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Written by Shelly Ferguson

This is a short demonstration of how I complete an acrylic painting from beginning to end. It would be impossible for me to show you every detail, because I usually spend many hours and days (sometime weeks) on any given painting, but at least you will get the basic idea of my method. I am primarily self taught, in the sense that I have had no formal training. I have learned what I know up to date by reading lots of art books,from observing other art and artists, and by trial and error, so please keep in mind that this is only one of many ways to approach a painting. I work on canvas or masonite and I use Liquitex High Viscosity Paints (currently known as Liquitex Heavy Body Artist Color). My brushes are actually inexpensive bristle brushes that I use for "scrubbing" on layers. This is just a personal choice, as I have tried the more expensive brands but I keep going back to the cheaper ones. I like acrylic because it dries very fast and it's very easy to make changes along the way or to correct mistakes! I also often use Liquitex Flow Aid as I find it helps make the paint more fluid. My basic palette that I work from is actually pretty limited. I find it's too easy to get overwhelmed by too many colours; keep it simple. I use Cadmium Red Medium, Alizarin Crimson, Yellow Oxide, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, French Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue and Titanium White. I do have lots of other colours that I will pull out depending on the need of the painting, such as greens, and yellows, or more earth tones, but I always start with the basic colours. I very rarely use black. I always mix my black with French Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber.

I always begin by enlarging my photo reference using a photo imaging software such as Photoshop. I like to enlarge it to the actual size of my painting, then I draw out the sketch on some cheap newsprint. I find it much easier to correct the mistakes at this point than to have to worry about them once I start on the canvas. (Although I am always open to changes at any point during the process)
  Once I am satisfied with my sketch, I cover the back with soft graphite and transfer it on to the canvas. I used to use transfer paper, but this method works just as well and it's cheaper. I redefine any important lines, then spray it with a workable fixative so I don't lose any lines when I start my underpainting.
I always apply an underpainting, no matter what my subject is. I find this really helps establish the values right away, which is an important part of every painting. I use a thin wash of Burnt Sienna and French Ultramarine Blue to cover the entire canvas. I then use a damp paper towel and scrub out the highlights, and begin establishing the darker values with a slightly thicker wash of the same mixture as above.


I gradually build up the underpainting, not getting bogged down by any details at this point. This is still done with the same mixture of burnt sienna and French Ultramarine Blue, using thicker (still diluted) paint as I build up a few layers. For the really dark areas I will sometimes mix in some Burnt Umber.


  I am still using the same three colours (sometimes adding some white if I need to lighten an area) until I am satisfied that I have established all my values, working the whole painting at once. I will then begin to add colour starting with the clothes, hair and background.

  I tend to build up the colours slowly at this point, using just a little paint at a time and scrubbing on to the surface using my bristle brushes. I can easily paint over ten or fifteen thin layers, often letting layers dry in between, (which doesn't take long with acrylics), because acrylic paint tends to darken after it dries. I also make any final corrections that need to be done, as in this case, I realized that her lips and jaw were not positioned properly, so I scrubbed out the lips with a light version of the skin colour and started over. That's what is so great about acrylics, you can just cover a portion or all of the canvas and start over if you want to.

To view more of my work, please visit