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Unforgettable Paintings

Internationally known artist and teacher Carole Katchen shares her best insights
for creating paintings your viewers will always remember.

By Carole Katchen

Katchen: Dogs on Wheels

Dogs on Wheels, pastel, 26 x 18 in.


photo of Chef Chuck

Demonstration #1

            I like to have photographic reference material available, but I don’t just copy the photos. I use the photos just to help define those few details that are important for conveying the subject.

"If you want to be a brilliant artist, you have to be aware. You have to take the time to notice the unforgettable moments."


Most unforgettable paintings begin with an unforgettable idea. Yes, there are some paintings that take your breath away just because the technique is so brilliant, but for the most part, it is the content that matters most. Here are some ideas for enhancing the emotional and sensory content of a painting so it has greater impact.

1. Capture an unforgettable moment.

I was a competitive ballroom dancer for many years, and I still catch every dance show on TV. Sometimes I sketch dancers directly from the screen, but I have also learned to record my favorite shows. That way I can go back and look for the perfect moments to paint.

What inspired the piece Hey, Mambo! was the flirtatiousness of a couple on the show, So You Think You Can Dance. The boy was all awkward elbows and knees, trying to impress the girl. The girl was shaking her hips and bosom, determined to seduce the boy. That kind of emotional intensity is what brings the viewer into the painting and makes the image stay in the memory.

2. Choose an unforgettable character.

I first saw chef Chuck Vales carrying a tray of hors d’ouvres into a gallery where I was having an exhibit. I love painting chefs, and here was a great one.  His appearance told me so much about his character. He was a large man, dressed in a traditional chef’s costume. His cheeks were red and just plump enough to show that he likes his own cooking.

I followed him next door to his restaurant and convinced him to let me shoot a few photos in his kitchen. I almost always carry a small digital camera with me. I used the photos as the basis of simple sketches, and then I painted from those.

I’ve learned that if I paint directly from photos, I am too likely to get distracted by details and forget the total image. Usually the painting is well on its way before I refer to the photos. Toward the end I went back to the photos for information about his face. I added the large red lobster to give the painting more dramatic impact.

3. Look for unforgettable color.

For this painting, Starstruck, I picked flowers from my yard—lilies and crepe myrtle branches. I liked the combination of orange, pink, and deep red blossoms, and I arranged the flowers in a neutral white vase. From the beginning I knew that it would be the background color that would make this painting sing. I chose blue to play off the orange, since complements always add a lively spark to a painting.

I worked on Colorfix paper so that I could start out with a wet underpainting, using acrylic to block in the basic shapes and colors. Then I developed the final color with many, many layers of pastel crosshatching.

4. Recreate an unforgettable memory.

Last year I spent two months as an Artist-in-Residence at a university in a small city in southern Taiwan. My means of transportation around the town was a bicycle. As I traveled the streets, I got a close view of the local people.

One of the most interesting sights I saw was someone on a motor scooter with two dogs balanced at his feet. After seeing that man, I realized it was quite common to see dogs riding along with their owners. So for future reference, I photographed many parked scooters and many people driving their scooters down the road.

When I got around to painting the scene in Dogs on Wheels, I decided to emphasize what I remembered most from the scene—the movement. I made the driver a woman so that her hair could be blowing in the wind. Then I chose cocker spaniels as the dogs so that their ears would also be flying in the wind.

5. Depict an unforgettable activity.

I have been selected to paint the poster image for several wine festivals. As a result, I have had the opportunity to attend many wine tasting events. I have been surprised to find that wine has found a huge following around the world, and many people approach wine with the seriousness of religious acolytes.

For the painting And the Verdict Is . . ., I created a group of men in the throes of analyzing red wine. I placed a line of wine glasses in the foreground to establish the situation and add an interesting design element. Then I showed men in the traditional tasting activities—looking at the color, sniffing the aroma, and sipping the wine.

I painted all the men in tuxedos to minimize the color; I didn’t want lots of colors to pull attention away from the wine and the faces. For the same reason I kept the background non-intrusive. The formal wear also adds a bit of cache to the scene.

6. Tell an unforgettable story.

Serina Lai, my art dealer in Taipei, has several pet cats who freely roam the gallery. They are large cats with very expressive faces. While I was in Taipei, I spent hours watching, sketching, and photographing the cats.

