Visiting Artist: David Jon Kassan

These past few months I have been lucky to attend a few really great artist demos. One of them was David Kassan who came to do a workshop at the Scottsdale Artist’s School. Besides his private workshop, he did a public painting demo and then graciously came to ASU and did a drawing demo. It was fun to see such an accomplished artist and he was very kind and down to earth.

I didn’t take any notes through the demo so I guess I can only give a few observations. If you really want to know about Kassan’s painting and drawing process, I know that he has a drawing DVD for sale and I think he just wrapped up filming his painting DVD. I know I stated this in a previous post (and I will probably be stating it in nearly every post after), but if you are a student and have access to interlibrary loan through your college, then you can probably check out his drawing DVD from anywhere in the country. However the painting one won’t be available for a while though, I’m sure.

So for anyone who doesn’t know, Kassan paints portraits of people- rather large ones that are highly detailed. Two examples of his work:


For his demo he painted alla prima, which isn’t really what he is known for and I’m sure he usually only does it for demos. He uses Vasari oil paint for some of his color choices and I’m pretty sure he uses Rosemary and Co. brushes but judging by the pictures I have it looks like he uses all kinds. Those seem to be the popular choice for brushes these days. One day if I have enough money I might be tempted to try them. If you do a search, you can find the entire list of materials to buy for one of his workshops. Anyway, Kassan gets rather close to his models when he paints and draws them but then he also uses close distance binoculars to view small angles and colors. He really enjoys talking while he paints as well- something that I don’t think I could do myself. We noticed that he had some premixed colors on his palette that he uses instead of white- so it prevents him from going too light of a value in the skin. He keeps his palette aligned vertically which I found extremely different because you would think that the medium would drip down off the side, but apparently he uses only a small amount so that it usually doesn’t. After Kassan finished the portrait, he signed it and people were able to bid on it. I forget how much it went for- maybe around 5 or 600.

About to start on the portrait and figuring out placement.
Although several of those colors may look like white, they aren’t.


Beer, water and brushes! All he needs, I guess.
Notice the duct-taped mahlstick.
David apparently thought his painting looked better on the big screen than in real life!
At the end he took things a bit too far…
Leaving the signature and it’s ready for auction!
The completed portrait

On to Portrait drawing. Kassan set himself up in an old chair in our classroom and made himself right at home for the drawing demo. He had the model look down which I have since noticed seems to be his choice of pose at times. I’m not sure exactly why he likes to pose the model like that, but I’ve seen him do it on several pieces. Anyway, he uses pan pastel black for the initial block-in and generals charcoal pencils and wipes at his drawing frequently (something which we are told not to do at our school but then I won’t even go into that, haha!). He uses a pencil sharpener from China or Korea that is meant for children to use but it suits his needs. He found it at his local dollar store in Brooklyn but I’m sure you can find them online. I found a bunch just by using google’s image search. I also have a pencil sharpener kind of like his, but I’m not sure if it’s any better even though it looks nicer.

It was great watching his drawing process because I can relate more to it than I can painting. While I’ve been painting a lot lately, I’ve always been attracted to drawing first and foremost, and because I’m so familiar with it, I can easily follow all of his steps and understand what he is doing. The portrait drawing demo was very last minute and it was all thanks to a friend of mine that Kassan came and it was great to see that there was a huge turnout from the students. We weren’t sure if anyone was going to show up at first because not a lot of the kids at my school are familiar with his work.

While several of my friends did end up going to dinner with Kassan afterwards, I opted out because I was tired after many a long school day. But it was great to see & meet him and I enjoyed watching his process!

David Kassan’s Website

Setting up and making do with what little we have in the studio.
Starting out blocking in the shadow shapes with Panpastel.

The best shot I could get of the final picture.

Process – Watercolor Self Portrait

For my first watercolor class, we were given the classic assignment of self portrait. However this self portrait had to show aspects of our left and right brain way of thinking. The right brain is the side that is creative and the left is logical, so they say. I decided to incorporate some symbolism into my idea since I just love that kind of stuff. It’s interesting how symbolism in art has fallen out of favor so much in our generation. Now it’s all about concept- which is not really my favorite thing. But, I digress.

I first made a few sketches and finally chose one idea that stood out. It was to have a large figure 8 made out of drapery to symbolize infinity (I just like drapery) and then have myself looking out of the figure 8. In the background would be date palms and in the lower part of the figure 8 would be transfers of Greek mythological figures representing logic and “the order.” They would be next to a large drawing of a necklace of mine which has Egyptian hieroglyphs on it. (I love ancient Egypt!) So the “right brain side” would be the date palms and the necklace which kind of show my creativity and the more curious side of me. I also decided to have a large delta triangle as a symbol to emphasize the point of change in my life.

