Thursday, March 13, 2014

An Art Workshop with Albert Handell

Albert Handell beginning a demonstration
I just finished a 3 day workshop with distinguished plein air painter, Albert Handell.  The subject was working in the studio in winter.  I take several workshops and classes each year to help me be a better artist.  I have studied pastel painting with Deborah Secor and she told us that she benefited from study with Albert Handell so I was excited to get some instruction from this Master pastelist and oil painter.

We began our first day at the New Mexico Art League studio with a demo on pastel.  Albert's technique is very different than mine.   Although he has a photo for reference, he paints largely from memory after decades of field study and plein air painting. He demonstrated the drawing of a tree in the forest.

finished demo by Albert Handell Pastel on UArt paper (500 grain)
He taught us that we must understand a tree's geometry, from how it's bark curves to how the roots curve as they leave the ground. He taught us the importance of the cast shadows. He taught us that the cast shadows are darker for near objects (like the shadow under a tree limb emerging from the tree) and lighter for far objects (like those of branches from another tree or from the other side of the tree). He taught us to consider the time of day as well as the direction of the light in drawing the length of the shadow.  He taught us to find colors in our palette in advance that are of the same value and apply them adjacent to each other for visual blending rather than blend them on the paper or canvas.  He started with a charcoal drawing of the composition and then began establishing the values. Using soft vine charcoal, he sketched the drawing as "notes" of what he saw.

As he began to apply color, he started with the darkest values to lightest values. He told us to use muted colors at first. Then he began to define the 3 dimensional shapes and angles using darker values and different colors.  He deletes features and shapes that are not pleasing or are unbalanced such as a rock that doesn't seem to have the proper support or that points in a direction that draws the eye away from the focus, creating distraction.  He said a crucial aspect of landscape painting is the lost and found edges and he said to put the warm hue of a brown tree next to a blue tree for a contrast in color.  He uses some brighter hues of blues or mauves or yellows to create musical effects and harmony in the painting.  He varies his pressure on the pastel to create lighter or darker tones.  He then uses line in a way he calls "calligraphy" to establish deeper fissures or details in the rocks or trees.  He uses a white line to establish the movement of water as a creek running from the rock.

Here is the demo from the second day as he created a rock formation with a creek spilling down among the rocks. Sketching with abandon with a soft (2B) pencil, he established proportions and values.

Then, he used a color wash of transparent watercolor.  He used Payne's Grey to reinforce line in the composition.  Then he mixed Van Dyke Brown with Payne's Grey to create variation and depth.  With these two colors and two separate brushes, he used darker applications, rich in color and then added water for mid-tone and lighter areas.

Albert's water color palette, bushes and pencils

He pre-selected pastel colors with similar values

He had some photos from previous paintings for reference

Here are a series of photos as he progressed through the painting.

The finished "demo" painting (pastel and watercolor wash on UArt paper)

Albert talked about the delicious details that draw the eye and create interest: Objects in life, luminosity, and making use of cast shadows that frame areas of importance.

I worked on a pastel landscape on the first day.  Albert provided some good criticism to improve the painting. I still need to add touches of color in the mountains and tree line to enhance interest.

My first cut in pastel for the workshop

I later modified the sky (eliminating the mountain layer) to establish a predominant light value for a better painting.  I still have some work to do on the trees.

Finishing the landscape "Los Brazos" in my studio

I started with a charcoal sketch and then began to block in my color and shapes

I began a second pastel on the second day and stuck with pastel for the entire workshop.
The photo I was working from

Work in progress after about 5 hours.  Albert suggested I get more values of green because I didn't have enough values.

Nearly done after a few more hours work in my home studio

On the third day, Albert demonstrated his process in oil painting: Using a white or toned canvas, use brown umber with Gamsol or turpenoid wash to tone the canvas. Use a small brush, scrub the brush to get shapes, lines and values. Don't use black, but use extremely dark colors for the darkest values and use three values of grey for light, medium and medium dark mid-tones.  Add yellow ochre for a warm grey and terra rosa (be careful as it is a strong color).  In mixing the color for the sky, apply just a note next to the darker tones of the ground initially.

Add burnt sienna on top of black for a warmer dark.  Add viridian green on top of black for a cooler black.  Use pure blue for cooling dark shadows.   Squint your eyes to see the underlying transition of things.  Use the side of the brush to dab to allow for lighter values. Use pure ultramarine for  colder values.  Use accents to bring forward details and moderate the color.

I will try an oil painting in the week ahead to try out the many techniques he suggested.  I also plan to do a "Paint Along" plein air workshop with Albert Handell at Jemez Springs in mid-May.  I am working in my new studio now, although it's still chilly (no heating yet).


  1. Oh my Vicki. I can't tell you how much I admire people with interest and talent in art, having flunked Stick Figure 101 in kindergarten myself....

  2. I googled to find reviews of Albert Handell's workshops. I was trying to decide if it would be worth the money.. Your blog was very helpful!!! I love the details you put into your blog and all the pictures you added. And I think the paintings you did are outstanding! I plan to sign up. Thank you for taking the time to write this!

    1. you are very welcome and may you experience new insights into your own painting.