2023 Online Alla Prima Challenges Resource PART I

First Annual Online Alla Prima Challenges

20 live painting alla prima sessions over 20 weeks (plus an introductory orientation) beginning on: January 12

WHEN: Thursdays – 2 pm to 3 pm EST. starting January 12th, 2023

Welcome to the official Smartermarx thread for the 2023 Online Alla Prima Challenges. Sessions will be carried out each Thursday at 2 pm EST. Each session will last about 1 hour, which includes 30-45 minutes of painting time (depending on the challenge for that week) and 15-20 minutes of discussion about the goals of the exercise and some tips to make the effort more successful. After each session, participants will have one hour to share a photograph of their effort in a shared Dropbox folder that will serve as a private learning gallery for all participants. Links to the folder will be made available in an email like this one that precedes the session.

Prior to the first painting session, I will be hosting an “Orientation” session on January 12th. This will serve as an introduction to the challenges, a walkthrough of the primary goals, what is needed to participate, the role of the Dropbox gallery, and a general Q&A to ensure everyone is ready to go on January 19th!

TO REGISTER: Please complete and submit the appropriate email sign up form on Anthony Waichulis’ website on this page: Online Classes and Events | Art and Articles

If you are interested in learning about each challenge ahead of time, you can see the full schedule here: Alla Prima Challenges. Also, if you are interested, Smartermarx has additional info on the general strategies that I often use to approach the alla prima (specifically the SNAG concept – Survey, Notan, Anchors, and Gradations.) If you wish to join us, please sign up today! (You can unsubscribe from the list at any time.) Please forward any additional questions to my administrator, Anya Dribas, at aaaw.anyadrs@gmail.com.


Here you will find all of the information (appropriate links (including Dropbox folder links for image sharing), notes, reminders, etc.) for The 2023 Online Alla Prima Challenges.

NOTE: Please respect the work, rights, and privacy of participating artists. You may view the efforts in in the following Dropbox folders from the sessions for educational purposes, but you may not download or manipulate their work in any way. All files in the Drobox folders will be deleted 2-3 weeks following each session. In addition, please know that live sessions, including questions and contributions from participants, will not be recorded to respect each participant’s experience.

Certain files may be included for participant usage (provided by Anthony or Anya and may be downloaded.) Such files will be indicated during the relevant live session.

Key points from Jan 12th orientation session:

  • Please keep yourself muted during session unless you are part of an active conversation. Here’s 2 tips for quick muting/unmuting during zoom sessions:
  1. While muted, press and hold down SPACE when you want to talk. This unmutes you temporarily.
  2. Keyboard hotkeys for toggling mute:
  • • Mac: Command(⌘)+Shift+A

  • • Linux: Alt-A

  • • Windows: Alt-A

  • The primary goal with the sessions is illuminate the consequences of the fundamental components (concepts and actions) of your process by utilizing timed, narrow-focus challenges that can provide fast feedback and useful insights.

  • Sessions are not intended to be a demo series. This is a group activity that works best for both the group and the individuals when participants engage with the activity in concert. In addition, the series is not intended to instruct anyone to “paint like me,” but rather to analyze the fundamental components that make up YOUR process with short, controlled challenges.

  • While “I’d like to watch first then try it on my own–on my own time!”, may sound intuitively advantageous, in my experience, such a practice often leads to diminished returns. Again, the sessions are not designed to teach people to do something like I do it (although I am elated if any aspect of my process proves useful to you.) rather, this is about analyzing your own output, generated with adaptations of your own process, in a context that has been demonstrated to yield productive feedback.

  • If you are not sure exactly how to approach a specific aspect of the alla prima—don’t worry—just give it your best shot (using even a “best guess” if necessary.) We need to make mistakes or even an outright mess to find meaningful development. Avoiding experience will get you nowhere. Additionally, I find that it is often far more effective (in a learning context) to try and “modify,” add or delete a component of an existing process when the experience of the process and the relationship to the resulting product are fresh in your mind. Remember that experiences (especially what you might deem mistakes, errors, frustrations, etc.) will also cultivate the most useful questions for you that I hope we can answer together. (I’ve refer to this practice as “building an experience database.”

  • You should be ready to paint right when the session starts with you subject matter arranged and illuminated, your palette and brushes at the ready, and have the criteria for the session in mind.

