What Secret Tools Did the Old Masters Use

August 13, 2018

What makes the Old Masters work so impactful and timeless? What was their secret? Did they have a magic medium that infused their colors with light? Were their handmade brushes designed to produce the life-like texture of porcelain, flesh, foliage or any other subject which they painted? How could their drawings be so flawless? They HAD to have somehow traced their images, right!? These are all questions which many artists (including myself) have pondered at one time or another.

I’ve spent the past 25 years or so, studying the techniques of the Old Masters and have discovered that all of their skills combined is what makes their artwork so incredible. It is not the result of one thing. First they mastered drawing. Then they mastered creating the illusion of light and shadow with pencil or charcoal. Then they learned how to create the same illusion with paint. Then they explored color and color relationships, which resulted in creating the illusion of light, space and atmosphere. Each part was mastered at a specific stage within their pedagogy. As they began to develop their “artistic vocabulary” their work began to take on a realistic representation of whatever subject they were trying to portray. Therefore the portrayal of any subject, can only be realized as a direct result of the level of mastery of each skill which comprises an artist’s personal language.

The good news is that ANY of these skills can be learned. Mastery, however only comes with practice. I’ve spent many years learning about AND practicing each of these skills, and have developed exercises which will allow anyone else to learn them. I’ve researched the pedagogical systems which were used to train artists attending the ecole des beaux-arts in Paris during the turn of the 19th Century. This system produced some of the most successful realist artists in history.

My goal, as a teacher is to raise that veil that conceals those pedagogical systems. This is something that most art schools WILL NOT teach, and it leaves so many young, aspiring artists who are interested in improving their skills in the dark. I also want to destroy the idea that these techniques are a thing of the past. As a contemporary artist, it is important to understand that the history of art can teach us a great deal, as long as an artist maintains a fresh outlook. It is incredibly foolish to think that he or she can’t benefit by studying the techniques of our predecessors, in the fear that it will make his or her work less original. It isn’t the technique which makes a work of art original or unoriginal, it is the idea or lack thereof. What one chooses to do with their art language is what makes their art phenomenal!

I offer many classes, both privately and through non-profit organizations which can be found at http://www.riverafinearts.com. If you are interested in learning how to take your art to the next level, I know that I could help. Please feel free to visit my site http://www.riverafinearts.com, and take a look at what I offer.

How to Move Your Audience With Your Art

July 30, 2018

Hello all,

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about making art that is true to ones soul. What do I mean by that exactly? Not compromising the integrity of the work to please the masses. You see, I do a lot of portrait commissions, and have recently had a frustrating experience with a client. Without going into too much detail, I’ve had to make numerous changes to my rendition of her in order to appeal to her sense of vanity.

Now, I firmly believe that making art which moves others requires the ability to tell a compelling story. It also requires for an artist to know EXACTLY what story he or she is trying to tell. My style could be categorized as hyperrealism. My art language is one which focuses on replicating the details of my subjects with a sense of heightened clarity. I enjoy discovering the subtlest of nuances that are present in everything, however great or small. Some would say that my focus on such minute detail is somewhat obsessive, however, this is my style, and, in general, the trademark of the hyperrealist movement. The client I mentioned above, after having seen my work, commissioned me because she loved the “life-like detail” (her quote) portrayed in my work. Long story short, I ended up changing her portrait so many times, that I now feel it no longer resembles her, nor does it represent MY style.

I tell this story because I believe the first thing that an artist must have is the desire to express themselves honestly. The artistic alphabet must be learned in order for an artist to develop his or her unique voice. Music is another language which requires an alphabet. A musician speaks to his or her audience through an arrangement of harmonic sounds, whereas a visual artist speaks by using lines, shapes, edges and colors. Through these grammatical forms of visual expression, an artist’s style emerges. Although the personal choices may vary drastically, the means by which imagery is created requires a knowledge of the same basic alphabet. Only by mastering such an alphabet, can an artist than truly express his or her story on a canvas, or piece of paper. When this is done well, the idea becomes universal and transcends the language barrier.

