You will need a support for your painting, and rather than make it yourself (what I normally do), you may want to go and buy a pre-primed gessoed Masonite  board for expediency. The reasons for a hard support as opposed to canvas are many, not the least of which are longevity, durability, and more control.  If you absolutely need canvas, make sure to choose a fine linen weave on board, rather than on stretcher bars.

You can buy an 18″x24″ Ampersand Gessobord, uncradled 1/8″ flat panel, at Utrecht for about $17.  It is a sealed hardboard panel with an acid free, acrylic gesso ground that you can start using right away.  Or, you can buy Utrecht’s excellent cradled, 18″x24″ unfinished wood panel and gesso it yourself for about the same price.

Buy the best marble-inclusive gesso from Frank Covino.  If you gesso your own, make sure you protect it on the back as well so that it cannot absorb moisture and warp.  To save on the cost of expensive gesso and to give them a clean, fresh finish, I coat the backs of my boards with oil-based Kilz, a fabulous and reasonably priced protectorant/primer/sealer, then apply gesso on the front only.

Decide on the size of board, based on the Old Master work you have chosen.  For example, for most lifesize portraits on a 16″x20″ panel, the figure will end at the armpits.  A size approximating life is best, as a giant head can look grotesque–unless that’s the effect you want to achieve.  Keep in mind the following parameters for face sizes on the panel–smaller than life is fine but these are LIMITS you should not exceed:

babies:  5″ from chin to hairline
children 3-12:  5 1/2″
teens to age 27:  6″ maximum, male or female
adults:  7 1/2 for men with large heads, 6 1/2 for women with large heads

The other item you will need right away is a 9-value (plus black and white) palette–more about that tomorrow.


Excerpt from French Art: Classic and Contemporary Painting and Sculpture by W. C. Brownell, 1901. Download and read the book for free from the University of California Archive,

Manet‘s great distinction is to have discovered that the sense of reality is achieved with a thousand-fold greater intensity by getting as near as possible to the actual, rather than resting content with the relative, value of every detail. Every one who has painted since Manet has either followed him in this effort or else has appeared jejune (a.k.a. simplistic, superficial, dry, uninteresting).

Take as an illustration of the contrary practice such a masterpiece as Gerome’s “Eminence Grise.” In this picture, skilfully and satisfactorily composed, the relative values of all the colors are admirably, even beautifully, observed. The correspondence of the gamut of values to that of the light and dark scale of such an actual scene is perfect. Before Manet, one could have said that this is all that is required and the best that can be secured, arguing that exact imitation of local tints and general tone is impossible, owing to the difference between nature’s highest light and lowest dark, and the potentialities of the palette. In other words, one might have said that inasmuch as you can squeeze absolute white and absolute black out of no tubes, the thing to do is first to determine the scale of your picture and then make every note in it bear the same relation to every other that the corresponding note in nature bears to its fellows in its own corresponding but different scale.”



You must have a thorough understanding of the critical role values play in order to create significant paintings.  I think back to the days when the concept of values was enigmatic to me.  I read about it in books and heard teachers refer to it, but somehow the true “value” of this eluded me, partly because I didn’t want to stop and take the time to learn it–I would rather play with all the beautiful colors.  So at first, the idea that values of gray would make up much of most of my paintings did not excite my visual sense—boring is the word springing to mind.

But once my thorough, process-oriented teacher, Frank Covino, explained it, the light came on in my head and I understood–then I was able to do it, kind of like riding a bike. This may seem to be an odd comparison, but this was how it felt to me. Once I understand something, many related things make more sense, thus giving me that aha moment when I can finally experience the ride, rather than falling off the bike because I’m still searching to find my balance.

Anyway, it was when the “aha” happened that values became real to me then, and I started actually seeing instead of just looking.  I went around squinting at everything, internalizing and honing my newfound ability.  My husband told me that people were staring at me.  He used to tease me and say, “your eyes will get wrinkly doing that.”  And then he started doing it himself just to see what the fuss was all about.

People all learn in different ways, and I am one of those who needs a process—I have a hard time with things when people put something in front of me and say, “Do this,” without explaining how. That’s what a process provides for me. You can make an entire painting a monochromatic green or even pink and, as long as those pinks have correct values, your painting will “read” and make sense to the viewer no matter what color you make it.

And that’s why I say you must know your values because value analysis and then value duplication is the basis of all perception.  It is the common denominator for the replication of all things, whether landscapes, still lifes, or portraits.

Yes, but so what? Where’s the “how?” Well, first you have to learn to squint enough at something until the color disappears and you are left with a percentage of light. What amount do you see? Keep your eyes squinted and go look at the world in a new way, and we will talk about values more in-depth in later posts.

Here is a value scale showing values 1-9 with the addition of black (the absence of light) and white.  The lowest value is 1, or 10 % light; the next is 2, or 20% light and so on, up to value 9 at 90%, with white being 100% light:

value scale