  • When selecting, arranging, and lighting your subject matter, keep in mind the guiding principle in this context:


  • Regarding pre-mixing rules: What this means is that you are forbidden from mixing locals or other observable “color notes” perceived within or around your subject. Such mixing should be done “on the fly” (i.e., as part of your painting time.) This limitation pushes you to exercise your intuitive or heuristic -based understanding of color dynamics. Pre-mixing limitations can also push one to experiment in a more cavalier manner with buffer or step colors (or chromophages) (which are colors that are added to a particular painted passage or transition to appear closer to the perceived transitions within your subject (often generated by illumination or reflectance properties.) It is very important to acknowledge and remember that observed transitions with your subject do not often map to a simple mixture of the obvious categorical components that may define the poles or anchors of the transition. For example, a transition that may be observed to evolve from a fairly bright yellow to black will likely not be matched by simply mixing a black and yellow paint. More colors will need to be involved.

  • Additionally, the pre-mixing limitation may push you to explore means of hitting certain perceived color notes with an analog application dynamic, surface topography, etc. that may move beyond what we would expect with simple pigment mixing.

  • SWITCH COSTS: One can find incredible advantages in efficiency and effectiveness with minimizing “switch costs” during their process. Simply speaking, switch costs are the time, mental and physical costs incurred when switching between different tasks. For example, I highly recommend that that palette arrangement is made consistent to avoiding “hunting for colors”, making sure you have enough paint out to avoid stopping to replenish the palette, keeping all required brushes within arms reach so you don’t have to break from your work time to retrieve them, etc… These things can aggregate to seriously impact a 30 minute exercise putting you at a great disadvantage. (This is a great example of how a 30-minute alla prima challenge can illuminate something that may be plaguing your day-to-day painting practices.)

  • PROXIMITY: I urge everyone engaging in these exercises (or any observational representation for that matter) to consider the the subject’s proximity to the representation target (canvas, panel, etc.) As we observe our subject, we attend to the things that we feel may best serve our end goal. However, as we turn from our observed subject to observe the target surface—the information garnered from the subject begins to fade from our iconic and short term visual memory and becomes subject to compensation or enhancement from our long terms memory which is incredibly imprecise. Iconic memory is the visual sensory memory register pertaining to the visual domain and a fast-decaying store of visual information. Iconic memory is described as a very brief (<1 second). Visual short term memory (VSTM) is a memory system that stores visual information for a few seconds so that it can be used in the service of ongoing cognitive tasks. Long-term memory (LTM) is the memory store that can hold informative knowledge indefinitely. However long-term memory is by far the most abstract and imprecise.

  • The palette draw rule means that after a certain number of brushstrokes you must pull more paint from the palette (reloading the brush) or you may void the brush altogether. This is done to ensure that you are not over-modeling the study relative to the challenge (i.e., unwarranted surface manipulation that leads to value/color contamination or excessive “blending” without drawing development or material application.) For example, a 5 stroke palette draw rule means that you can only apply 5 strokes before you must wipe and/or reload the brush—thus encouraging the artist think more “economically” and deliberately about brushwork. Additionally, the stroke rule should not be seen as a “minimum” number of strokes you must make prior to making a change to the brush—but rather, a maximum. Lastly, large homogenous regions, scrubbing, and early line work are all exceptions to the stroke rules unless otherwise stated (as they do not usually carry an immediate overmodeling or contamination threat.

*The dropbox link above that will be the locale for uploaded images following the Jan.19th session includes three files: 2 of them are examples regarding image size for uploading. The 3rd file is a SNAG poster which outlines the general approach that I use for approaching these challenges. I thought some of you may find it useful.

  • A reminder newsletter will be issues via email each Monday with the Zoom link for the following session along with a description of the challenge so that you may acquire the subject needed as well as any other pertinent info.

Anthony’s Palette based on, or adapted from, a traditional double-primary configuration:



I didn’t completely understand the 5 STROKE RULE and didn’t realize until I spoke with Anthony that it is INDEPENDENT of using strokes for an initial survey and creating an envelope, populating the homogenous area such as a big black background and foreground, and scrubbing BEFORE beginning the 5 stroke rule as explained as above which states: …“a 5 stroke palette draw rule means that you can only apply 5 strokes before you must wipe and/or reload the brush—thus encouraging the artist think more “economically” and deliberately about brushwork.” Thank you Anthony for explaining that. I greatly helps my understanding of your written instructions. I painted my Red Delicious with purely 5 STROKES LOL without the contextual elements in its surrounds.