I recognize that my experience, unfortunately is something which happens a lot with commissions (especially portrait commissions!). Knowing this, however, doesn’t diffuse the aggravation of having to change one’s style to please a client. I’ve thought a lot over the years about how I can avoid this. Be honest in the very beginning. Do preliminary studies for the client to approve. Send them frequent updates. None of these things however helped me in this instance. Because of of this, I am seriously questioning my future as a portrait painter. In the very least, I am going to have to write up a contract which specifies rules to help me avoid constantly reworking a painting in order to satisfy the whims of a finicky client.

A great work of art has soul. When we see a drawing or painting which stops us in our tracks, and we are compelled to stare at it for a moment or two, in that moment, it has grabbed a hold of OUR soul. We recognize something in it, which is powerful and we are lured into a world that speaks of something greater than the trivialities of every day life. It tells us something that we can’t put into words. Perhaps it reminds us of a moment, or experience within are own life where our emotions overpowered us. Any strong emotion that we’ve experienced, whether it be love, anger, joy, fear, sadness, etc., has a way of overshadowing us. Our most profound memories are embedded in our subconscious mind, and when we least expect it, they sneak up on us. A skillfully painted masterpiece has the ability to remind us of such a moment. When that happens we suddenly feel, standing in the middle of a museum or gallery, something deep in the wells of our soul. That my friends, is the alluring power of art at its best.

As an educator, I try to teach the “visual alphabet” to my students, so that they can imbue their artwork with powerful emotion, and, in so doing, touch others. However, if any artist should choose to do commissions, I would strongly advise that they be wary of their clients. Once the integrity of the work is compromised, one can easily loose sight of their expressive language. Don’t allow a client to censor your vocabulary. You will regret it if you do. Art should always come from the heart. When you are not being true to yourself, you run into the danger of creating mediocrity.



Bouguereau Copy for “Secret Techniques” Class

April 10, 2017

I am going to be teaching another “Secret Techniques of the Old Masters” class this Spring at the Artist’s of Yardley, http://www.artistsofyardley.org. I always get such wonderful results from my students when I teach this class. Over the course of six weeks, I will cover specific steps within a pedagogical system, which will help to unveil the secret methods employed by the Old Masters. What made the works of the Old Masters so stunning is not a mystery; it is simply understanding the specific steps within their system. Students begin by selecting the work of an artist whom they admire, and then create a solid proportional drawing which will be transferred to their paint support. The student may choose to do a direct copy, or create their own work using the same technique of their chosen Master. In this class each student works at their own pace, taking as much time as they need for each step. once their drawing has been transferred to their support, they follow a strategic method of layering their paint, usually beginning with very limited color, and gradually increasing their palette with each additional layer.

Below is a Bouguereau copy that I did as a demo for a previous class. I left each layer in an unfinished state to show each specific step. I hope that anyone reading this who is interested in learning these methods will consider signing up for this class. To do so, please visit http://www.artistsofyardley.org and click on the adult classes link. If you can’t make it to this class, be sure to check my website, http://www.riverafinearts.com for future offerings.

bougeureau for blog

Mixed Medium Work in Progress

March 31, 2017

I have recently become fascinated with exploring the labyrinth of detail  which exists in objects small enough for someone to hold in their hand. By narrowing my focus on the intricacies of such objects, I am able to truly appreciate the complex universe that exists within an “ordinary” thing. In my scrutiny, I discover that, what may in fact seem ordinary, is anything but.

The image below is a detail of a work in progress. It was created using a combination of mediums including pencil, ink, colored pencil and pastel on a sheet of vellum paper. This is part of a series which deals with pastries/treats that evoke memories of childhood.

The drawing is a true-to-life-size facsimile of a frosted donut with sprinkles. By rendering my subject in its exact scale, the illusion of every subtle nuance, from the shininess of the chocolate frosting to the cylindrical shape of each sprinkle, becomes more convincing. This is a common practice in the tradition of Trompe L’oeil art. I am, however considering the possibility of an oil series where each image is recreated on a format which is larger-than-life; perhaps large enough to cover a coffee table. What would happen then?! I believe when an ordinary subject is seen on such a scale the mundane becomes sublime, and the subject itself is elevated (literally and figuratively) to something much greater than life. Please stay tuned for updates on this piece and others like it. Also, be sure to check out my new website, http://www.riverafinearts.com to see even more of my artwork.


