desire. Skin is made up of translucent layers, and my scumbling puts translucent
layers over what was there before. This
technique was used by 19th-century artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau. In my
portraits, a typical finished head will have
between four and six layers, while background areas may have just one or two.
April 2012
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RIGHT: Edward
Cardinal Egan
study (oil, 9x8¼)
BELOW: Edward
Cardinal Egan (oil,
Study and Portrait
From color study to finished painting, Edward Cardinal Egan’s expression changes notably. “Color studies are like a dress rehearsal,” says
Mattelson. “I do them within a day or two so that any red flags can
be addressed early. I don’t want to spend months on a painting to
have someone say, ‘I don’t like the background color.’ Everyone says,
‘Does that really look like me?’ and I explain, ‘Do you want me to
spend two weeks on a head that’s 1-inch high?’” Mattelson devotes
months to the actual painting of the portrait, during which time
verisimilitude becomes a priority.
first meeting with a client allows the two
to become better acquainted as they select
clothing, props and background. Knowing
where the finished painting will be displayed
can affect composition and color choices.
Unless the entire painting is to be done
from life, Mattelson next shoots reference photos and makes sketches. “Since I shoot photos
digitally, tethered to a laptop,” says Mattelson,
“the client and I can review the images during the photo session and make sure we’re in
agreement.” Mattelson creates a quick head
study from life to record subtle color tones
of the complexion and hair. He then makes
a photo composite in Photoshop, combining
“this hand position with that sleeve fold.” Once
the client approves the composite, Mattelson
paints a small compositional color study (see
Study and Portrait, at left).
When the compositional color study is
approved, Mattelson begins the full-sized
portrait. Although some work from photos is
almost always necessary, to capture the dimensional and spatial illusion that photos fail to
deliver, Mattelson encourages his subjects to
participate in as many live sittings as possible.
“I like my subjects to see the painting before
and after the sitting,” he says. “Seeing how
much the painting has transformed within an
hour or two, just by virtue of their sitting there
and posing, makes them really enthusiastic. It
gets them on board.”
The painting process can be described in
three steps: First Mattelson creates a transparent underpainting and oil drawing in raw
umber. Next comes color blocking and modeling of large forms. Finally he applies a series of
layers in which colors, values, chroma shifts and
modulations of form are perfected. “My general
approach,” says Mattelson, “involves working from large to small and from least to most
important. (See Layers of a Portrait, page 31).
What’s the Greatest of Them All?
Ask Mattelson which of his portraits makes
him proudest, and he replies, “I’m proudest of all of them.” There’s more than artistto-client diplomacy behind that statement.
Mattelson strives to give each portrait a unique
look—something that goes beyond simply
replacing one subject for another on a picture
plane. “It’s about making a connection to the
subject matter,” says Mattelson. Positioning,
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Meet Marvin Mattelson
lighting and setting can reveal aspects of the
subject and, at the same time, raise questions
that further engage the viewer. One portrait
may include an elaborate room setting; another
may place the subject in surreal surroundings;
a third could present the subject against a plain
background; a fourth dissolves to a vignette. “I
always sit down and talk to my clients about
what they’re looking for,” says Mattelson.
“Most people just want a portrait. I have to
figure out how to make it great.” ■
HOLLY DAVIS is senior editor of The Artist’s Magazine.
In 1969 Marvin Mattelson received a bachelor of fine arts degree with a major
in illustration from the Philadelphia College of Art. By 1972, with an established
professional reputation, he was hired by the School of Visual Arts in New York
City, where he has continued to teach part time to this day. His illustration client
list includes DreamWorks, IBM, MTV, Newsweek, National Geographic, the
United States Postal Service and Angel
Records. As Mattelson moved from
illustration work to commissioned portraits, he built a client list that includes
chief executive officers from MetLife,
NYNEX and ITT, as well as composer
Philip Glass and Edward Cardinal Egan,
archbishop of New York. Mattelson
also teaches workshops around the
country. Visit his website at www.
LEFT: Sylvia at
Seventeen (oil,
40x34) was commissioned by the
subject’s son, Steve
Fishbach (see his
portrait on page
28), who wanted
to present his
elderly mother as
she would have
appeared in her
youth. Mattelson
studied the mother’s
facial structure to
capture her features
and did sittings with
a body double of the
April 2012
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