Week 2 - Challenge 1 “Behind the scenes”


I do NOT encourage any kind of cage match competition or Mexican wresting with face masks…but I want to say my favorites from week two are Susan Lim’s onion, Bryan Ewald’s apple, and Rhonda’s eggplant based on style. Major kudos to Stanley for his BEAST MODE glass measuring cup- loved the reel! And I thought the handling on Lori’s orange and Wendy’s composition were stellar <3 So enjoyed seeing all the drop box submissions–looking forward to the next challenge and painting with all you wonderful artists <3


Yeah-I definitely agree that Susan onion was just sick. The way she suggested the skin was fantastic.

I’m going to have to give my “favorite picks” some thought. :thinking:



Challenge #2 Week 3

Congratulations to everyone that survived the first challenge and is already looking forward to next Thursday. As with the last session, a reminder email will be issued on Monday with links to this thread as well as the Drobox gallery from Challenge #1.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: As it turns out, I’ve learned that many had issues with Dropbox. No worries, starting next week, you will have the option of uploading to Dropbox yourself or simply emailing your image to allaprimachallenges@gmail.com, and we will upload it for you. Again—I’d rather you focus your energy on painting instead of trying to cope with Dropbox!

Also, you may have noticed that I did not “close” access to the Dropbox (DB) after 2 hours, as previously stated. With all of the issues people were having in uploading to DB, I decided to simply leave the folder open. I think I may just leave it open from here on out. Don’t forget, though—in an effort to avoid needlessly taking up anyone’s storage space (if they are synced to save everything), I will be deleting the Challenge #1 Folder the day before Challenge #2 begins (Wednesday). A new folder link will appear below these notes this coming Wednesday. That will be the Dropbox gallery for Challenge #2. (Again, don’t forget that you can choose to simply email it in if you like to the aforementioned address.)

Ok, about this week’s challenge: Get your Feet Wet 2 Diving in!

The criteria for this week are identical to last week, with the implication that you can feel free to challenge yourself even more if you like. Many people ask me why the first two challenges are the same. This has to do with exploiting that “experience database” I mentioned in the orientation. From your first experience, I would bet that you identified a number of things you might like to do differently. The second challenge is basically identical to the first so that you may test out some of those changes without having new scenario criteria that may lessen your ability to assess the success or functionality of those changes.


To make the most of these exercises, it is important to try and spend some time studying your own work and the efforts of the others in the group to build a strategy for growing success. Here are a few topics to think about when studying the efforts of Challenge #1 and strategizing for Challenge #2.

1. Small changes. When you are analyzing your work and planning for the next session, I would recommend limiting the number of changes you might make to your approach/process. I find, in general, 2 or 3 changes to your approach are more than enough to bring about a significant difference. If you start to change too much at once, assessing the impact of any one factor can become more difficult. In addition, in my experience, when people start to get frustrated, they tend to “run home to Mama.” This means that they will likely default to whatever they have been comfortable doing in the past and toss out everything new. These exercises absolutely have stress built in. Don’t overtax yourself on top of it.

2. Right tools for the job. Consider how your tools served your goals here. Were you battling with the palette? The brushes? The lighting? Do you have a plan to address or alleviate such factors? The most common observation that people were messaging me about was, indeed, brush sizes. In the orientation, I offered up the heuristic, “Use the biggest brushes that you reasonably can.” Many found that the brushes they chose were far too small. Let’s look at a few reasons why a “too small” brush can be problematic here.

First, consider the level of resolution that you are abstracting to. Higher levels of abstraction mean less information and likely more “large” statements. Smaller brushes may give us an intuitive sense of greater control, but they actually can make your job far more difficult in this context. For example, let’s say you are laying in a relatively homogenous middle tone (with slight variation as light moves toward the shadow.) This might be communicated relatively simply with a few strokes done with a larger brush. However, the same task with a smaller brush can quickly introduce far more variations than what is desired. Additionally, the 5-stroke rules can put small brush users are a greater disadvantage as the same area covered in 5 strokes with your average size 6 bristle filbert might take 3 or 4 times that with a size 2.