Drawing with Vivid Color (taking realism to the next level)

March 28, 2017

Hello all,

I finally set aside some time to write a new post. Over the last few months I’ve started a new series of trompe l’oeil still life’s and I’d like to describe a little bit of my journey. This series is very exciting for me, firstly because the images are tied to my favorite genre of art (trompe l’oeil) and secondly because the tools that I’ve used has changed my perception of what can be achieved with a drawing medium.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve always been a practitioner and avid admirer of traditional realism. The 17th Century Dutch period is perhaps my greatest area of study. I love the depth and richness of color that the Dutch were able to achieve with oil paint using a precise layering technique which included under painting and glazing (I’ve written many blogs specifically about this). Recently for me, however, it has become difficult finding time to paint (my work schedule has been keeping me away from the studio) and so, I’ve begun to experiment with a combination of dry mediums, determined to simulate the luminous color effects of an oil painting. After a bit of experimentation, I’ve discovered an approach combining hard pastels, colored pencils, various blending tools and a limited amount of ink which renders effects strikingly similar to an oil. I’ve applied my knowledge of painting indirectly (starting with the lightest color first and gradually adding darks) and have documented the results of my latest piece which I’ve posted below along with brief descriptions of each step.


The leaf above was sketched out lightly with a hard 2H pencil. A layer of yellow was then roughly applied with a hard pastel and smoothed out with a semi soft brush (this removes the excess powder which builds up on the paper). As with painting, I try to think about working from light to dark. This gives the final color a luminous glow. I then began to add the intricate network of detail over this initial layer as seen on the right side with finely sharpened colored pencils (mostly Derwent and Prismacolor). As I slowly built up my darks, I also increased my detail. I switched over to a mechanical pencil to emphasize sharp lines such as the cast shadows of the veins. There are a limited number of colored lead sticks available for the Staedtler Mars mechanical pencil holder. I used brown and black. If the contrast needed to be increased any further, I used a .005 Micron black ink pen.


A classic Trompe L’oeil image must include a drop shadow. This creates the illusion that the object is “popping off” the paper. I rendered this shadow seen on the left side of the leaf with various grades of pencils. I started with a 2H and then B and finally a 2B. Each layer was smoothed out with a tortillion prior to applying the next layer. Because the leaf was a warmish color, the pencil tone appeared cooler by contrast. I decided to further the warm/cool contrast by adding a final faint layer of dark blue directly over the gray pencil tone with a Prismacolor colored pencil. I also enjoyed the contrasting edges; the sharp edge of the leaf paired against the soft edge of the shadow.


To finish this drawing, I simply continued building up my darks and increasing my detail with the mediums specified above. I am quite pleased with the result. I am planning to do quite a few of these and will be sure to post them as I go so be sure check back periodically.


February 13, 2017

Portrait Painting Class at AOY

February 8, 2016

Hello friends and fellow artists,

I would like to invite anyone interested in learning how to create portrait paintings which explore traditional techniques, as well as capturing the true likeness of your sitter to join me at the Artists of Yardley in Yardley PA this spring for my “Capturing a Likeness in Oils” class. I have been painting portraits for the past twenty-five years during which I’ve devised a systematic approach which combines a solid foundational drawing with transparent and opaque paint layering techniques. This valuable information CANNOT be found in a text book!

During this six week class, you will learn how to create a portrait with life-like accuracy using the same methodologies employed by the Old Masters. Part of what makes a beautiful and realistic portrait painting is a thorough understanding of each part beginning with a solid foundational drawing.  The next step is establishing accurate variants of light and dark value tones to reveal the sculptural form and describe the lighting effect. Color is then applied over the tonal depiction in varying degrees of opacity and transparency breathing life into the subject. Developing this type of approach allows the artist to fully work out potential problems in each phase of the painting process.  The emotion, intensity and poetic feeling expressed through the work are derived by the degree to which the artist is able to master each skill. Material preparation, observational drawing, anatomical studies, underpainting and glazing are a few of the lessons which will be covered during this six week class. For more information and to secure your spot go to http://www.artistsofyardley.org and sign up for “Capturing a Likeness in Oils” with visiting artist David Rivera! Below are some examples of my work. Hope to see you in the class!

