Watercolor: Terry Sellers Buckner: The Delicate Subject of Children's Potraiture

13 Mar 2007

Achieving lifelike skin tones and a refined image is at the heart of Terry Sellers Buckner’s success as a portrait painter.

by Lynne Moss Perricelli

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Tommy and Danni
2002, watercolor,
14 x 11. All artwork this
article private collection.

Terry Sellers Buckner, of Supply, North Carolina, is booked for portrait work for at least the next two years. Her success has much to do with her association with Portraits South, a well-known portrait broker that secures most of her commissions, but it has even more to do with her skill in capturing the delicate features and skin tones of young children, the primary subject of her portraits. To Buckner, watercolor is the ideal medium for young subjects because it allows a subtlety of tone—achieved through multiple transparent layers—that is unattainable in any other way. “When you lay down a wash, that particular color will sink down into the fibers of the paper, while subsequent layers will settle on the surface, and both will retain their integrity,” she says.

Buckner’s process hinges on her photography of the subject, since she, like many portrait artists, must depend on photos rather than working from life because most of her subjects lack the time for multiple sittings. Using photographs that capture the subject’s likeness and personality, she can apply her considerable painting skills to bring a sense of vitality to the portrait, while at the same time creating the kind of refined imagery so desirable to both the artist and her clients.

The Photo Session
The first step in beginning a child’s portrait is for Buckner and her husband, nature photographer Ken Buckner, to meet with the subject and his or her parents for the photography session. To put the child and parents at ease, Buckner spends time getting acquainted, talking to the child about something that interests him or her and engaging the parents in conversation. “We want to make it as relaxing as we can,” Buckner says. “We try to make it easy for the child, but if the parent is nervous, the child will be stressed. We keep it low-key, photographing with available light—no flash in their eyes every two seconds—and usually the child will respond to either me or my husband, and we go with that. Before beginning the photo session, I look at the lighting situation, preferring to shoot near a window with ambient light rather than direct sunlight. Lighting the subject is very important. You want as descriptive a light as possible on the form.”

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Ansley
2004, watercolor,
16 x 12.

Buckner often confers with the parent in advance of the photo session to determine what the child will wear, offering the advice to keep it simple. “What the child will wear depends on whether the portrait is formal or informal, but the most important point to remember is that the subject is the child. We don’t want anything to distract from the head. Any pattern must be a delicate, subtle one. And often the children wear white, which takes on color from the surroundings and from the light—it’s terrific to paint.” Above all, because most clients intend to pass down the portrait to future generations, Buckner reminds them that all aspects of the portrait should have a timeless quality.

Once Buckner has organized the photos (she uses a Canon EOS 10D digital camera), she meets with the clients and reviews them on her laptop. In this meeting she seeks guidance from the parents on the expression that best suits the child. “I choose an image based on shapes, form, and colors, but the parent may look at it and say, ‘It’s a wonderful photo, but it doesn’t feel like my child.’ The parents’ input helps me see what expression is closest to that child,” she explains. The artist also makes notes at the meeting to help her remember important details regarding the facial features, values, and coloring, because it is often more than a year before she can begin the painting.

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Lilly Brooks
2004, watercolor,
16 x 12.

The Painting Process
“When it comes to making drawings and beginning the painting, I do all that work at home,” Buckner says. “Honestly I can concentrate much better. The work of the artist is much like the work of the writer—I need solitude, and not to be interrupted.” So once she is back in her studio, she begins a new portrait by making a graphite line drawing in which she determines the composition. “I want to be sure the drawing on the watercolor paper is accurate, so I make any corrections on my initial drawing,” she explains. “The watercolor paper has to be kept pristine.” Using waxless graphite paper, she transfers the line drawing to the watercolor paper, making it as clean as possible and only transferring the lines that are essential. “For some portraits I need more information to begin painting than I do in others,” she adds.

To prepare the watercolor paper, Buckner first soaks it (she favors Arches 140-lb cold-pressed) for at least 30 minutes. She then places it on a lightweight birch plywood panel and staples it down. As the paper dries, it tightens and will stay flat throughout the painting process. The artist notes that it’s important to use a wooden board that’s been coated with paint to prevent the acid from the wood from discoloring the paper.

