Portrait painting in oils – limited primary palette with Rachel Mercer

Ref: D1D33827

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About this course

You will be working from the portrait model to make a painterly portrait in a day. This is the fifth course in a series of six courses where each week will focus on a specific colour palette and can be booked as a group or as a stand-alone course. This week you will use the 'Primary Palette' to learn about transparency and opacity.

Course Description

You will develop an understanding of colour theory and the terminology of painting: tonal values, colour temperature, hue and saturation. You will develop techniques in colour mixing and brush control to create lively and characterful portraits using colour. Colour mixing and paint application will be demonstrated by the tutor.

Learn how the imaginative use of colour can inform the emotion expressed in observational work. Use of specific colour palettes will be explained and demonstrated by your tutor, but also explored by looking at painterly examples by John Singer Sargent, Pierre Bonnard, Henre de Toulouse-Lautrec, Chaïm Soutine, Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, Gwen John, Duncan Grant, Alice Neal, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Imra Stern and Richard Diebenkorn.

Limited Primary Palette: Transparency and Opacity

Using a limited primary palette (cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, phthalo blue, alizarin red and white) is a great way to develop colour mixing skills, whether you are a beginner or an intermediate wanting to push your painting practice further.

The session will begin with a colour matching exercise, attempting to mix colours that are the closest approximation to the colour seen. You will develop your ability to make colour substitutions based on the relative tone and colour temperature you observe on the model.

In this session, the tutor will demonstrate the relative transparency and opacity of colours, and how balancing saturated colours with more muted colours creates luminosity.

The series of 6 courses exploring the foundations of portrait painting in oils comprise the following one day courses that focus on different colour palettes: Week 1 - Monochrome palette: tone and structure Week 2 - Complementary pairing: tone and colour temperature Week 3 - Earth palette: colour substitution (tone, hue and temperature) Week 4 - Cadmium palette: saturation (blacks, greys and colour contrast) Week 5 - Limited primary palette: transparency and opacity Week 6 - Extended primary palette: accuracy in colour mixing

The courses can be booked as a group or individually.

Course Materials


On this course the College will supply some of the materials including:

  • The model
  • Linseed oil
  • Studio safe solvent
  • Rags

What students need to bring

  • A3 canvas board
  • Sketchpad (A5 or A4)
  • 2B pencil
  • Rubber
  • Apron
  • Oil paint: Yellow Ochre, Alizarin Red, Titanium white, Phathlo Blue

Other items:

  • Palette knifes x1
  • Palette x1
  • Jam jars with lids x2

Rags for cleaning brushes x1

  • 5-7 hog hair brushes (long-handled), varied sizes (no smaller than size 8)

Additional information

Please wear appropriate clothing/aprons for the workshop or studio, this includes stout covered footwear (no sandals or open toes).


Daily Timetable

Course teaching day 11am–5.15pm
Students arrive between 10.30am-11am (coffee optional)  
Morning teaching starts at 11am 
Lunch break between 1pm-2pm (lunch is not included)
Afternoon teaching starts at 2pm (15 minute tea break, 3.30pm–3.45pm)
Teaching finishes 5.15pm  

General Information

Short courses are open to anyone aged 18 and over. The course fee covers tuition and materials where stated. You will need to bring all other items listed under the ‘Materials to bring’ section.


Coffee and tea are included in the course fee, but you will need to bring lunch with you to eat in the refreshments room. There are also plenty of other local venues to purchase food.


If you have any specific access needs, we will need to know about your access requirements in advance. Please tell us about your needs in confidence by emailing: [email protected] This venue has steps to the front reception, with limited access via a side gate to the ground floor. There is a small lift to higher floors or stairs.


Short course students are required to sign a safety compliance form as part of West Dean Health and Safety regulations.

Refunds and cancellations

Please refer to our terms & conditions below.


The information given is accurate at the time of publication. However, West Dean College reserves the right to cancel or amend courses if circumstances require.

Terms & Conditions


Rachel Mercer

Born in Cambridgeshire, Mercer studied at Cardiff School of Art and Design graduating in 2012 before being awarded the postgraduate programme at The Royal Drawing School. Since 2014 she has been a painter and educator working in London. She has exhibited in the UK, Athens and China and had work purchased for the Royal Collection by HM Charles III. 

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Further study options

Take the next step in your creative practice, with foundation level to Masters in Fine Art study. 

Depending on your experience, start with an Online Foundation Certificate in Art and Design (one year, part-time), a Foundation Diploma in Art and Design made up of 10 short courses taken over two years (part-time) or advance your learning with our BA (Hons) Art and Contemporary Craft: Materials, Making, and Place (six years part-time). All will help you develop core skills, find direction in your practice and build an impressive portfolio in preparation for artist opportunities or higher-level study. See all degree and diploma courses.