Learn how Danielle Richard’s realistic portraits capture amazing light and evoke timeless emotions.
By Patty Craft and Caroline McKee
How many of the decisions you made in your early 20s have stood the test of time? How many of us even knew at that age what we were truly called to do as our life’s work? Danielle Richard knew. She knew that painting was her calling — painting in a realistic style despite feeling like the black sheep at art school at a time when abstraction was the genre to pursue. Richard humbly says, “I stayed true to what mattered to me. And that was painting realistic portraits when abstraction seemed the only popular method in art school. I was given my first solo show right after college in 1980, and have enjoyed many shows over the years. Never once having to ask, but rather always being invited. It’s a confirmation to me that I chose wisely.”
True to Self
Though her style of painting realistically has not wavered over time, her subject matter has changed. In the early years, when she was surrounded by her children, her work focused more on them. Today Richard is known more for her portrait paintings depicting women in peaceful outdoor settings and bathed in golden light. Although the French-Canadian artist’s work is often described as romantic, there is so much more to the women she paints. They do not represent an idealistic, Harlequin-romance kind of moment. “These are real women, in real-life settings, dressed in their everyday casual clothes. They are captured at a perfectly lit moment that allows their femininity to show through,” Richard explains. “These are the simple, enjoyable moments of life,” she explains, and not a romanticized version of reality.
Her art was recognized by the Portrait Society of America as outstanding work, worthy to be included in the Inspiring Figures exhibit at The Butler Institute in Youngstown, Ohio in 2009. In addition to museum exhibitions, her artwork has also been used for numerous book and magazine covers over the years. The women she paints resonate with viewers across various media.
Hunter of Light
Richard is a self-proclaimed hunter of the light. She has honed the ability to notice and capture points of light as she takes her reference photos; she snaps hundreds of them. “I never work from a single reference photo,” she says. While she admits to having a keen eye while photographing her subjects, Richard says it would be impossible for one photo to capture every nuance of a scene that she could then reproduce into a final painting. A final piece is a combination, therefore, of many photos and the artist’s own imagination.
She names Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida and Andrew Wyeth as masters whose work inspires her own. Both artists focused on painting their subjects in everyday settings, and Sorolla was especially fascinated with capturing light. Richard says, “I base my painting technique on that of the masters: glazes over layers of colors. The light comes from the luminescent underlayers of the painting.” She doesn’t always get it right the first time and says, “Sometimes I lay down white and start again if there is an area that isn’t bright enough.”
Delicate and Mysterious
Richard has always had a preference for backlit scenes. They allow for cutting silhouettes and a variety of colors and reflections. She finds these scenes to be more delicate, and in some way, mysterious. The mystery may arise from the fact that a backlit scene will usually leave a lack of information in the subject’s face. However, Richard has developed some techniques over the years to account for this while still capturing the sunlight in her signature style.
For example, Cœurs Fideles was created from photos taken years ago on the deck of the artist’s summerhouse. The evening light coming in is so bright that the tree in the top left almost fades out, and the tops of the hydrangeas on the table are almost blindingly white. Such bright light should throw the backs of the figures into dark shadow, but Richard manages to light them up. Her trick here was noticing the light reflecting off the house behind the figures and thereby lighting them up naturally.
Sometimes Richard maintains the mystery provided by the deep shadows of backlighting, instead of finding a way to light the scene. Perhaps the most successful example of this can be seen in Canot Docile. The brightest thing in the painting is the woman’s hair, fiery orange in the sunlight. In contrast, everything else seems darker and a little obscured. This effect, combined with the position of the woman’s head, lends the painting the same pensive quietude present in so many of Richard’s works. This painting earned her awards from the Portrait Society of America and the BoldBrush Painting Competition.
The Painting Process
Just as her subject matter has changed over time, so too has her technique. “Today I am more aware of edges and values,” she says. “I squint my eyes to see value patterns and to judge edges. I see more clearly that way. Now I use a more limited palette, and that gives my paintings greater balance and color harmony.” She finds that using a limited palette of simple warm and cool colors gives her the best results.
Layers of Gesso
The canvas she paints on comes prepared with gesso, but Richard adds two more thin layers of Daniel Smith stone gray gesso to the canvas. For this step, she moves the canvas to the floor, although she prefers to work at her easel. Prior to making any marks on her canvas, Richard does a few sketches on paper to plan out a balanced composition. They are not detailed sketches, but ones that capture just the essential lines. She then refers to her sketches, walking back and forth between the drawings and her easel, as she transfers her idea onto the canvas in charcoal pencil.
Richard paints on cotton or linen canvas stretched and stapled over 1⁄2-inch plywood set on her easel, and she loves to paint big. Most of Richard’s paintings have a finished trim size of either 36×48 or 48×60. “Large surfaces allow for bold, simplified brush strokes, and large brushes,” she explains. Of course, she saves the detail work for last. Even this detail work, though, is often rendered with larger brushes up to 2 inches. Using a large brush simplifies the strokes and eliminates busy detail.
Over her basic sketch Richard lays down many layers of light underpainting that consist of Liquitex Van Dyke red, Golden burnt sienna and ultramarine blue. She dilutes the paints with water and works with them almost like watercolors. While the underpainting is still wet she uses a cloth to lift out areas where the painting will reveal the brightest light: the focal points. Though she does this immediately after putting down her underpainting, she occasionally has to rewet parts of the canvas with a brush in order to lift out the focal areas.
Intention and Flow
Between layers of color for her underpainting, she alternates a mixture of gloss and matte medium to help smooth the surface, which in turn will help the paints flow better. When a brushstroke appears too linear or too stiff she uses a slow-drying medium to soften the passage.
Richard normally works on only one painting at a time; but since she also paints in pastel and oil, she will occasionally have a second work in progress. Her process is unrushed and intentional; she knows what she wants, where she will go, and how she will proceed. It may take up to two months to complete a work in acrylic.
The Noble Equal
Richard admits she occasionally encounters people who do not fully appreciate acrylic paintings, not valuing them as highly as oil paintings. Yes, oil has a long tradition, she admits, but acrylic painters are doing great work. The quality of acrylics has been so improved, and Richard believes this allows for professional and beautiful results.
Richard herself is a multitalented artist. She has won awards not only for her acrylic work, but also for her pastels and oils. The subjects and styles of the paintings are much the same, regardless of the medium. Her pastels and oils are just as realistically rendered, and they feature ordinary women in outdoor settings. Richard prefers acrylics and pastels over oils because they allow her to add layers without having to wait through an intensive drying time. Richard’s masterpieces in all three mediums can be found in galleries around the world.
Learn more about Danielle Richard and see more of her work at daniellerichard.com.
A version of this article originally appeared in Acrylic Artist magazine.