Second, it is also important to acknowledge that smaller strokes push the artist to make smaller distinctions which can sometimes work against the effort to abstract. Believe it or not, I would argue that the size of the brush dictates, at least in part, the resolution of the observations being made. Simply speaking, put a small brush in your hand, and you will attend to small bits of information. Put a large brush in your hand, and you will attend to larger bits of information. So if you are engaged in significant abstraction, you are likely to find more success (generally speaking) in attending to larger, more global attributes than smaller (with exceptions, of course.) For better or worse—size matters here.

3. Lose that Notan; you’ll likely lose your form. Most representations begin with a simple separation of general light and dark. Many squint down at the subject, limiting incoming information to better observe this separation. A good example of a binary separation can be seen in the Japanese art of the “Notan.” Introduced to American art by Arthur Wesley Dow (1857 – 1922), among whose students was Georgia O’Keeffe, “notan” is a Japanese word for the interaction between dark and light. In 1899 Dow published a book, Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teacher, that presented design as founded on three principles: line, color, and notan (notan meaning the massing of dark and light areas in a composition.)

Like the traditional Notan, the development stage that often follows the survey, outline, cartoon, or envelope involves a simplification of the subject by assigning different areas as either belonging to “light” or “shadow.” One tends to indicate shadows with a generally darker mass-in, while the exposed ground serves to indicate the light.

These two areas are then populated with additional values and colors that are intended to bring the representation into a closer kinship with the observed subject. However, this stage (following the notan-like separation) is where we can often betray our initial observed separation. Without going into to much detail about the “why,” I would just like to say that at any given time during the development of your subject—you should be able to squint and see the same general notan-like separation of light and dark that you may continue to observe in your subject. If you cannot squint and see it–you likely damaged the relationship by adding colors/values into the light that moved it closer to the dark or vice versa.

One common issue related to this is when the artist blocks in a general average or “local” color/value for the light or shadow and then adds or subtracts too much in one direction. To understand what I mean, imagine that you are painting an apple. You squint down and observe a general averaged “light” region that you indicate accordingly. Later, you want to add some indications of the surface texture by adding some strokes to indicate the light freckles on the apple that pepper the surface. However, when you start adding the light bits, you are changing the average of the initial averaged local, thus changing the relationship you indicated in the first place. If you start with an “average,” and you wish to increase resolution, you must do so by balancing light and dark additions to keep the average so it holds its relationship with other elements. If this sounds confusing, I can expand on the concept before we start painting on Thursday. Just let me know!

4. A Compositional Boundary Box. Artist Julie Beck asked me to share the reasons that we push artists to “square off” a composition for the challenges rather than just allowing unchecked vignetting. The main reason for this is to increase attention toward the importance of contextual information. I cannot stress enough that contextual information has an enormous impact on how we perceive colors, values, forms, and even entire subjects. Your subject and its surround go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, for some, this context is sometimes viewed as little more than a decorative afterthought leaving the majority of the attention placed within the subject’s contours. By promoting a boundary box for a composition that includes subject and contextual surround, one is more likely to assign increased attention to the surround that may serve to significantly improve the way in which the subject is communicated.

Ok, I think that’s enough info for this week. Take some time to consider these points and decide if any are applicable moving forward. Again, don’t try to change too much with what you are doing so as to overwhelm your process and derail your overall productivity. In addition, don’t be afraid to ask about any of this during the next session. It’s important to me that these concepts are well understood.


Hi Anthony! I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to change about my approach in the AP challenge; what I’m not getting is the concept of abstraction. I’m too hell bent on the whole “make-the-thing-look-like-the-thing”. I know large brushes and the 5 stroke rule will help me get there, but could you discuss abstraction? Specifically how it dovetails with the SNAG concept and any pointers that could help one consider form with a new perspective. Looking forward to Thursday- thank you!


This is a great question, Natalie. Of course, I’m going to be super wordy, but I want to make sure that I address certain concepts in a reasonably comprehensive way.

By definition, abstraction (from the Latin abs, meaning away from, and trahere, meaning to draw) is the process of taking away or removing characteristics from something in order to reduce it to a set of essential characteristics.)

