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Demo in acrylics: How a painting is made

Jester reference photoThe Inspiration

This is the image that inspired the entire State Fair USA series. Like many artists, I frequently use photographs in the studio as reference. (Though I also believe firmly in painting from life, too.) This one was taken at the Indiana State Fair a couple of years ago. It was just before sunset, an ideal time because there was enough light from the sky to define the shapes, but it was dark enough so we could see the glow of the electric bulbs.

carouselHere’s an overview showing where the shield is located on carousel.

As a side note, this photo was taken in the worst possible light for this subject – mid-morning. The gold looks dull and uninteresting. This would not be my choice for a painting reference.

Blocking in

First I toned the entire background of a 5 x 7″ piece of artboard with the red and orange tones I saw in the recesses of the shield. Bits of this color will show through the subsequent layers and serve to unify the colors of the painting.

Sometimes I’ll do a rough drawing with a pen before starting to paint, but my preference is to dive right in with the paints without a line drawing. Lines are for coloring books. Once I draw a line, I feel the need to stay inside it, and that’s not good for the type of loose painting I want to do. Instead, I block in big volumes of paint with a brush, knowing I can make corrections and add details in subsequent layers. I did use a few pen lines at this point, on top of the paint. Acrylics dry so fast I can draw on top of them almost immediately.

In the initial stages, I’m working in three values – light, middle, and dark. The middle values goe down first, quickly establishing big areas without detail. Think of it as the background.

Drawing with shadow and light

Then I move to dark shadows as I start to define the shapes. Then some very light tones. See how he’s starting to take shape already, just with those three values? At this point I’ve been working less than 20 minutes.

The Face

I’m always a little nervous about painting faces, so I knocked it out of the way first. The finish on this guy is metallic gold, so it’s not the same as painting flesh. It’s much easier, actually. Metallics have a base tone (yellow-orange for gold), but mostly they reflect the colors around them. This figure reflects blue sky from above, yellow from the light bulbs, red from the paint on the carousel, and dark tones from the asphalt below. Much of painting is not about the color an object IS, but the colors it REFLECTS. That applies to everything from metallics to the fur on an animal.

Painting atmosphere

This step is all about the sky. I didn’t like how flat the first attempt looked, so I redid it. Here’s a little secret about skies: I tend to use just about every color but blue. Blue paint without variations looks like… well… paint. Flat. To get a sky that looks like air and airborne particles, I brush on several colors and try not to intermix them much. Here, I’ve used faint tones of yellow, green, and violet.


This is where the magic starts to happen and all those reflections I painted earlier start to make sense. I painted the bulbs first in yellow, then added pure, thick white paint inside the yellow. These bulbs had a swirl pattern in the glass, so I swirled the paint, too. You can’t really see the texture online but it looks nice in real life. Like little cupcakes.

Sculpting with paint

Adding more detail to the floral elements. When I paint, I think in three dimensions, as if I’m sculpting. That’s why being able to layer is important to me when painting an ornate subject like this. I see this shield in my mind’s eye as a 3-D image, and I paint as if I’m constructing it in clay. I actually feel like I shaped every leaf around the bulbs with my fingers and attached them to the piece.

Finishing touches

Finishing touches include the carved flowers on the bottom and his flowing mane.

The painting will dry for a couple of days before getting a coat of Atelier Binder Medium (like a clear primer), then varnish. The image will then be scanned and color corrected for reproduction.

How long did it take?

About four hours. That’s unusually long for a 5 x 7″ but there was a lot of detail.

Now that I’ve worked out the colors and techniques in a small format, I’ll be doing a larger version of The Merry Jester later this year.

Materials List

Liquitex Soft Body Acrylic paints
Multimedia Artboard (an archival paper stiffened with resin)
Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pen, brush tip
Atelier Binder Medium
Liquitex Gloss Varnish