I set about sketching onto my watercolor paper. Sorry the faint 5H lines don’t show up too well. The figure 8 came out nicely, but I was having problems with the portrait side of myself. I wanted to go realistic but due to time constraints I ended up changing myself to look more “comic” style. I did a lot of sketching for a watercolor assignment. When I’m done the pencil will hardly be visible, but no matter.

At this point I added the transfers. Some slight discoloration occurred because of the pen I used but no matter. When you do transfers you can either use a chartpak marker or I actually used fingernail polish (with acetone). I find that chartpak markers are more difficult to use for transfers, plus they are expensive and run out quickly for this use. I love Arabic, so I added Arabic writing on the sides (they are poems) to also symbolize creativity.

With the drawing done, I had a first critique and received a lot of good advice from my peers about how I should do the coloring. 

Before starting on the color, I did some small studies to see how it would look. When I have the time I usually do this before throwing myself into uncharted waters.

One more large study. I decided to have a dark Prussian blue background and then have it fade to yellow. The colors would be flipped on the figure 8.

Done! I think it turned out fairly well. It’s more vibrant in real life of course.

On Location Sketches

I found some sketches I did the semester before last and I thought it would be fun to post them. For one of my classes we went to a local lakeside park and sketched various locations that we thought we might want to paint plein air. (I wasn’t happy with my resulting painting though so I won’t post that.) I think that painting plein air is incredibly difficult now that I have tried it. Anyway, I drew these on regular Strathmore drawing paper with a gel pen, which by the way, was made in Korea and was one of the best pens I had. I’ve noticed that most pens (even cheap ones) from Asia are really some of the best to sketch with.

Process – Sargent Master Copy -WIP

For my second painting class, my professor was able to gain permission from the Phoenix Museum of Art to study and copy several paintings in their collection. This was a rather unprecedented occasion. While the Phoenix Art Museum does allow people to come in and sketch sculptures and paintings in their collection (with pencil only), they have never allowed anyone to copy paintings with oil paint onsite. I was very excited about this wonderful opportunity. However, understandably since the museum had never done anything like this before, they were extremely wary and nervous about the whole thing. They had about 5 different sheets of waivers and rules that we had to sign before participating. We had to keep these papers with us at all times. Also, we didn’t have many times to copy from the paintings directly. We really only had enough time in the semester to meet and paint at the museum about 3 class sessions (3 hours in length). Our class was the guinea pig of the university. If all went well, then the Museum said that they would consider doing this more often with the School in the future.

Now on to the rules and the way this worked: The museum prepared a list of about 20 paintings from which we would have to choose 5 to copy. Since there were about 15 students in my class, we would have to also divide up ourselves amongst the paintings because you couldn’t have 10 people clustered around and copying one painting. So we got the list of 20 paintings, looked at each one and then voted for our favorites. There were several things to consider while we looked at the paintings: how detailed they were, what technique had been used, how big our copy was going to be and if we wanted to copy a detail of the painting or the whole thing. The museum required in their stipulations that we were only allowed to use water-soluble oil paint (which I and most of us had never used before) and we would have to copy the paintings in an area away from the rest of the museum. Not only that, but we were not allowed to wash our brushes onsite. Instead we would have to take them back to school in a Ziploc and wash them there. The Museum gave us pitchers of water and our containers had to be mostly closed, like those cups that children use when they fingerpaint. (They have a tiny opening and a lid)

Walking around, I found some paintings that I liked, but seemed rather detailed and while I could have attempted to copy them, they would have taken a lot of work and more time than I had. In the end, a few friends and I gravitated towards a portrait by John Singer Sargent. It was only a portrait of a businessman, but I like painting people, and the composition was simple. We voted, and the Sargent made it to the final five.

