Technique Tuesday: David Cheifetz Workshop Notes

David Cheifetz's knife painting demo from our workshop.
David Cheifetz’s knife painting demo & palette from our workshop.

“Paint with paint”

The mantra most frequently uttered by the masterful David Cheifetz at the 3 day painting workshop I recently participated in was simply, “Paint with paint”. And David really meant it. In his demos his brush or palette knife was always fully loaded with a glob of yummy paint every single time he touched his canvas. We quickly discovered that he wanted each of us to do the same.

It was such a frequent utterance that fellow painter J Lyndon Douglas cheekily observed, “Amazing that paintings are made with paint. I think what I have been producing until now could be called smudgings.” After laughing and probably snorting at his statement, I realized that J was really on to something. To see the amount of paint David Cheifetz skillfully uses while painting is a true revelation. Anything less just looks flat & lifeless in comparison. It has me very much rethinking how much paint I use in my own paintings, or smudgings as J would say.

Here are my personal notes from the workshop to share with you all. Many of these concepts were new to me. Enjoy!:

-Emphasize the values in your primary subject and dilute them everywhere else. You want your darkest dark and your lightest light on your primary subject.

-When setting up a still life, contrast secondary objects by picking darker subjects against the light of your primary subject. Always think dark vs. light.

-Think groupings. Don’t scatter your subjects too much so or else they will compete against each other.

-“I always go for fear in a painting. If you are uncomfortable about something in your painting that is a good thing, it pushes you. Try to have at least one thing in each painting that makes you feel that way.”

-Before you start a painting get a clear mental picture of what you want to paint. Sit, stare at it. Imagine it completely in your head the composition, area of focus, values and edges. Then begin to paint, and only then.

-Think surface/fabric. Do the folds add to your area of focus? If not take them out. Simplify.

-Make sure the light is directed on your primary subject.

-Example: When painting a ball of yarn, subdue any strings that leave the main form (skein). It should not compete with the ball of yarn itself.

-Example: Killing an apple (secondary object). Subdue it by not rendering it as well, more flat. Subdue chroma, value, everything.

-Your set up (composition) is just a tool for your narrative. Don’t feel chained to it if it is not right.

-Cheifetz prefers to paint small. Mostly 9 x 12, 8 x 10 or 11 x 14.

-He sets his palette up from transparent colors to opaque. His colors include (but not in order): ivory black, phthalo blue, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, cadmium red, cadmium orange, burnt umber, raw umber, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, cadmium lemon and titanium white.

-You want your lights to be painted in mostly opaque colors because they attract the most light rays visually.

-Begin your under drawing by getting in the abstract shape of the shadows.

-Indicates the table line. Positions objects within the composition by making vertical and horizontal marks.

-He prefers compositions that are eye level. They elevate ordinary objects by bringing it to a “human scale”.

-He prefers to paint on a dry panel (no oiling in).

-Use enough medium to be able to draw. Prefers Gamblin’s Megilp.

-A tip on drawing straight vertical lines by hand: Make micro adjustments back and forth as you lay down the line. The overall impression will be a straight line.

-Jumps right into massing the objects & shadows (like an open grissaile). He immediately moves into his lights with color (direct painting) working first on the highlight of his main subject and moving out from there.

The early stage of David Cheifetz's knife painting demo.
The early stage of David Cheifetz’s knife painting demo. Notice how he has left the drawing of the kettle on the right rather simple & unfinished? He allows areas like that to melt into the background as the painting develops.

-Put one or two generous strokes of paint before changing colors. PAINT WITH PAINT!

-Paint your backgrounds as lovingly as your objects.

-Lays his color down with filberts in long tiles.

-When painting a portrait, pick your area of focus and then let everything else melt out.

-Begin your painting with your subject and end it there.

I want to personally thank our host for the workshop, artist Tricia Ratliff of Agile Arts Atelier for conceiving this workshop and inviting me to participate. And thanks above all to David Cheifetz for his exceptional instruction and the individual attention he gave to each of us. I’d like to also add that David hosts his own awesome podcasts called The Impasto Logs that are all about painting and are especially wonderful to listen to when painting, or smudging.

“Annabel”, oil on panel. 16 ” x 20″. Private collection. Artist, David Cheifetz.

12 thoughts on “Technique Tuesday: David Cheifetz Workshop Notes

  1. this was great, excellent notes and can be applies to landscapes I think as well, especially about letting the main subject be the most dramatic and subduing all other colors and values. Thanks for posting this.

    1. You are very welcome Ct! Cheifetz’s approach very much applies to landscape as well or any subject matter. And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. It is how we see optically. I have just never seen it emphasized as extremely as he does in his work. It was a pretty revolutionary thought for me. Be sure to check out his website for specific examples of his work & this idea. Thanks for reading!

  2. Thank you so much! I am looking for anything about his technique and your notes are like a treasure! 🙂 I read, reread and eventually wrote them down. Priceless! May I ask you do you know what texture board he uses? Is it canvas texture or smooth? And also what size is his palette knife? Thank you once more!

    1. Thank you Galina! I am happy to hear you got so much out of this post.

      David recommends the Holbein MX no 1 painting knife. It retails for around $37 and is the only painting knife you’ll ever need.

      And this is what David says about his preference of working on panels, straight from the materials list he provided:

      “My favorite is Ampersand Gessobord. Raymar’s linen panels are also fantastic. No Mona Lisa/Speedball panels, they are far too slick. Tone the panels in advance of the workshop to make sure they are totally dry. Can’t go wrong with an umber color. Often I like to prep a few in different tones and then make a game-time decision.”

      Lastly, I happen to know there us one spot available in his February workshop in Texas. If you happen to live nearby or are willing to travel, I would highly recommend studying with him. He is an exceptional talent & a great, clear instructor.

      February 20-23: 4 Day Still-life Composition and Painting Workshop
      Killaby Fine Art School & Studio – Lindale, TX

      Contact Maureen at or phone: (903) 830-6694.

      1. Thank you so much for your reply and information! I really appreciate it! Unfortunately I live in England and at the moment it is impossible to attend David’s class. I do realize it is the best way to learn and still hope one day to come to one of his workshops.
        Thanks again.

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