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Elliott
2003, watercolor,
16 x 12.

Choosing a Palette, Layering Colors
The colors Buckner applies depend on the temperatures needed for that particular area of the painting. “I learned to paint by color temperatures,” she says, “and I use both warm and cool primaries. If the light is cool, I use only cool colors: cadmium lemon, permanent rose, and French ultramarine. Occasionally I use cobalt blue, which can be warm or cool. I mix everything from those.” Her warm palette includes cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red medium, and cerulean blue. Referring to the photo, she examines the light and shadow separations. “Often there is a blue wash under the skin, a grayed color,” she explains, “so I lay in a pale-blue wash over the skin area. It will affect the other skin color on top and keep it from becoming too intense.” Mixing all her colors on a white enamel butcher tray, she believes depending only on the primaries makes an artist more sensitive to color. “You can get lazy mixing color if you rely on 50 tubes,” she says. “You don’t learn what color can do. Such a simple palette mixes wonderful, clean color, and it can teach you a lot.”

Generally, Buckner describes her process as first laying in the lightest colors in the shadow side and the light side, then working back and forth between light and shadow, from light to dark. She works both wet-in-wet and wet-in-dry. “If I want the color to flow, I put one color down and then another while the paper is still wet,” she describes. “There won’t be a hard edge on these colors. When I want a harder edge, such as on the plane of the nose, I let the paper dry before I lay in the next color, then I soften the edge as necessary. I work wet or dry depending on what I need.”

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Carol, Grace,
and Lilly

2002, watercolor,
28 x 19.

Considering Buckner’s inclination toward a refined image, controlling the medium is one of the most important aspects of her work. “I tend to work on slightly damp paper,” she says. “The color flows slightly, but I’m in control of the painting all the time. I don’t want the paper to be so wet the paint will flow in other areas where I don’t want it to go, because it could ruin the color relationships.” Although she admires more splashy technique and is especially attracted to the loose and spontaneous approach of John Singer Sargent, Buckner believes she has to follow the method that best suits her personality, saying, “I don’t care how many watercolor paintings you’ve done, they are always difficult. You can misjudge something at any time. Watercolor is very fast, but you don’t have to paint fast. I like to go slowly, to take my time. Each artist has to approach the medium in the way that is most comfortable. The most important thing of all is to have a very solid foundation in the fundamentals of painting.”

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Mitchell and Bobby
2005, watercolor,
16 x 20. 
Hadley
2002, watercolor,
16 x 12.
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Ken
1992, watercolor, 16 x 12.
Virginia
2006, watercolor, 16 x 12.

Finishing Touches
Such a high degree of control, however, can yield stiff, unnatural portraits. “When you do the photography, you have to come up with a relaxed expression,” she advises. “Then you paint what you see. A very refined painting that is soft and subtle does not have to end up looking stiff. It’s about a good drawing and a natural expression. That’s why it’s important to help the subject to relax.”

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Houston
2004, watercolor,
16 x 12.

When she has completed the portrait, Buckner has a mat cut to her specifications and fitted to the composition according to the crop marks she positions. She then covers the portrait with a rag-mat flap, mounts it to a board, and labels it with the subject’s name. She sends it to the client with framing guidelines that state the watercolor should be framed under UV glass with rag mats and acid-free materials.

Buckner believes children’s portraiture is one of the most fulfilling careers an artist can have. “There’s nothing like it,” she says. “You create something that is meaningful to a family that is unlike any other subject matter. But you must learn the craft and understand that at times it can be stressful. There are new sets of challenges with each portrait, and sometimes the clients do not understand what is possible with watercolor. I try to be approachable to my clients and keep the lines of communication open.” By including them in the process, she can make the experience pleasant for everyone. “There’s no perfect portrait, and with each one there are areas that I would like to improve. But if I can take what I’ve learned from each portrait and apply it to the next one, I am always growing, always learning, and never satisfied.”

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