Faces Oil Painting People People at Work Portrait

Jeff the Handyman (and inspiring model)

JR Handyman #3 Final, oil on DuraLar, 12x9"
JR Handyman #3 Final, oil on DuraLar, 12×9 inches, 2016

When Jeff the Handyman (who does excellent carpentry and electrical work) came over to look at a job, he was kind enough to let me take his photo for the series I’m painting of people at work in my neighborhood. I tried three times, before and after I started studying head structure and anatomy. With the third study (above) I felt like I’d said what I had to say, with the skills I have at this point, and was ready to move on.

Above is the final study and immediately below are all three attempts in chronological order.

My favorite part of all three above is the sky reflecting on the top of his head. With each attempt my drawing improved a bit. The more I learn, the more I see, and the more I see, the more I know I need to learn!!!. Below are all three studies with work in progress (WIP) steps. I’m not offering the WIP to show how it “should” be done; just the approach I was experimenting with. I am always trying on techniques of other artists I admire but haven’t yet found the approach that “just works” for me.

Drawing Oil Painting Painting People People at Work photoshop Portrait Series

Brown Delivers…in the Dark (portrait in oil with steps in the process)

UPS Delivers at Night, Oil on Canvas, 20×16

(Update: This painting won second place for Portrait of the Year on Making a Mark in 2012.)

One night last winter two UPS guys arrived in the dark to deliver a dozen boxes of the flooring materials for my studio. I had started a series of paintings of people at work (still in progress) and asked if I could take their photo to use for a painting. They agreed and were great models!

A couple of months ago he called, asking about the painting, inspiring me to finally finish it. There were some magic moments along the way (see process photos below), such as the one where I did a quick first pass on his hand and then stepped back and said “Wow! That works and I’m not touching it again.”

Since I took the photos at night without flash outside lit only by the fluorescent lights from inside the studio, the photo was dark and the colors were, well, mostly brown. But the UPS slogan is right, BROWN really does deliver! Who knew there were so many shades of brown? I must have mixed a hundred different browns.

Below are photos showing the process of drawing and painting this portrait.

Ink and watercolor wash Interiors Life in general People at Work Sketchbook Pages Urban Sketchers

What I Learned About Art and Life in 2011

Pastime Hardware After Dark, ink & watercolor, 5x7"
Pastime Hardware After Dark, ink & watercolor, 5x7"

Before I get to my reflections on art and life in 2011, a word or two about the sketch above (and below) from our evening at the hardware store. I stood and sketched between the paint solvent and cleaning product aisles (both stinky), using an aisle-end shelf for my paints.

Same Pastime sketch before adding the dark in the windows
Same Pastime sketch before adding the dark in the windows

When we finished and shared our work, I realized that in the original sketch above, I ignored the fact that it was dark outside. So when I got home I painted all the windows dark. I’m not sure which I like better. What do you think?

Accomplishments and Things Learned in 2011


  • Converted a 440 square foot garage into my new studio including a patio door onto a deck off the studio, insulation, sheet rock, flooring, electrical, and water. Once I have everything moved in I’ll post the story with pictures.



  • After a brief (and briefly successful) venture into painting things to sell, returned to following my whims and inspiration instead of worrying about making work that would sell. This led to the series of 16×20 portraits of people at work in my community, now well underway.
  • Learned from Rose Frantzen video (see clip here) to say “Oops, made a mistake…but that’s ok I can fix it!” instead of “Now I ruined it!” followed by self-critical name calling. It’s downright liberating!
  • Realized that while I value and enjoy many different artists’ styles and techniques, I’ll never be as good as them at painting like them so I’m focusing on painting like me instead, which I can get good at.
  • Learned to ask myself, “What do I want to do with art today,” and doing that, not what some imaginary critic or the illusion of an audience is demanding that I should be doing.
  • I heard Robert Genn say that one’s style is often the thing one doesn’t do right, that it’s your mistakes or the rules you break that make it yours. I’m learning to relish and appreciate my wonkiness. Perfect is boring.
  • When someone plays piano and finishes a tune, there’s nothing left, just quiet. Why not paint that way too, focused on the line, the brush stroke…enjoy the process and let go of the product.


  • Abandoned water-soluble oils and acrylics for regular oils after learning from my friend Kathryn Law how to reduce the use of toxic chemicals and still get the consistency I like.
  • Started watercolor sketching instead of oil painting at plein air paintouts to quickly capture a scene and keep moving instead of standing in one spot for hours while the light changes completely.
  • Tried a bunch of different pens, from expensive Namiki Falcon fountain pen that I didn’t love (sold it) and inexpensive uni-ball Vision Roller Ball, but returned to my favorite, Lamy Safari Extra Fine Point Fountain Pen with Carbon Platinum ink. Both hold up well on the watercolor paper I use in my journals.


