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Learning from Nancy Tankersley's "Essential Painting Principles."

I paint in acrylic. I grew up with watercolorists and got the first pieces of my art education through editing watercolor videos. I eventually discovered acrylic artists but many of them weren’t talking about art in the way that I had come to expect from watercolorists. There was so little color theory and conversations about shapes and process. It was all fairly beginning level stuff. 

But watercolor, while it can teach you about color theory and value and shape, it cannot help at all when it comes to dealing with an opaque medium. And so recently, I've turned to oil painters for some wisdom and advice for handing my own opaque medium of acrylic. 

This is how I stumbled into Nancy Tankerlsey video, “Essential Painting Principles.”


(Full disclosure: The parent company where I work created this video. All views are my own. Copyright permission given for images.)

I was drawn to Tankersley’s videos because she paints florals. So few videos actually paint florals. And her thinking throughout the video is pretty great. This is definitely a video I will watch several times. 

And side note: While yes, she’s painting a still life bouquet, she's continually explaining how all the principles she’s using would translate to a plein air landscape painting. 

That’s just sort of cool.

But I’m there for the actual painting of flowers and so those are the pieces I’m really looking at today.



Tankersley uses a limited palette. I’m currently using an extremely limited palette which only includes three warm primaries, white and burnt umber. 

Tankersley uses: Lemon yellow or Hansa Yello (cool), Indian Yellow (warm), Napthol Red (warm). Alizarin Crimson Permanent (cool), Ultramarine blue. She also uses a workhorse color, burnt sienna.

She doesn’t always introduce her second blue until later, which I find fascinating. 

Tankersley also says that sometimes she will swap out which colors she uses. So for example, if she’s painting pink roses, she can’t get the color pink she wants with those reds so she’ll swap out a cooler red. 

All of this helps me see my own palette in a new way. I’ve been having a really tough time with yellow recently and I think it’s because I need two of them. 

Also, the yellow I’ve been using is cad yellow. I’ve been thinking of it as a warm yellow, but compared to just how warm her Indian yellow is, my cad yellow is so so cool. Which may explain why I’ve been having a terrible time mixing oranges. 




I do not have a set process. I’m at the point where it would be good to define one. Try it on for a bit and then adjust as necessary.

Tankersley has a process and it goes something like this:

She arranges her still life. (And hearing her thinking there is great.) 

Next she blocks in her shapes with burnt sienna. She then pulls out her lights. This allows her to see the composition without being distracted by color. She does this on the painting itself whereas I do it in a thumbnail study. 

She then begins to add color. She blocks in her biggest shapes and then slowly adds detail but never a ton. Her goal is not photo realism and she keeps everything fairly suggested within the flowers and foliage themselves. 



When it comes to color, Tankersly is alway talking about relationships. She lays down a color and then thinks about how the colors around it are less saturated or more saturated, warmer or cooler, lighter or darker.

She starts with her focal area, which will be a sunflower at the front. Here she will use her highest chroma. She won’t grey it and she won’t add white to it. 

Again, she ain't going for photorealism. So it means she’s simplifying the shapes including the value shapes within each flower. For example, with the main sunflower, it means that although there are more areas catching light, she will generally simplify and make the right side of the sunflower be the only place that appears to be catching sunlight in that shape.

She then adds white to that mixed yellow and paints the lightest side of a background yellow flower. She’s added white so that it goes back into the picture plain

This is another thing Tankersley talks about a lot and it’s thinkingI will try and pull into my next pieces: Use color to push and pull. Repeat colors throughout the painting but change them so that the viewer’s eye creates a sense of perspective. 

She changes the hue and intensity based on where it is in the picture plane. For example, the cloth on the table is much more saturated and warmer the closer it is to the viewer. And then she lightens it and blues it the farther away. She wants to suggest that they are all the same object but they are both on different planes and of varying distances from the viewer. 




Foliage is something that I’m way over thinking these days so I was paying special attention. Tankersley’s approach is to mass in a dark green mass for foliage. She also later uses that dark green to cut into her focal area shapes sort of regardless of whether or not there’s a flower there.

Near the end of the painting, she goes back in and adds some lighter greens to represent where light hits specific pieces of foliage. 

And. Thats. It.




Tankersley talks about the natural way of seeing. That’s how she paints. And what she means by this (I’ve heard other artists talk about this including when I spoke with watercolorist Andy Evansen on the podcast) is that the natural way your eye sees is to focus on the thing you’re looking at and everything else blurs with peripheral vision.

That’s why painting from life is helpful because you are experiencing that blurring effect first hand.

If you’re working from a photo, you don’t experience that. Instead you are getting confirmation that EVERYTHING SHOULD BE IN FOCUS. Which isn’t actually how the brain sees. It’s not the natural way of seeing.

I work from photos. I run into this all the time. So the next time I work, I will try to decide on a focus flower. Make that the brightest and also have the most detail (but not sooo much more than that around it.) And then give myself permission to let everything else sort of fade into the background.That can be hard in acrylics because of the fast drying hardness. Oil wins in the soft-ability department.


-Add a yellow and maybe a red. I mean, after I use up all the colors currently on my palette. 

-Try massing in the dark foliage shapes and then letting them be. (This will be so hard for me.)

-Choose a focal area flower and paint it first with the most saturated color. Give it the most crispness.

-Do the value study on the painting itself before I begin on the painting itself. I may need to do this in a quick drying acrylic and not my standard open acrylics. 


There are so many good things to think about from Nancy Tankersley’s "Essential Painting Principles." I think I have a few things to think about and try on my next set of paintings. Then I can watch it again and learn the next set of things.

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