TRANSCRIPT: Ep. 196 The Taboo Technique with Miriam Schulman


Miriam Schulman:
Listen. For many artists, composing your subjects is a very creative act. When you take your own photos, when you combine photos, even if you use somebody else’s photo, but you edit it down, this is all part of your creativity. What I’m here to tell you today by calling out these other artists is not to shame anybody, not to shame them, but to let you know there’s no shame in doing this.

Speaker 2:
It’s the Inspiration Place Podcast with artist Miriam Schulman. Welcome to the Inspiration Place Podcast, an art world inside a podcast, for artists, by an artist, where each week we go behind the scenes to uncover the perspiration and inspiration behind the art. And now, your host, Miriam Schulman.

Miriam Schulman:
Well, hey, there. This is Miriam Schulman, your curator of inspiration and host of the Inspiration Place Podcast. You’re listening to episode 196, and I am so grateful that you’re here. Today, we’re talking all about the taboo technique. All right. But before we get there, I’m just going to catch you up a little bit.

When does this go live? The problem is I am batching all my content the April, the month before I move. It sounds like it’s taking months and months for me to move. The truth is by the time you listen to this, it will have already happened and you’re probably sick of me talking about it. Yeah. Okay. This is going live in June and you’re going to be hearing about it every single week and it’ll already be in my past.

I just wanted to make sure I batched all the episodes in advance, because I don’t want you to have to miss out on your weekly dose of inspiration. It’s my mission to help as many artists as I can, and this free podcast is the absolute best way that I can do this for you. Just so you know, it’s not free for me to produce. I’m sure you can guess, I pay podcast editors, I pay graphic designers for the promotion. I have a whole team that helps make sure that everything ends up in the right place each week, and you get the email and all those things.

But it’s such an important piece of what I do and it’s really great for people who either aren’t ready to invest in one of my programs or they want to have a free taste of me first, or for people who’ve already gone through my programs and they still want more. I love doing this podcast for all those reasons, whether you ever sign up for one of my programs or not.

Now, one of the programs that I offer that I’m especially proud of is Watercolor Portrait Academy, and that’s because I’ve taken so many students who thought they couldn’t paint or they couldn’t even draw and they were able to create watercolor paintings that impress their friends and family. Now, I do have a free masterclass on painting portraits that will help you get started. It shares the five simple steps so that you can do it too, and you’ll be able to go from blank page to holy crap, I can’t believe I just did that. Your friends and your family are going to be like, “Oh my God. What happened here?”

In that masterclass, you’ll also discover the watercolor advantage. I talk about why I believe watercolor is the best medium for creating portraits. It also allows you to use the special shortcut, which is what we’re actually talking about today. That makes the entire process easier than you can imagine, and you’ll uncover the taboo technique most portrait artists would be embarrassed if you found out, if they knew that you knew. Actually, I’m going to tell you about that today. But the best part about the masterclass is that’s how you’ll get to watch me paint.

Today, we’re just going to talk about things, but in the masterclass, don’t worry, there’s no art supplies required to show up. I will give you the complete free supply list, whether you end up signing up for Watercolor Portrait Academy or not. I’d love to see you there virtually. You can stream this for free, totally at your own convenience. Go to as in D-E-M-O. Again, that’s, D-E-M-O. Now, on with the show.

Okay. I want to take you back about 20 years ago when my now 24-year-old was in kindergarten. At that time, I had already left my job on Wall Street, but I didn’t believe yet I could make a living as an artist. I had sold maybe one or two paintings in local shows, so that doesn’t include any art I sold in college. But I had just started selling a little bit of art again. But for the most part, I was immersed in motherhood, and my creativity was bursting out of me. Part of the way I expressed myself was through very, very elaborate home-themed birthday parties.

Now, since my daughter’s birthday falls on November 2nd, I usually combined her party with something involving Halloween or dress up. When she was five, I decided to give her a Disney princess party. This included a home baked cake in the shape of a castle with frosted ice cream cones and that was the castle turrets. I even took plastic Halloween pumpkins and spray-painted them silver to look like Cinderella’s … What’s it called? Her chariot? No, it was called something else. I can’t remember.

This was in the day before social media apps, by the way. That’s another reason why I had a couple of extra hours in the day that I wasn’t spending scrolling. This is really just how I entertained myself. I really enjoyed doing these things. I didn’t have a business yet, so I had time. One of the ideas I had for this party was to divide the girls up into teams to color in life-size drawings of Disney princess characters, like Jasmine, Ariel, Cinderella, Snow White. To do that, I bought a huge role of white paper.

