Watercolor: Debbie Cason Rankin: Using Loose, Painterly Effects in Portraits

15 Jan 2007

Debbie Cason Rankin explains how drips, puddles, and runs can capture a subject’s emotional state.

by James A. Metcalfe

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Life Is Good
2004, watercolor, 14 x 20.
All artwork this article
collection the artist.

“Hopefully this painting leaves
the viewer with a happy
feeling,” the artist says.
“The response of most people
when they view this painting
is usually a happy one.
It’s not as drippy as the
others but the emotional
response is strong.”

Blue hair and orange skin may not be the traditional elements one thinks of when considering a portrait, nor are heavy drips and runs. But, unequivocally, they define Debbie Cason Rankin’s style. “I’ve been painting most of my life,” she says, “but I only became serious about it six or seven years ago when I began painting rather unconventional portraits as competition pieces. Although I have painted numerous floral still lifes and landscapes, painting portraits now comes so much more naturally to me.” 

It took Rankin many years to let loose with the brush and feel comfortable painting freely. She is pleased, however, with how her style—which she characterizes as “very loose, very drippy, with a distinct painterly look”—has evolved. Standing while painting, which she seldom did previously, and holding the brush at its very tip rather than at its bristles made a big difference in helping her loosen up. In the current series shown here, Rankin uses painterly effects to convey a subject’s emotional state—to her, the most important aspect of portrait work.

Preparing the Reference Photo
Rankin always works from a single photo, which she takes with a digital camera, and she prefers that the subject be photographed in direct sunlight. “This usually provides better darks and lights,” she maintains, “and I much prefer a ‘squinting’ face that looks somewhat stressed to someone just sitting there smiling. The more character apparent in the face, the more challenged I feel and the easier it is to paint.”

After uploading the files from her camera onto her computer, Rankin uses software programs such as Print Shop or Picture It to alter and process the photo to obtain a black-and-white image. She can then study the values and assess the various ways that shadows and colors might work for the most dramatic effect. Her next step is to draw the composition onto her watercolor paper with a graphite pencil. For this, she usually turns the reference photo upside down. “It’s amazing how much better the drawing is when you draw what you actually see rather than what you think you see,” she adds.

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Cigarette Man
2004, watercolor,
14 x 20.

“I particularly like the texture
of the hair in this piece,”
Rankin says. “Although this
piece has less emotion, it
has more character. The
cigarette makes the statement
that he plans to do whatever
he wants no matter what anyone thinks.”

Painting Process
Using 300-lb cold-pressed Kilimanjaro paper or 200-lb cold-pressed Waterford paper that she sometimes prepares with a coat of gesso, Rankin begins splashing on her first layer of paint. “Generally,” she explains, “I water down my paints considerably and literally throw them at the painting, letting scores of drips remain splashed across the work.” Once the first layer is completely dry, she begins to puddle layer after layer. “I tend to place puddles strategically, say, near the eyes, and I don’t mess with them. I repeat this process until I have it the way I like it. The key here is to leave it alone and not to fiddle with it. Otherwise, I will undo all the loose work I have just created. Each layer must dry or I run the risk of the ever-dreaded blooms. In some cases the part I smudge or wipe off actually finishes the painting.”

In What Now, Rankin began by applying a base layer of paint—in this case orange and blue, and then started layering the puddles. “I let the paint puddle around the eye and nose while the paint was still wet so the colors ran together, a crucial step because the shadow area needed to be continuous,” the artist explains. “In the close-up, one can see how the colors run together where the glasses meet the nose. I began the blue shadow in the hair and then brought it onto the sunglasses, across the eye, down the nose, through the mouth, and under the chin. If I hadn’t approached it this way, it would have looked far too choppy.

“I sustained a sloppy look when painting the puddles and runs even though I painted them in a very deliberate fashion,” she continues. “The light area on the face where the sun is hitting is actually the white of the paper. As for the emotion in this piece, it shows someone who is looking down and wondering what is happening. The subject is clearly annoyed and it shows.”

Working Toward a Personal Style
Rankin has come to realize that much of what she does in creating her vibrant portraits is often contrary to traditional practice. Besides her unusual use of color, she often positions a subject’s face in the center of the page or off to the opposite side and has the subject looking straight at the viewer. Also somewhat unconventional is the fact that Rankin seldom, if ever, uses a hair dryer in her work. “A hair dryer,” she affirms, “will dry the paint too evenly, which is exactly what I want to avoid. When I place my puddles of paint, I sometimes let them dry about two-thirds, then take a paper towel and dab the paint off so that the center of the puddle is lighter and all the edges of the puddle keep hard edges. You can’t achieve this effect when using a hair dryer.”

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Reference photo for
Worried, Troubled, and Tired.

Using Painterly Effects to the Best Advantage
In terms of light, Rankin is quick to declare that high-contrast light is absolutely critical for her work. “I need strong contrast to make my paintings work,” she declares. “I place the lightest light against the darkest dark to create high contrast. For example, in keeping with my usual style, I painted That’s Really Interesting with heavy drips and runs. However, one of my goals in this piece was to achieve a lot of light and dark on the face.” For the area around the sunglasses she worked wet-in-wet to create the shadow of the sunglasses. “I applied a puddle just under the shadow to connect it to the mouth area,” she explains. “This, in turn, gives a continuous line for the eye to follow. I painted the shadow under the chin with one puddle and then left it alone. I added a lot of splatters in burnt sienna to increase interest and provide more texture to the piece. For the area around the hair I worked wet-in-wet so that the hair would blend into the background; otherwise, it would appear to look like it was cut and pasted onto the top. The emotion in this piece is one of hope, as the subject looks off in the distance.

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Worried, Troubled, and Tired
2005, watercolor,
14 x 20.

“The emotion in Deadpan Man is one of no emotion—simply deadpan,” the artist continues. “I particularly like the brushwork in this piece, which has contrast on the face, and the aqua hair adds interest. I also painted this piece with a straight-on look, often a no-no in portrait work, but I think it works well here. The white of the paper serves as the color for the cheeks and forehead. The shadow comes through the eyes, down to the nose, across the mouth, and under the chin, which establishes a route for the viewer’s eye to follow. The eyes here are a bit more intense and carefully painted than in my other paintings. The puddles around the eyes and forehead create numerous hard edges, and on one of the eyes, I particularly like where the skin color runs into the blue color of the eye.” 

Rankin’s effective use of puddles, splatters, drips, and runs has become the hallmark of her portrait work. Working loosely has helped her tap into the emotional content she wants to convey, but only because she directs the painterly effects toward the desired results. As she puts it, “The emotional connection of a painting is just as important as the actual painting, and even though the subject’s hair may be blue, I want the viewer to know what that person is feeling.”

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Reference photo for What Now. What Now
2006, watercolor, 14 x 20.
Earl’s Content
2006, watercolor,
14 x 20.

That’s Really Interesting

2003, watercolor, 14 x 20.
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Deadpan Man
2006, watercolor,
14 x 20.

About the Artist
Debbie Cason Rankin is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society; the Florida Watercolor Society, for which she serves on the board of directors; and the Miniature Art Society of Florida. She has participated in numerous group shows, including the 2006 exhibition of the National Watercolor Society, in which she won the Arches Paper Merchandise Award, and the All Florida Fine Art Exhibition. Her work will be featured in the National Watercolor Society traveling exhibition. She lives in Tampa and Cashiers, North Carolina.

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