Gain Color Confidence in Pochade Portraits

David Lobenberg goes small for big payoffs when it comes to composition, color and value exploration.

Looking for more ways to push your palette and loosen up your painting style? In this article by watercolor artist David Lobenberg, learn his techniques for creating dynamic portraiture by working small with big color.

Pocket Paintings

After many years of painting naturalistic watercolor portraits, I decided that I wanted to make a radical change. I aspired to a more energetic, colorful and edgy look. However, what I needed was a path toward this goal that would allow me to explore painting methods easily with a minimum amount of intimidation.

Attitude by David Lobenberg (watercolor on paper, 15 x 11)

I remembered reading an oil painting book authored by well-known American artist Kevin Macpherson. He wrote that a quick and easy way for developing composition, color and value control resulted from doing small pochade (French for “pocket”) paintings. This was it—my path for developing a new portraiture style.

Pochade Power

I began working on 7 1⁄2 x 11-inch sheets of watercolor paper cut from a standard 22 x 30-inch sheet. As a result I could get eight pochades from one sheet. Using this diminutive size, I was able to experiment with a wide range of diverse watercolor paint application techniques, engaging textures, powerful compositions and expressive colors. And I could explore these approaches relatively quickly and without the fear of possibly wasting large sheets of expensive watercolor paper.

My Nigerian Watercolorist Buddy, Ibe Annaba by David Lobenberg (watercolor on paper, 11 x 15)

Going pochade was indeed the perfect avenue for developing a radical new style. And I eventually named that style California Vibe Watercolor Portraiture. Over the past five years, I’ve conducted California Vibe work- shops from coast to coast and everywhere in between. And at each of them, I teach and stress the power of pochade painting.

Musico Mexicano! by David Lobenberg (watercolor on paper, 11 x 15)

Give the California Vibe style a try as a way to quickly explore and enhance your painting style—one small painting at a time.

Groove on the California Vibe

  • Start your California Vibe portrait using one to three colors. Follow the value pattern of darks, mediums and lights using matching paint consistencies. If you follow these value patterns over the face of your subect, you can be super expressive with your colors.
  • Follow this general rule of thumb when painting facial values: Light-value areas need to be painted with a translucent, tea-like consistency, featuring a lot of water and just a little paint. Medium-value areas are to be painted with a milky to almost-creamy consistency. And the dark-value areas should be painted with a creamy to even buttery, almost opaque, consistency.
  • Save the white of the paper for strong highlights in your portrait paintings.

Go Minimalist or Maximalist

When embracing the California Vibe approach, you can choose to paint monochromatically or explore full-out color. Here are two examples of each.


Demo: California Vibe

Artist’s Toolkit
  • Paints: Daniel Smith: azo yellow, opera rose, cobalt teal blue, phthalo blue green shade, electric blue luminescent, lunar black, permanent yellow deep cadmium
  • Surface: Arches 140-lb. cold-pressed
  • Brush: No. 4 black squirrel hair quill brush
Step 1

My reference photo features a male subject with super-dramatic lighting across his deeply chiseled face. The photo was originally in color, but I converted it to black and white. As a result this enabled me to play with expressive, or non-local, color more easily. I cropped the left side of the face on the pochade drawing. Plus I tilted it counterclockwise for a more dynamic composition and then began adding color.

Step 2

Using a No. 4 black squirrel hair quill brush, I applied both warm and cool expressive colors, carefully following the light, middle and dark value shapes on the subject’s face.

Step 3

First I completed all of the dark value areas of the face. Next, I added wrinkles and textural flourishes with paint spatters and zigzag marks. I used a “spider legs” treatment on the bottom-left corner of the cheek and the upper portion of the mouth. This is created by blowing hard through a straw into a puddle of paint. Next, I applied electric blue paint in a buttery consistency to the eye sockets and under the nose. And finally I added granulated paint to the bottom cheek area for texture.

Finish
Chisel-faced Man (watercolor on paper, 11 x 7 1⁄2) will serve as a motif, or blueprint, for a larger watercolor. 

About the Artist

David Lobenberg is a workshop artist and the creator of the trademarked California Vibe Watercolor Portraiture method.

This article first appeared in Watercolor Journal, December 2018 issue. Check it out for more great watercolor techniques!

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