I first started experimenting with the paints. Watersoluble oils are rather new and untested. We got the Windsor Newton paints which apparently are not even one of the better water-sol paints on the market right now. I’ve been told that they are subpar to traditional oils but I tested them with an open mind. Our teacher gave us some medium to use as well, but when I opened it and smelled it I decided not to use the stuff because it had a very strong odor of rotting fish! Not fun. In fact, the paints themselves smelled the same way but not as strong. The paint consistency reminded me of some sort of gauche. It’s hard to describe the way it moves….kind of greasy, maybe. On the internet just about everyone says to wash your brushes with turp like normal to clean your brushes, but honestly, I found the best results to getting my brushes clean were with water. It really wasn’t hard for me to get used to the paints and pick up on them after a while because I started to treat them like acrylics. I learned to paint with acrylics before oil, so I’m still quite used to using them. So honestly….I’m going to say what most people probably don’t want to hear: Watersoluble oils really aren’t that bad at all. In fact, I found them to be extremely useful and versatile. They were like oils in that they were flexible- you could smear them around…they wouldn’t dry for a while and then coupled with the benefit of only needing water to clean them, they had the added benefits of acrylic. It’s no wonder people use these paints when they travel, they are so easy to use in situations where you have limited access to all your oil painting supplies!
A lot of people out there say that they take forever to dry. I didn’t really find this to be true. In fact, they seemed to dry a lot more quickly than my regular oils- but remember I wasn’t using medium, just water.
After playing around with the paints, we got to work doing small studies before jumping to the full portrait.
A sketch of the portrait done at the museum.

An unfinished value study.

When I started the real thing, I wanted to be fully prepared when we got to the museum, so I painted pretty much the entire under painting using a photo reference in burnt sienna. The monochrome portrait looked pretty good. I’m really bad about taking pictures in between steps, so I don’t have one of my painting at that point, sadly.

The picture that I had been given to copy from when we weren’t at the museum was really helpful. However, when I got to the museum it was like night and day. The picture I had was very yellow and green and the portrait in real life had far more color than was in the photo. The first day that we gathered at the museum, they had hung the paintings in the foyer of the museum and it was terrible lighting. The foyer was dark and they had construction going on near us and the loud sounds echoed throughout the building. I wished that I had more time to paint from the real life thing. There was so much more helpful information that I could see in person in the painting and I could see his technique way more easily. Let me tell you, there is no way a photograph can substitute for the real thing!

The second and third time we went to the museum they had set up the paintings in a conference room. The light was much better and there were no annoying loud sounds. We worked hastily and every now and then were able to come up and take a look at it closely. It was hard on the days that we weren’t at the museum to do it. Since I’m a slow painter, I would often get more done on my own time than in the museum. I was constantly distracted and the nervousness of the museum staff didn’t help me either. They were all nice though, but watched us like hawks. The museum was also worried about copies and of course while there is probably no way any of our paintings will be confused for a real Sargent painting, the museum still would not allow us to paint on a canvas the same size as the original and we had to put a sticker on the back of our paintings saying it was indeed a copy done at the museum. I kind of like the sticker, though…it makes it seem official! =)

My classmates getting to work!
I’m on the far right.

So you can see the various stages here of my work. Some done in the college studios and some at the museum. I learned quite a bit about the different kinds of blacks in this assignment. I learned that lamp black is not a good choice for painting a dark black-blue suit, but Ivory black does the trick! I progressed along pretty well until I made some last minute changes to the color on his cheek and forehead before the end of semester critique.

Work being done in the painting studios.

As always, work accumulates at the end of the semester and I wasn’t able to finish the portrait entirely. It was good enough to get through crit but it remains unfinished. This summer I hope to revisit it though. It bothers me to leave a painting with so much potential unfinished.

One more word on the watersoluble paints. They are a lot more sticky when they dry than regular oils. I’m sure once they are varnished then you won’t feel it anymore, but just an FYI, they can probably accumulate dust on them easily. After this assignment my teacher divided up the watersoluble paints that we used as a class amongst us. I got a bunch of tubes, so I plan on purchasing some more and using these again in the future. I think I’d probably have another set of brushes solely devoted to watersoluble oils, because I think that they are a bit harder on brushes and just so different that I wouldn’t want to interchange them.

To be continued…

Amazon Wishlist for Good Reads!

I’ve put up a link to my Amazon wishlist on the right. Not for the sake of anyone buying me stuff (but you can if you want, I won’t argue!), but to see some highly recommended books. Look past the Dover ones and you’ll see a bunch of books that have come recommended from I will be checking most of these out from the library. I prefer to “try before I buy.” If you are a student in college, you should really look into seeing if your school participates in interlibrary loan, or ILL. It’s an incredible resource. You can find valuable and out-of-print books and check them out from other libraries in the country for free. Utilize your library resources! I’m shocked by how many art students I meet who have never set foot in the campus library. I find it odd because I love to read books on artists and study pictures of their art. Some books have old illustrations in them that you can’t find anywhere. What are you waiting for?