John Howard Sanden portraits  
Following Reliable Procedures

American Artist Portrait Highlights, October / November 2006

By M. Stephen Doherty


Portrait of
Pam McMahon

Step 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

n 1979, when John Howard Sanden and Elizabeth R. Sanden began to write their first book, Painting the Head in Oil (Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, New York), their editor urged them to describe the painting process in 29 steps. "Don Holden told us to break the process down into 29 stages of development," Sanden remembers. "I don't know how he came up with that number, but we've used it as a guide in subsequent books, videos, and DVDs. I guess it worked for me because I find that students gain a better understanding of portrait painting if I explain the process in specific, sequential steps they can remember and repeat."

Thousands of artists have obviously agreed with the Sandens and their editor because that first book and three additional books—Successful Portrait Painting (WatsonGuptill Publications, New York, New York), Portraits From Life in 29 Steps (North Light Books, Cincinnati, Ohio), and The Portraits of John Howard Sanden: A Thirtieth Anniversary Collection (Madison Square Press, New York, New York) successfully launched the careers of generations of painters who read the advice about setting up a professional studio, planning a commission, gathering reference material. posing and lighting a subject, and painting an accurate and satisfying portrait. So too did the artists who purchased Sanden's filmed program as well as the line of Pro Mix Color System oil paints he formulated with the Martin/F. Weber company. The latter two books are available through The Portrait Institute's website. A fifth Sanden book, Face to Face With Greatness: The Adventure of Portrait Painting will be published in 2007.

But with all due respect to Holden, the value of Sanden's instruction is not in the number of stages but in the way he systematically guides artists through the entire painting process. He recommends ways of placing an accurate drawing of a subject's head on a canvas, whether the artist works from life or photographs, and then he presents a logical method of using specific mixtures of flesh colors, starting with shadows and proceeding to the halftones in transitional, lower, middle, upper, and central areas of the face. The light values are then developed in the same sequence, with reflected light and details added after restating previously painted sections. "I believe you will find that this logical procedure will give you the discipline and focus that the difficult art of portraiture demands," Sanden wrote in Portraits From Life in 29 Steps. "There is plenty of room for intuition and creativity. Following a definite procedure builds assurance and competence."

To help explain this logical procedure, Sanden recently painted a portrait of his daughter, Pamela McMahon, filmed the process for his Painting the Head in One Sitting III: Pam DVD (also available through The Portrait Institute's website (, and photographed it at the end of each stage of the painting's development for this article. As always, he worked with the same dependable palette of tube colors and a range of neutral, dark, halftone, and light color mixtures (see sidebar).

Sanden began by establishing the size and placement of the figure's head on a stretched canvas, and then he drew the elements of the woman's face with a size 4 bristle brush and some of his neutral mixture. Once he was confident about his drawing, he massed in the warm shadows in the hair, along the side of the face, and in the neck area. Then, following the procedures recommended in his books and videos, Sanden painted the halftones in the lower third of the face, pulled a lighter mixture across the woman's cheekbone, and used an even lighter mixture to block in her forehead. Throughout this preliminary stage he worked on large shapes rather than details so he could concentrate on the relative value and color temperature appropriate for each area of the face.

Before restating any of these painted areas, the artist massed in a warm background color so he could better judge the manner in which he would develop the woman's hair and facial features. He also blocked in a cool blue color to suggest a blouse, keeping the paint relatively thin so he could create a smooth, soft transition between the hair and the clothing.

"Now we begin the serious work of restating everything we've recorded," Sanden wrote in Portraits From Life in 29 Steps; at this stage in the development of the portrait of his daughter he followed his own good advice. "I went over all the dark areas in the painting, large and small, making careful new judgments since other tones were now in place. …Restating the halftones is the longest and most difficult step. It's crucial to draw with your brush the many small halftone forms that create the character and personality of your sitter. ...Restating the lights is another very important step, but not quite so difficult as the previous one because there are far fewer light tones to record and correct. Again, it's difficult to give precise directions as the physical and spiritual likeness of the subject becomes more particular. Two points to always remember: (I) Observe carefully and (2) Every stroke is a drawing stroke!"

In order to paint the critical areas around his subject's eyes, nose, and mouth, Sanden switched from using a bristle brush to a sable because the softer hairs would give him more control over the paint. When the artist turned his attention back to the areas of the painting outside the face, he returned to using bristle brushes so his strokes would be broad and the transitions between colors and values would be subtler.

One of the hallmarks of a Sanden portrait is the management of hard and soft edges. He has an exceptional ability to capture the likeness of a person's facial structure and features with hard edges that bring attention to the most important areas of the painting; and he balances those clear definitions with softer transitions between the figure and the background in peripheral areas. In most of his portraits there is a point at which the person's hair seems to melt into the background and thereby unify the entire painting. He also allows some of the brushmarks in the peripheral areas to remain obvious and sketchy so there is a balance between the illusion of a person and the reality of the paint.

Sanden's career as a portraitist has spanned three decades. He is widely regarded as one of the foremost teachers of professional portrait methods, he is the founder of The Portrait Institute, in New York City, and he has toured the nation teaching his ideas and techniques to thousands of artists. He has been commissioned to paint more than 500 public officials, business leaders, and private individuals, and he is represented by several major portrait brokers.

In 1994, The American Society of Portrait Artists presented Sanden with their first John Singer Sargent Medal for Lifetime Achievement. For more information on Sanden, visit his websites:, and

The Pro Mix Color System Palette

Standard Colors

ultramarine blue
cerulean blue
chromium oxide green
alizarin crimson
burnt umber
burnt sienna
cadmium orange
Venetian red
cadmium red light
yellow ochre
cadmium yellow light
ivory black
Permalba white

The Pro Mix Colors
Neutrals: Sanden uses three values of neutral mixtures made from combinations of Permalba white, ivory black, and yellow ochre.

Darks: Two dark values made from combinations of burnt sienna, viridian, and cadmium orange.

Halftones: One cool halftone used for painting receding planes achieved by mixing Permalba white, yellow ochre, cadmium red light, chromium oxide green, and cadmium orange; and a second halftone for painting the transition between light and shadow areas made by mixing Permalba white, yellow ochre, cadmium red light, and viridian.

Lights: Sanden recommends working with three light values, the first a clear color for
the lightest lights made from a combination of Permalba white, yellow ochre, and cadmium red light; a second basic flesh tone developed with Permalba white, yellow ochre, cadmium red light, and cerulean blue; and a third pinkish flesh color for ruddy areas in light mixed from Perm alba white, yellow ochre, cadmium red light, and cerulean blue.

Sanden emphasizes that the Pro Mix Color System colors are almost never used straight from the tube but are adjusted with additions from the standard colors or another Pro Mix color based on observation of the subject. Each set includes a 20-page instructional booklet.