Now, I recognize I’ve already talked about this before in episode number 53, how portraits can turn passion into profits. We’ll link to that episode in the show notes, but here’s what I didn’t tell you during that episode. You want to tune into that episode, because I talk about posing a lot in that episode, but what I didn’t share in that episode and I’m going to share today, and it’s actually the dirty secret behind many professional portrait artists. Most of them, as I said earlier, would be embarrassed if you found out.

It easily captures someone’s likeness and they use this forbidden technique, but they don’t usually want you to know what it is, which is why most artists don’t talk about it. I’m sharing that with you today. Now, this technique has been used throughout art history. Can you guess what it is? Let’s bring tracing out of the closet, and we’re going to talk first about how this has been used throughout time. Let’s start first with Vermeer, who used beautiful window light to create gorgeous realism. If you can’t visualize what his art looks like, he’s the one who painted Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Now, if you do tune into the masterclass, which you can get at, you will see pictures of all the different artworks that I’m mentioning, Vermeer’s art, as well as the next artist I’m going to talk about. Now, prominent Vermeer scholars are convinced Vermeer used an early form of what was known as camera obscura, which is why we’re talking about it today. Camera Obscura is basically a projector. It’s really the basis of how cameras are made, but in camera obscura, you’re not fixing the image on the photo paper. It’s basically a projector.

Now, back then, they could do it using mirrors and light. They probably used a candle because they didn’t have electricity then, and the image would be reflected on a mirror and then projected onto either paper or canvas for tracing. Vermeer certainly wasn’t the only one who used this technique because they do have records of this technique and that artists were using it during his time. Now, let’s fast forward to the 20th century and talk about another artist who used tracing, and that is Norman Rockwell.

He also used photography and projection to create his portraits. Norman Rockwell graced the covers of countless magazines during the 20th century and he’s one of the most beloved illustrators in America. But when you line up his photographs with his artwork, it does start to become obvious that he traced what you see, that they’re not drawn from models or from life. Now, of course, he spent a lot of time composing the photograph. He would work with a photographer. He would direct the scene and he would direct the photographer with exactly what image he needed.

Listen, for many artists, composing your subjects is a very creative act. When you take your own photos, when you combine photos, even if you use somebody else’s photo, but you edit it down, this is all part of your creativity. What I’m here to tell you today by calling out these other artists is not to shame anybody, not to shame them, but to let you know there’s no shame in doing this. There’s no shame in using photography in your art. There’s no shame in tracing or using a light box, or using projection or any of these methods. No shame in using any of it. It’s a tool and a lot of artists do this.

Back in the day, when I had the Disney princess party, when I bought that roll of white paper, I also bought a cheap projector. That is how I projected the Disney princess characters onto the huge paper and I traced it with a big sharpie. It was fantastic. Now, when the party was over, what happened was I still had a lot of creative energy. Remember, no social media, no business spill yet, and so I turned my energy back to creating art. At that time, I was like, “Hey, I wonder if I blow up a photograph of my kids, could I create a portrait out of it?”

Now, to be honest, the first few that I did were really bad. They were really, really bad. The projection part worked out okay, but my watercolor technique back then was muddy. Look, that’s okay, because if you want to be good at anything, you have to be willing to be at it at first, especially if you’re trying to do it on your own. Back then, I didn’t have online art classes and I didn’t have anyone to teach me how to do portraits in watercolor. I think it was my third or fourth portrait when I finally started to get the hang of it, although my technique now is a lot different, has evolved quite a bit since those early ones.

I also no longer use the projector. The problem with the projector, and I have to tell you this because otherwise I’m going to get a lot of emails from people or a lot of comments saying, “Hey, what projector should I use?” I don’t use it anymore. The problem with the projector is that you have to have a completely dark room in order to see the image projected. That was a problem for me because I liked to create my artwork when my kids were at school, and so I couldn’t do it then. Frankly, I was too tired at night.

After working, running around with my kids, I didn’t like doing it at night. For my early portraits in the beginning, I did use a projector, of course, but the other problem you have with it, besides it being a dark room, is you have to sure that when you’re projecting it onto the paper or canvas, that everything is completely perpendicular, completely lined up. Because if it’s not and something is at an angle, there’s going to be huge distortions. That’s why I don’t use the projector anymore.

