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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√©colletage.

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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 one/you (and me!) 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.

Until next time,

Mayra Ruiz-McPherson

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