One day I watched one of the pets stalking an invisible prey through the gallery. He jumped up on a table where there was a photograph of him. As he walked past it, he turned back as if to say, “That doesn’t look like me.” That’s what I decided to title the painting.

In painting this tableau, I kept everything other than the cat and the photo very simple to focus on the essential details that would tell the whole story at a glance.

The prerequisite to creating unforgettable paintings is living an unforgettable life. I am not saying you have to fly off to Asia or become a ballroom dancer. However, you have to be excited about your life and pay attention to the world around you.

If you want to be a brilliant artist, you have to be aware. You have to take the time to notice the unforgettable moments: What was it about last night’s sunset that stopped you in your tracks? Why does the smile on your sleeping child’s face take your breath away? You have to notice what you see, what you eat, what you smell, what you hear, what you dream. These are the sensations and feelings that will inspire great paintings rich with content.

See two more demos below!

Katchen: sketch of Chef Chuck

            Gesture drawings of the subject are a vital part of developing the final painting. They help me capture the movement and expression of the person.


Katchen: Chef Chuck

Final Painting
            I kept this painting of Chef Chuck (pastel, 26 x 18 in.) very simple. I just wanted to convey that moment when the chef presents his masterpiece.





Katchen: That Doesn't Look Like Me
That Doesn’t Look Like Me, pastel, 19 x 25 in.

Katchen: Starstruck
Starstruck, pastel, 26 x 18 in.

Painting Demonstration #2

Katchen: mambo sketch 1


Katchen: mambo sketch 2


Hey, Mambo sketches
            I recorded these dancers on my VCR, and later did the sketches from the tape. I used the sketches to capture the dance movements and gestures. In my dance paintings, the anatomy is only important in conveying the feel of the dance.

Katchen: mambo demo 1
Katchen: mambo demo 2
Step 1
            Using a thin acrylic wash, I established the basic colors and composition. I worked on Colorfix pastel paper, which has a good texture for pastel and also a primed coat to accept wet media.
Step 2
            I blocked in the painting with thick, loose pastel strokes, using just a few colors to separate the subject from the negative space. This allowed me to assess the overall design.
Katchen: mambo demo 3
Katchen: mambo demo 4
Step 3
            Satisfied with the shapes and sense of movement, I concentrated on the background. I added several layers of blue and blue-green strokes, which I then blended to get a smooth surface. I darkened the lower section to give it more weight.
Step 4
I added yellow accents and started to develop highlights and shadows within the figures.
Katchen: Hey Mambo

I further refined the figures. My focus is on the movement of the dance and the relationship between the dancers, so I have eliminated anything that doesn’t support that. My technique for building color is to lay down loose strokes of color, blend with my fingertips, add more color, blend, and add more color. I left unblended strokes on the final surface of Hey, Mambo (pastel, 26 x 18 in.) to give more visual interest.


photo of Carole Katchen Carole Katchen loves to share her passion and knowledge of art with her fellow artists. She has authored 14 fine-art instruction books, and was a contributing writer to The Artist’s Magazine and International Artist. She is currently writing an ongoing column for The Pastel Journal. Done in a variety of media, Carole’s paintings have been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions around the globe, for which she has earned many prestigious awards. Carole has been instrumental in growing the arts scene in her home of Hot Springs, Arkansas. She is currently represented by: Legacy Gallery, Hot Springs, AR; Telluride Gallery, Telluride, CO; Gore Creek Gallery, Vail, CO; Angel Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan; and At the Gallery, Oak Park, IL. To see more of Carole’s works, visit carolekatchen.com.


Painting Demonstration #3

Step 1
Using quick strokes, I blocked in the basic composition. I used brown for the figures and blue for the background. I wanted to focus attention on the wine and the wine tasters, so I kept the composition very simple.

Katchen: verdict demo 1


Step 2
I added bright white shapes for the shirts. I wanted the stark contrast of white shirts and dark tuxedoes to add to the overall design. I filled in the faces and hands with skin tones and added a lighter blue for the foreground.

Katchen: verdict demo 2


Step 3
I solidified the shapes, leaving the faces with abstract features. I was more concerned with expression than the actual features. I developed the background with strokes of many different shades and tones of blue. The final step in And the Verdict Is… (oil, 24 x 36 in.) was adding the red wine colors and the bright highlights on the glasses.

Katchen: And the Verdict Is...