copy copy

“Gypsy Dreamer”, oil on wood

artwork for portfolio 072

“Passages”, oil on wood


Pastel Class at AOY

January 27, 2016

Hello friends and fellow artists,

I wanted to invite anyone interested in learning about pastel painting techniques to attend my class at the Artists of Yardley in Yardley PA this Spring.  I’ve used my knowledge of oil painting techniques and applied them to pastel paintings to create images imbued with intense, luminous color that people often mistake for oil paintings.  Below is an example. Now I am offering these techniques which I’ve learned through many hours of studio practice in this intensive six week class.  This information CANNOT be found in any text book!  I will cover everything from the initial linear construction of still life objects, to color blocking, to refined blending techniques. If this is something that interests you, don’t miss the opportunity to take this class.  Sign up now at http://www.artistsofyardley.org.


“Santa’s Snack”, pastel on black paper, 15 x 20 inches


Facial Expressions

January 25, 2016

In my studies of painting, I have seen many portraits that are well rendered but lack that component that make them truly compelling works of art. It is often hard to distinguish what these paintings are lacking, but we always know when we see a portrait painting that possesses that quality which makes it a true masterpiece. Beyond accurate rendering of facial features, great portraits have a strong presence, so that the viewer feels instantly that they know the person. One component that creates such a presence is the expression of the sitter in the painting. Their mood and personality are revealed in their gaze.  Their facial expressions can be enhanced by the specific brushwork around certain features.  When painting the eyes for example, the rendering of a few creases can reveal an array of different emotions. Is the brow furrowed or relaxed?  Or what about the mouth; do the lines around it display a smile or a frown? Often these lines will be etched into someone’s face as they age, but it is particularly hard to render such expressions on someone who is youthful. It is very easy to exaggerate certain lines and make someone look too angry, or too sad. Only the most masterful hand can explore a range of emotions with an almost imperceptible execution of brush strokes.

Below are two paintings, one by Diego Velazquez and the the other by Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres.  These are two of my personal favorites, as they each clearly reveal the strong presence and character of their sitters and are equally imbued with a subtlety of emotion through facial expression.

Diego Valesquez, “Juan de Paraje” 1650

If you look at the eyes of the portrait by Valezquez above, there is a deeply soulful expression.  The sitter, with his erect posture, seems to be portyaing someone who commands a certain degree of power, and yet there is a softness, or even sadness in his gaze.  He posesses a sense of quiet poise beneath his assertive exterior.

Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres, “Portrait of Louis-Francois Bertin” 1832

The portrait by Ingres is similar to the one by Velazquez.  Again, the posture of the sitter, is very assertive, almost like a lion ready to pounce.  The chair wraps around his strong, restless figure, and seems to act as an arm to stop him from leaping out of the canvas.  As you move up towards his eyes, there again is this emmediate sense of strength.  His right brow is raised which increases his look of sternness.  A trace of tender compassion, however, still reveals itself beneath the man’s rugged exterior. Interestingly, if you cover his right eye, this tenderness is revealed, whereas, if you cover his left, the strong, stern lion emerges.

There are countless examples of great portraits like the ones above, but how does an artist capture someones emotion simply with a piece of charcoal or a paint brush?  I will attempt to provide an answer to that very question with a future blog post using a combination of videos and photo demonstrations.

“Portrait of Jim” Completed!

January 15, 2016

Hello friends,

Below is a photo of the portrait of Jim (including some details) which I completed about six months ago, but just recently had the chance to varnish.  I posted several videos on my layering technique(s), which can be found in previous blogs. Varnishing a painting is always a fun experience as it allows you to view the piece differently.  Areas of color, particularly the darker passages become fresh again and appear as they did when the paint was still wet. The varnish makes the colors richer and deeper and greatly enhances the image.


“Portrait of Jim Wentzel”, 2015


(Detail 1)


(Detail 2)