Australian Fine Artist

Cathy van Ee

Subject: Demo of Portraiture from a Photo in Oils

Venue: McClelland Guild of Artists

Cathy would have to be one of the nicest and most knowledgeable portrait artists around! I totally enjoyed her demonstration today and it was jam packed with valuable information for artists of all levels. She is also a true professional as she also brought along a small slide show on a screen for us to look at and a folio of her works.

As she was setting up for the demo, I noticed how Cathy carefully selected her palettes (two of them) for her painting. She had one set up with large dobs of colour for her backgrounds. These were from larger tubes that she uses for landscapes and backgrounds. The other was for the face using more expensive paint. I liked seeing that she had her palette arranged with warms to cools from left to right and tonal range from top to bottom. So she had effectively three tones mixed and ready to go for all her major colours in skin tones.

The painting was to be done on particle board, which had been coated with “suede” wall paint to give it some texture and then painted over again with a light burgundy colour gesso. The drawing in which was actually done with raw umber paint and a small brush, was already done as Cathy likes to measure all her facial features to make sure the painting is accurate to the sitter. The photo for the painting was set to the right of the painting area and to the left was a small pastel of the photo which is a great idea for working out the kinks you may encounter as you begin a painting. The design and tones etc had been nutted out before she even started on her oil painting.

At the beginning of the session, Cathy took the time to talk to use about the importance of drawing as a basic tool for all forms of art. She said it is very important the we develop our drawing skills and spend time doing small pieces so that we can find our own “path” as far as style and subject matter are concerned. She also talked about the colour wheel and using complementaries and then went on to tonal values and how painting relies on tonal values more than actual colours.

Cathy spoke about how important it is to set up your palette leaving you free to think about what you are doing with your painting. She included talking about vibrant and soft areas, which means selecting colours that are usually straight out of the tube to keep the colour pure and using it in a spot on your work to highlight it and create focal points and drama.

For her darkest darks, Cathy mixes her own blacks so that she has the choice of a warm or cool black rather than the rather “dead’ effect you may get from a black straight from the tube.

I noticed the paints were a mix of Monte Mart and Lukas for her larger tubes and Windsor & Newton for her smaller ones and the solvent for today was odorless so were didn’t get overwhelmed in a confined area. The amount of solvent used for mixing was just enough to get the right resistance as the paint was applied to the board.

As a tip Cathy said that she puts her brushes into two baths of turps and then washes with soap and water afterwards. She then showed us a bottle of Eziclean, which she has used to resurrect some very hard and what you would have thought of as “dead” brushes.

So on to the painting. Starting with nice big brushes, Cathy put in her darkest darks keeping the strokes loose and broad. The darks on the face were just little strokes put in as points to paint into later. The reddish colour over the board was allowed to show through on the background area, a nice contrast the dark and medium blues. The hair was loosely painted in which framed the face area very nicely.

Using a brush for each tone to go on to the face and neck, Cathy built up the image by establishing her lightest tone for the face and putting a sample on the face as a reference, and working from her darker tones to finish off with he lightest tones last. With a huge arsenal of brushes, Cathy selected the tightest and springiest brush for each purpose.

At about this point we were treated to a quick lesson about measuring up a face to paint. We saw the lines to draw dividing up a face into measurable areas to make sure that everything falls into the right place and at the right size.

Back into the painting, we were reminded that we must keep working around the whole painting – especially the main subject. As attractive as it is to get a lovely set of eyes completed, it does help if the rest of the work is lagging behind. We need to work the paint into areas to make sure tones are working and that we have edges in the right places. This means working paint into and out of areas as you build up tone. Keep your brushes large and strokes broad and loose for as long as possible and don’t panic if your work enters an “ugly” stage.

A lighter tone of the skin is a good colour for the whites of eyes, or what Cathy called a “dirty white” using burnt umber, ultramarine and white.

After the major tones were completed Cathy moved on to add some smaller brushes so that she could work on building up the form of the eyes, nose and mouth. She likened this process to sculpting the face, as it involved using tone to build form and shape. Nostrels can be a pain for many of us and were described as a tonal area not a black dot, so we need to really look at how they are formed and fit into the face. A light red with brown added a good colour to start with for these. Light red, yellow and white mixed together and made into light, mid and dark tones also good for skin tones.

As the lightest tones and little highlights were added to the tip of the nose, the eyes, chin and above the lips the face really did gain a degree of depth that was very realistic. Highlights using a tone of skin with a bit more red added made the hair gain texture and where the face meets the hair was defined very softly.

At this stage of painting Cathy said it is usually a good idea to take a break so that you can come back to it with a fresh eye to complete all the little details. Unfortunately at a demo you don’t have this luxury, but that doesn’t take away from the value of doing this as habit. In this case Cathy was given a little more time to refine certain features which really were to parts that made this painting pop. Walking back and forth as she had all through the process, to check from a bit of a distance, final little blends of tone, highlights and edges were refined – maybe not to complete the painting, but at least create a very stunning and lifelike portrait.

After the demonstration, I was very privileged to have some tips about improving my own work on show for the day. She gave me some great feedback. Her understanding of process for building a drawing is amazing and she talks to you in a way which is totally understandable. We also talked about teaching and the process of building a career as an artist. I very much want to thank Cathy for being so kind and spending some of her valuable time with me.

Cathy Van Ee is a teacher at the Peninsula Artists Society and does paintings by commission. Below are her contact details.

Mobile number: 0413 337 024

Web site:

I have by permission from Cathy included a photo of her demo painting as it stood at completion of the session. Please note  that the painting is not completed and she was intending on doing some more work with it.

Personal Note: This story will also be published in the bi-monthly issue of the newsletter for the McClelland Guild of Artists and in the commentaries section of my web site at

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