Though what I do now, which is what I teach inside Watercolor Portrait Academy, is you’ll learn how to, and this is what I do, I print out my photo references using my computer and a printer. I transfer those images onto my watercolor paper from the computer printouts. I don’t use carbon paper because it’s too messy. I just pencil the back of the printouts and then I trace it onto the paper. If you want to learn exactly how to do this technique, I will give you all the steps to do it, exactly how to even blow up the image if you need to, to make it poster size and what you need to do once you transfer it.

Because you’ll get most of the landmarks, that’s what most artists do when they do the projections. You get the landmarks. You’re still going to have to do a little bit of freehand drawing, so I’ll teach you how to do that. It’s all inside Watercolor Portrait Academy. It’s how so many of my students were able to go from, “I don’t think I can do this,” to, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe what I’ve done,” like Barbara.

Barbara White:
I really hadn’t had a lot of experience. I was also afraid of actually painting portraits because if you paint something, you expect it to look like what you’re painting. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to do that. I found that I really liked painting with watercolor, with Miriam’s tips of how to get the picture onto the paper. First of all, it wasn’t as scary as I expected it to be.

Then when I did try doing portraits, I loved the tips that she had given along the way; mix the skin colors, put the underpainting on, things that I had never learned before. She makes it look like anybody can do it, and if you make a little mistake, it’s not the end of the world. I have the confidence to actually paint them. They’ve always been in my head before and they’ve never actually come out on paper. It’s something new and different for me, an inspiration for me.

Miriam Schulman:
Now, the other thing that I find so exciting is how excited my students are once their family members see their paintings, and that’s what happened to Marcia. She shared with me how excited she was that her son kept taking the paintings she was making.

Marcia Snyder:
Because I’ve always wanted to try watercolors, and I had wanted to try portraits because I wanted to try my children, my grandchildren, and actually being able to get a face that looked like a face. Watercolors was the challenge, and portraits was the challenge. My son came and saw the stuff that I had done and took that, and then the one with all the dogs that I did then, he took that. Those are basically the ones that have disappeared. They look at that and they can’t believe that I did that. I love that it was so much fun.

Miriam Schulman:
The other thing that I found particularly thrilling, so there’s a lot of grandparents in my community. There’s also younger people as well, men and women who want to paint their family members, but there are a lot of grandmas. Jill Spriggs was one of them who was far away from her grandchildren, and I know a lot of us have experienced not seeing our family members. I haven’t seen my nephew in a few years, or grandparents not seen their grandchildren for a few years, except for FaceTime. What she loved was how close she felt to her grandchildren by painting them.

Jill Spriggs:
Well, I had always wanted to do watercolor portraits and did not feel like I had the skillset to make that happen. I had not done watercolor for almost 30 years. I usually did landscapes and florals. I imagine that you just had to be able to look at a person and just drop that image on a page. It seemed unlikely. Miriam was tremendous in showing that no, it doesn’t have to be that way.

My grandchildren had at that point, just moved away. They used to live eight minutes away and now, they were a two-day drive away. The face-to-face time with those little ones, it was crushing not to have it anymore. I discovered that when I painted from a photograph I had taken from them, and they were so willing as little ones to look me straight in the eye, you could practically see the heart streaming out of their little eyes.

As I painted their eyes, it made a connection with my own soul. As I painted, it was almost like touching their face and being in the room with them. It was interesting because I would choke up and it was like I’m missing them. Then my husband came through and he saw one of the paintings and he choked up, and he’s a big six-foot-three, originally blue collar worker kind of guy. He doesn’t choke up easily.

You don’t get that with landscapes. You don’t get that with flower arrangement. That’s a real treasure and I really thank Miriam every time I paint, that she had given me the keys necessary to get to that point.

Miriam Schulman:
All right. If you want to learn more, you’re going to love the free masterclass. Of course, we’ll chat about the taboo technique again, and you’ll get to see pictures of all the artists I mentioned so you can see for yourself. The best part is you’ll get to watch me paint. I do do a short demonstration. You don’t need to bring your art supplies. It’s totally edutainment, and the masterclass is free. You can stream it when it’s most convenient for you. To sign up, just go to, as in D-E-M-O.

I know there’s so much going on right now in the world that it’s so great to have an escape with a hobby like this, that you can just lose yourself into the world of watercolor. There’s nothing better than painting and capturing these moments in time of your friends and your loved ones, and even their pets. Okay, my passion maker. Thank you so much for being with me here today. I’ll see you the same time, same place, next week. Stay inspired.

Speaker 2:
Thank you for listening to the Inspiration Place Podcast. Connect with us on Facebook at, on Instagram, @Schulmanart, and of course, on


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