Australian Fine Artist

Workshop Number Four of Five 2016

Tutor: David Chen

In this session we discussed the difference between painting portraits using high key colours in contrast to low key, and where these methods have been and are used. Since the Impressionists began using colour so much more dramtically, and the invention of many new colours during the 19th and 20th centuries, high key, or colourist paintings have become the trend for painters. This is in contrast to the low key, and dramatic portraits of artists like Rembrandt, who used a limited palette, a strong single light source from a window for example, and dark simplified backgrounds.

Modern painters often use the wet in wet technique to complete portraits in a single sitting, and the strong use of light and shadow is dismissed for use of colour. This can sometimes mean that the dramatic shadows in paintings of the past is missing, resulting isn a ‘washed out’ look.

Building up a painting by creating a tonal underpainting in a single colour (like a burnt sienna) means more time to create and complete a work, as the undertpainting needs to be allowed to dry bofore the colour layer is added. A telented colleague of mine Cathy van Ee uses this technique very successfully.

To see some of Cathy;s work go to her site at:

Other Influences

Other things to consider whan talking about low key paintings is the context of when and where they originally created. In Europe the weather is not like Australia. The light is different, and as a result painting methods and the development of styles of painting have been as well.

Very cold winters meant that buidlings often had and still ahve, small windows to keep out the weather. The darker interiors are repfected in many paintings.


When painting portraits you may wish to swap to a softer brush. Check out the feel of your bushes when considering paintign the face. A slightly softer brush may allow for finer finishes in the skin tones. Smaller soft brushes will allow for a nice transition from lips to cheek, and around the eyes and nose. this is especially appliccable for Academic tonal painting.

Strong Impact in Your Portraits

Controlling your values is important for a strong portrait. How much of what you paint will impact the result. For example, the prercentage of darks or lights in the painting will determine how strong the result is. David recommended that 75% of the painting be taken up with either the light tones or the darks. This will help you decide on whether your work is a dark or light tonal painting.

Decide when doing your preliminary sketches, what you will include or discard. Unless you are painting someone who has a professiona that you want to hint at, by placing books, equipment etc with the sitter, the background and surroundings are of much less importance than the actual figure fo the person. Also think about how much detial of the figure you will include, as complicated clothing may end up as a distraction as much as a complex background would.


  • Remember that low key, or darker portraits tend to imply seriousness so are good for older people, professionals, politicians, etc. Lighter higher key portraits are sutiable for children, young people, sportspeople, and less serious people.
  • Unless you want to add the context of the sitter’s profession, keep the surroudnigs simple.

chloe-dchenworskhopThe model loved the portrait I painted of her so much, she now owns it. This was the third time I had used this canvas, and wasn’t planning on painting on it for another workshop, so when she expressed such joy at seeing it, I gave it to her as a gift. Very happy it has gone off to such a nice home!

For more advanced classes refer to David’s website details below.

Please note that David does not allow photography in his workshops. Students may photograph their own work at home after the sessions, but any alterations by David should be acknowledged.

David Chen’s workshops are in very high demand and many are booked out in advance, but you can go on to a waiting list as sometimes spaces open up. If you would like to go on the waiting list, you can contact David via his website:

Please mention you have been referred by Janice Mills.

Janice Mills’ Availability

If you are interested in introduction to drawing or painting classes I am available to teach both private and group sessions on your premises (south eastern suburbs of Melbourne and Mornington Peninsula areas only). Prices start at $44 per hour per student (2 hour minimum).

I am also available for drawing and painting demonstrations for art (and other) groups. I can be contacted via email at: Prices start at $250 per demonstration.

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