In our context, as observational representationalist painters, our process requires us to abstract what we are observing or conceptualizing so that the information is conducive to our process. We begin with the simplest marks and systematically increase complexity towards a visual kinship with our subject. However, the resistance factors involved in the alla prima challenges put a useful limit on what complexity we can achieve—so we must reevaluate how we are prioritizing, filtering, and applying information. The limitations may force us to rethink what is essential regarding the subject and process and what needs to be done to achieve a reasonable expectation of recognition. For people like you and me, which tend to be more detail-oriented with multi-layer development and refinements, this is incredibly challenging as the high-resolution images that we might develop over many consecutive layers of refinement need to be distilled down to just one. For us, this can be an arena to explore many things. It can be an arena to recalibrate or tweak our priorities, to grow in appreciation for what we can do with an increased focus on low-spatial frequency concerns (global forms and volumes) as opposed to high-spatial frequencies (details), or allow us to re-strategize regarding what fundamental elements are more or less appropriate for exaggeration, attenuation, or peak-shifts.

So let’s look at what is really happening in the journey from simple to complex in a basic observational representational process where abstraction is key:

  1. The most significant simplification or abstraction in our process is to communicate that subject “x” has an identity and is different/separate from everything else. Something akin to the rudimentary concept that x=x and not ~x. We communicate this basic concept of a subject all the time with our first few simple lines. Our earliest line work or surveys involves a demarcation of where any subject x ends and a potential pictorial universe of ~x begins. I would argue that this is the greatest abstraction that can take place for any representational effort. In addition, the boundaries of this demarcation are configured in such a way so as to communicate the second aspect of our subject that may contribute to recognition–shape.

  2. The next thing we tend to do is to communicate elements of a third dimension (depth) by means of communicating our subject’s interaction with light (the proxy by which we visually interact with any subject.) This is communicated by a new set of boundary marks that can occur both inside and outside of our initial subject boundary. So we have now moved from a simple boundary separating what is subject and what is not subject to a new subdivision separating light and shadow within the boundary of subject x. This separation is often reinforced with a basic, shorthand dark value covering the area in shadow, leaving the often-lighter ground to indicate light regions. Some salient surface changes can also be indicated here as they are enough to elicit significant changes in illumination (like the pit for an apple stem.) Additionally, this is usually the first opportunity to address a potential surround, as it is quite common for representational artists to take this opportunity to delineate the light that is being occluded by our subject (e.g., cast shadow) in its illuminated environment. These new cues can start to elicit a sense of volume, which communicates depth and volume.

  3. One of the most common steps following the cartoon (survey/shape) and notan (map of light and dark) is the applications/indications of a subject’s general “local” color (which is often accompanied by some initial contextual development (e.g., surround/background color(s).) In my own process, I tend to add what “given” anchors I can identify (darkest darks, lightest lights, highest chroma colors), placing them accordingly to act like axioms or givens to solve for all other colors, including possible locals. Additionally, in my process, I tend to add minor variations to any initial general local areas that are conducive to the perception of form (e.g., lighter applications of a local near the implied light source and darker applications nearer the regions defined as shadows in the notan.)

  4. At this point, the representation can still be aptly described as an abstraction or simplification in that, relative to the actual subject, it appears distilled down to simplified essential elements (A height, a width, a shape, a depth (as defined by illustrated illumination and few contextual clues), and general color. Beyond this come considerations of additional subdivisions that further promote identity. However, these additional subdivisions (for me) are generally prioritized such that I favor structural information over the superficial (with exceptions.) For example, let’s say I was painting a pear with a few significant dimples and bends, as well as a great number of tiny spots on the surface. By default, I would tend to give much higher priority to the subdivisions that would communicate changes in the structure or form of the subject as opposed to superficial changes on the subject’s surface UNLESS THE SURFACE CHANGES CAN INCREASE CHANCES FOR SUCCESSFUL RECOGNITION. One example would be something like a chessboard. Structural variations in the board would seem far less important, in the sense of visual communication/recognition sense, than the actual squares, which are superficial elements with differing reflectance properties.) As such, while my default favors structure over surface—many subjects can turn this on its head.