  • Registered for a week-long Alla Prima Portraiture class with Rose Frantzen at Scottsdale Artists School in February 2012. (So excited!!!) It is way out of my comfort zone (and budget) but I adore her work  and her book, Portrait of Maquoketa and she is a fabulous teacher.
  • Took a 3-day workshop with Peggi Kroll-Roberts in her studio after studying her series of CDs. Learned how to mix/use juicy luscious paint and more. She said I needed to work on my drawing.
  • Studying the Loomis books Drawing the Head and Hands and Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth to improve my people-drawing skills. Unlike a painting of a pear which can succeed even if the drawing is a bit off, a portrait will fail. It may still be an interesting painting, just not of the person you’re painting.


  • Continued to sketch nearly every Tuesday night with my Urban Sketchers group and regularly sketch my world. As a group we have committed to a sketch a day in January.
  • Finally mastered binding journals using the method in my directions and can create a journal in a few hours instead of days.
  • To mix things up I switched to a Moleskine when I finished the last journal and am already missing my handmade sketchbooks with their really nice multimedia paper.


  • Made the decision to wait until I leave my day job in a year to put effort into art biz/marketing and just concentrate on painting until then.
  • Sold a number of paintings early in the year on DailyPaintWorks.  Recently sold a sketch of Der Wienerschnitzel for their corporate collection.


  • Found balance by prioritizing making art and living life above blogging about it.
  • Celebrated my six-year blogging anniversary with 180,000 views in 2011 (982,746 total); 141 new posts (total 1,004) and 418 pictures uploaded in 2011.
  • Posted regularly and administered the Urban Sketchers S.F. Bay Area blog.
  • Regularly follow about 30-50 other art blogs.
Drawing Faces People People at Work Portrait Series Sketchbook Pages

Working People Pre-Portrait Portraits in Blue

County Fair Taco Seller, ink, acrylic, watercolor, 7x5"
County Fair Taco Seller, ink, acrylic, watercolor, 7x5"

I finally started working on a series of 16×20″ oil portraits, mostly of people who work in my neighborhood shops. It took a long time to figure out how I wanted to approach the paintings and in the meantime I made several preliminary sketches in my journal.

This blue series began as a way to cover a really ugly page in my journal. To cover the mess, I mixed some Golden Absorbent Ground (gesso-like, but designed to prepare surfaces for watercolor painting) and some ultramarine blue watercolor. I didn’t mix it very well, as you can see from the streaks, but I actually like it this way. Drawing with a pen worked well on it too. When taco girl (above) dried, I painted in her very red hair.

Kim the Barista, ink & acrylic & watercolor
Kim the Barista, ink & acrylic & watercolor

I covered two more pages in my journal with the remaining blue Absorbent Ground. Something went a little wrong with my drawing of Kim’s eyes (above) which don’t quite match in size or location. Oops. I sketched Kim before (see pics here) when I was taken by the scene’s resemblance to Manet’s “Bar at Folies Bergère.”

Elliot, Meat Manager, ink and acrylic
Elliot, Meat Manager, ink and acrylic

I felt a little embarrassed to ask Elliot to let me take a photo of him behind the meat counter but I had to. There is something old-fashioned about him that always makes me picture him in a Norman Rockwell painting. I had a little problem with one of his eyes too, but his oil painting is coming along nicely.

Taco Girl and Kitchen on Fire Spread in Journal
Taco Girl and Kitchen on Fire Spread in Journal

This is the spread in my journal where this series started. The Taco Girl oil portrait is half done. It will be a while before I finish and post the oil paintings but I am enjoying working on several at once, so that while a layer of one dries another is ready to work on.

And I’m so happy to have figured out how I want to paint them: I’m painting how I paint! More about that in another post.

Art theory Oil Painting Painting People People at Work Portrait Series

Amtrak Conductor, Capitol Corridor: People at Work Series

Capitol Corridor Amtrak Conductor, Oil on stretched canvas, 16x12"
Capitol Corridor Amtrak Conductor, Oil on stretched canvas, 16x12"

When my Urban Sketchers group took the train to Sacramento for some sketching (posted here and here) I made a pest of myself taking pictures of our conductor, chasing him around the train and station. A train conductor for over 40 years, he kindly put up with me.

The painting above is my second attempt at painting the conductor (after working and reworking and eventually abandoning a previous canvas). I painted this in one day, intending to return and finish it after putting in my time at my “day job.” When I returned to the studio I realized that I’d said what I wanted to say with the painting and had nothing more to add. I was done.

This was really thrilling as it helped to reinforce my recent discovery that the path I want to follow in oil painting is to work directly, alla prima (all at once).  I find it so much more fun than fussing around with many layers, for many days, until everything is “perfect” (otherwise known as overworked, over-detailed and ultimately, boring to look at it because there’s nothing for the viewer’s mind to contribute).

Below is my unfinished, abandoned first attempt (scraped and repainted multiple times) from a dim, blurry bad photo shot with poor lighting inside the train.

Incomplete first attempt, oil on canvas 16x12"
Incomplete first attempt, oil on canvas 16x12"

I included way too much of the train in the composition because I was interested in the light and reflections on the ceiling. But painting all those seats was really boring. Eventually I figured out this version just wasn’t going to work and I started over with a better photo, cropped in more closely, for the painting at the top of the post.

I’ve been taking photos of people at work in my neighborhood that will be part of this series. Next up the butcher and the coffee barista.