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Mixed media portrait illustration in progress

The Lessons (and Childhood Memories) This Mixed Media Portrait Inspired

The moment I incorporated colored pencil into this portrait painting of my maternal grandmother, it became a mixed (instead of water-based) media painting.

Most of the painting, however, was done in watercolor … at least 90 percent of it.

Mixed media portrait illustration in progress

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In progress

Here’s what the in-progress painting looked like well before I introduced gouache or colored pencils:

Mixed media portrait illustration in progress

Watercolor portrait painting in progress, before gouache and colored pencils were introduced.

There are about 6-7 layers of watercolor applied (at least!), before any gouache was added. The latter was used to refine the detailed shape of the hair as well as the subject’s eyes.

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The final painting

About 10 or so layers of color and pigment later, the final outcome looks rich and vibrant:

Mixed media portrait illustration by visual artist Mayra Ruiz-McPherson, MA, MFA

Here’s my medium breakdown:

  • watercolor: most of this painting is in watercolor;
  • gouache: used for hair and facial refinements, as well as several more layers painted on top of the watercolored background; and
  • colored pencils: these were used to create the background texture as well as to very lightly accentuate small areas of the d├ęcolletage.

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Grandmotherly memories

My grandmother was a HUGE part of my world and her 2015 passing was a heartbreaking and difficult pill for me to swallow.

Since then, I often find comfort in the many memories I have of us together and this mixed media portrait has inspired a few, which I’ve lovingly shared below:

As an early teen, my abuela (Juanita Evangelina Morales, born in 1919) worked as a seamstress to financially pitch in and help her parents with bills. She partnered with her oldest sister, Sarita, and together the sisters fixed zippers, buttons, hems, and performed other sewing tasks for patrons in their town.

Eventually, my abuela became so adept at sewing that she ended up branching out on her own. She would later become a master seamstress and was often hired to tailor exquisite garments for her patrons as well as for her own children. Garments she’d sew were for all kinds of events, including formal affairs, ballet performances, school parades, and societal dances.

As far back as I can remember, I would spend many a summer vacation visiting my abuela. My parents would leave me with her while they’d visit other relatives. My abuela lived simply and there weren’t a whole lot of fun things to do for kids in her home. She lived on a steep hill surrounded by chicken coops and lemon trees. There weren’t other children to play with and the TV only showed one or two channels, depending on how the wind blew or what signal may or may not be available.

With so little to play with, I’d end up spending hours ruffling through her never-ending collection of sewing patterns from Vogue, McCalls, and Simplicity, which were so voluminous that they took up multiple dresser drawers and closet nooks across two bedrooms. I’d dig into these pattern stashes, pull out a random handful, and then spread them out like dominos over her dining room table to admire and daydream while abuela spoke with neighbors or prepped lunch.

Why sewing patterns? Because their envelopes usually contained colorful illustrations of women or kids wearing the garments one could make from the encased patterns held inside. To me, these fashion illustrations were mesmerizing and would not only inspire my own imagination of wardrobe possibilities but also spark engaging, memory lane-style conversations with my abuela, who’d go on to recount how she once had sewn this or that for whatever occasion for such and such person, and how exquisite the garment in question had ended up in the end.

During our times together, my abuela also taught me how to thread a needle and make simple hems on her clunker of a Singer sewing machine, which she kept under a window nook of her bedroom (a bedroom where she’d sewn all the bedding, throw pillows, and window valences herself).

For special outings together, abuela and I would walk down the steep hill, climb onto a crowded bus, pay .25 cents each, and then rode into a small town about 20 minutes from her home to shop for yards of fabric and sewing notions.

Once we entered the fabric store, I’d get lost within the many piles of fabric bolts and displays. My heart would explode with all their visually delicious colors, which would meet my gaze no matter where in the store I stood. And while my abuela would wait to have her fabric cut into the yards she needed, I’d squeeze myself into the fabric bolts, just to admire their touch, look, patterns, and overall styles.

To this day, I cannot walk into any sewing store, or work on mixed media using textiles and multiple colors, and not think of my loving, doting abuela. She lived with me off and on for about the last 13 years of her life before finally passing away seven years ago. Yet her vibrant spirit, and her savvy design and tailoring skills, are with me every single day.

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What I’ve learned from this portrait

Whenever I paint or draw anything, I always learn something new and/or have previously acquired knowledge helpfully reinforced.

With regard to this mixed media portrait painting, here are a few of my medium takeaways:

  • Watercolor
    While I understand creating color depth using watercolor requires several layers, I wasn’t expecting to end up painting at least 6-7 layers of watercolor. I’m still very new to watercolor so I thought I’d only need 3-4 layers, but even then, the depth of color I wanted or needed was not as visible. Maybe it was the brand of type of watercolor pigment I used, which was not a higher-end brand, but regardless, I guess I was surprised that I ended up having to paint several more layers of watercolor than I initially thought would be necessary. I’ll have to test, over time, how different watercolor brands work or display to see which brands may (or may not be) be used for future projects.
  • Gouache
    While I initially tried to paint a watercolor-only portrait, it soon became apparent to me (due to my own painting style and personal approach to art, color, and illustration rather than any artistic rule, per se) that I wasn’t happy with the “loose” or softer look of the subject’s hair. Nor was I particularly feeling the softness of the eyes in particular; I felt these areas needed far more punch … a punch the watercolor was not really producing for me, as I had hoped. This is when I introduced the gouache, and I’m so happy I did. I mixed a red, a brown umber, and a dot of black to create the hair color and this allowed me to hand-craft the exact shape of the subject’s hair with far more precision. Then I used the same color blend for the eyebrows and eye pupils. A bit of white, blended oh-so-slightly with a drop of brown/gray, helped me finalize the white parts of the eye (the scleras). Lastly, I decided to also use gouache for the background and ended up painting about four layers on top of the 6-7 layers of watercolor to improve vibrancy as well as the yellow-green transitions.
  • Colored pencils
    I had once watched a tutorial of a woman saying she always uses colored pencils on her watercolors to help refine edges or punch up the color, and I thought I would test this approach someday, but that “someday” actually ended up being on this mixed media portrait. Admittedly, I had not intended for any color pencil usage, but the thought came to me at the very last minute because even though the added layers of gouache had significantly improved the look of the background, I still felt something was kind of missing. That’s when I remembered that one tutorial and thought maybe the colored pencil may work out great and help add even more depth and texture. And man, I was and still am so happy I made that last-minute, whimsical creative decision! I feel adding the colored pencil in a transitioning way across the subject’s backdrop was the cherry on the icing to this piece. Sometimes, experiments don’t work out as well but this one produced a beautiful outcome. Adding the colored pencil was, in fact, what helped me to finally feel like the piece was truly done.

In summary

Creating art is not just about “following the rules,” it’s also about experimentation, trial, and error.

This requires an artist to possess the ability to roll with the creative punches, so to speak, and therefore be fluid and willing to pivot towards new ideas along the way, in real-time.

Btw, I enjoyed very much sharing memories of my loving grandmother with you.

Until next time,


Mayra Ruiz-McPherson

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Mayra Ruiz-McPherson
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