How I Do What I Do – Part 1

So, there are going to be a number of these because if you are familiar with my Facebook page and my Instagram profile, you have seen that I post my step by step, work in progress pictures. Sometimes I’ll tell you what’s in my head while I’m working, but often enough, I only post the photo. Here, I’ll give you a little insight into what I’m thinking while I work.

Let’s start with my Ray Charles piece. With this one, I actually started with a black and white image. I wanted to challenge myself to build up color while focusing on value. By value,I mean light and dark.

You can see in the first image, that I don’t have any color information to work with, but that’s alright. I used the other reference images, here, to get what I wanted. I only needed a baseline of his complexion to get me where I was going.

From there, I started to work up the tones. Because I was only looking at the black and white image for much of my painting time (I was in the park and didn’t want to carry too many things) I started by thinking like a screen printer and built up the contrast in the lightest color first, my yellow ocher. You can see in the image below that it’s pretty rough. That’s because I was using a large, flat brush to get my color onto my paper. I was intentionally fast and loose and was only thinking in terms of light and shadow. I did not allow myself to blend at all at this stage.

Watercolor portrait of Ray Charles created by me, Adrienne Norris
Ray Charles Yellow

Next, I added my Cadmium Red Hue and started refining the shape the color was taking on. I wanted to be sure that I blended where I wanted a mid tone, but left some of the yellow and white as highlights. You can see that I am much more careful with my color placement and the painting is starting to feel more like Ray. I’m still working with a pretty large brush, but toward the end, have switched to a smaller one. I LOVE Chinese calligraphy brushes for watercolor painting. I love the way they hold water and pigment and transfer it smoothly to the page, and I especially love how sharp a point I can get with them, allowing me to go quickly from thick to thin lines in a single stroke. I can usually get by with one or two brushes at this stage in the painting.

Watercolor portrait of Ray Charles created by me, Adrienne Norris
Ray Charles Red

After the red layer, where I have built up the majority of the complexion, I add the blue layer. This I use much more sparingly, only really hitting the deeper shadow areas. One thing I should mention is that I don’t only apply blue at this stage. I actually start mixing it with my red and yellow to create varying shades of brown. I also mix in two types of blue, Prussian Blue, which has a more greenish tone, and Cobalt Blue, which leans a little bit toward purple. These two, plus the red and yellow, help me achieve the level of darkness I want in the deeper shadow areas. I try to avoid using black directly, as it flattens my paintings. On the rare occasions I do use it, I have mixed it with Prussian Blue and Cadmium Red.

Watercolor portrait of Ray Charles created by me, Adrienne Norris
Ray Charles with Blue

This next step is where I start building up the skin texture. Mr Charles was an old man by the time the original photo was taken, so I didn’t want to give him baby smooth skin. I went in with the smaller of my calligraphy brushes and started putting in marks that both built up the richness in his complexion, bringing back in deeper reds and yellows, and gave the impression of wrinkles, bumps and uneven skin tone without having to actually paint in those things. I also started defining his hair and figuring out what colors I wanted in his shirt, since I didn’t have a color reference for it.

Watercolor portrait of Ray Charles created by me, Adrienne Norris
Ray Charles, textured

Finally, I tightened up the details, added some white scribbles in his hair with a gel pen, darkened all the darks and threw in some colored splotches and swirls in the background to contrast against his skin. I really wanted to emphasize that highlight on his forehead, so I couldn’t leave the paper white. Taking similar browns from his skin tone and leaving a space for the light to live really makes the piece pop, in my mind, and makes him feel like he’s there in 3D, not just a bunch of strategically placed colored marks.

Watercolor portrait of Ray Charles created by me, Adrienne Norris
Ray Charles, almost done

And here is the final. I had it professionally photographed so that it is ready for reproduction. I am VERY proud of how this piece turned out and it definitely served as a turning point for how I approach a portrait. I hope you have enjoyed the story of my Ray Charles painting. I will be posting more of these in the future. Thank you for taking the time to read this. And if you are interested in a print of this or any of my other pieces, please feel free to contact me. I will soon have them available to order on this site.

Watercolor portrait of Ray Charles created by me, Adrienne Norris
Ray Charles




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