So everything we’ve mentioned thus far, as observational representationalists, contains a significant element of abstraction–whether it is observational, procedural, or conceptual. Your goal here, with the alla prima challenges, is to see what you can do to better communicate your subject without the use of a host of multilayered, detail-oriented techniques. Where can you invest more time and energy—in the separation of the subject from its environment? In its shape or relative size? In the communication of how the subject is illuminated? In how you portray its depth? How about its general color or color variations? And in which type of observed variations will you invest?

For me, this is a basic road from the most significant abstraction (relative to the subject) to an arena of increasing complexity.


Sorry, this was so super wordy (and nerdy). I just started answering and just kept going. LOL! I hope this helps.


Thanks Anthony for all these pointers and all the detailed information…many thanks for taking the time to explain. These are super helpful to try to analyze what I’ve done and to build a better strategy for these challenges. Last Thursday it was 30 minutes of stress and mess :slight_smile: But I still look forward to the next one and hopefully would be able to make some slight changes.

I have a question regarding the 5 stroke rule. This might sound silly, but should we use a max of 5 strokes and if need be use less? Or is it always 5 strokes? This was confusing me because there were instances when I loaded the brush and needed just a brush stroke or two in a certain area but kept putting down more brushstrokes (to count to 5). I had never worked with such a limitation before so the process is a bit unclear to me. Thanks!


That’s a great question Christine and something I will definitely clarify in the notes above. The 5 stroke rule is a maximum (just like you suspected)—not a minimum. So yes, you can make just 1 or 2 strokes and make a change to the brush no problem.

See you Thursday!


Sure, it was wordy-- but it was also brilliant and made the whole Alla Prima arena a lot clearer for me-- THANK YOU for taking the time to explain all of this! I’ve also had a bit of a nomenclature problem going on, and your explanation about abstraction has really helped clarify things. I appreciate the step-by-step walk though of your process and how it works with SNAG.

You’re the best- thank you so much for the thoughtful and considerate reply to my question :smiling_face_with_three_hearts: :smiling_face_with_three_hearts: :smiling_face_with_three_hearts:


My pleasure. You know I love to ramble on. :joy::+1:t2:


Thank you Anthony for the clarification! See you all on Thursday! :blush:

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I have to ask Natalie and Diane how to get that paper bag color! What a mess I made trying to get anywhere close and deal with the light and shadow. I had paint clear up to my elbows.
Also I have my computer in one room and the easel in another so I cast the class to my monitor in that room and turn up the volume. I can hear and see you but I can’t respond with all my snappy repartee. Dang (course you can’t see me cheating either :wink:
BTW, altho I can use the dropbox, after I realize that I forgot to put my name on the images (Like I usually do) and I go back to delete them, half the images I had seen in the file are gone, including mine. ???


Yes—I fixed that. One of the users accidentally deleted a good number of the images. LOL! I was able to restore them. Fun times. :stuck_out_tongue:


Hi Lori! The magic color for cardboard is a trade secret Diane told me-- it’s OH Mars Orange. Super strange color, I’d put it somewhere around Burnt Sienna and OH Flesh Ochre on the color wheel. I like to make a cad. orange light string, neutralize it, and then bracket in a string of Mars Orange into the neutralized YOO giving me one beautiful held string for cardboard. Obviously you can’t do that for the #allaprimaAF, but it’s still a great color to have around. I thought the bag looked great!


Hey Nat—just to be clear, when you say bracket in this context you mean matching the value and introducing a hue change with mars orange to those string steps correct?


Bracketing as Michael taught it is mixing between two strings matched in value to create a third, usually with some sort of pull. Specifically, in this situation I mix down the Mars Orange in value with Burnt Sienna + Burnt Umber to pull slightly towards red. If I were making a held string of Mars Orange I would take it down with only the Burnt Umber. What I like about this is I have a ‘red’ (mars orange) and a 'yellow" (cadmium orange medium) to jump back and forth between as needed, in addition to the new held string I made between the two with a pull in the darker values; and of course a pre-mixed warm neutral string.

When we made our color wheels with Michael, all hues from YYG through G were bracketed between a yellow string (cad, yellow light) and a green string (thalo green). It’s been a long time since I made the wheels-- I hope this is clear. I haven’t had much opportunity to explain Munsell Lite in a while!


Thank you so much!!! Trade secrets! yeeha!

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Diane has a lot of them! She and Tracy turned me on the the Holbein Opera Pink!!! <3

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