Pastel Portrait: Step-by-Step

I usually work from photographs. While it's often helpful to see the subject in person, I don't have time nor a place to arrange sittings. I frequently work very late at night, and since I do artwork in and around everything else in my life, working from a photograph far better fits my schedule!

The first step involves looking and thinking and trying to figure out how I'll make this person (or these people, or these pets) come alive on paper. Even though I've been doing commissioned portraits for 25 years, each time I start one, I feel like I'm learning the basics all over again. I'm not sure that this is always a good thing! And if it's not going well, regardless of how far I've gotten, I simply start over...

But once I've figured out how I want to approach it, I create a very light pencil sketch of the subject(s) on Arches Cover paper. This is a heavy, 100% cotton, acid-free paper that has enough "tooth" to hold the pastel. I've tried other papers over the years, but I really like this surface.

Once I have my sketch established, I start applying skin tones, using Rembrandt brand soft pastels which I scrub and blend on a separate sheet of paper. I very rarely "draw" with the pastel stick; instead, I apply layers of the blended pastel dust with Q-Tips and cotton balls. This means that my portraits are more like dry media "paintings" than drawings. I usually start with a mixture of gold ochre and permanent red deep (which is actually a pale pink--go figure!) and gradually blend in some carmin and permanent red light (which is actually an orangish-brown!)

I tend to skip around at this point. I establish skin tones and the eyes, and then I have to do a little here and there to keep it even and in balance. Often I can't tell how dark to do the skin colors until I have the clothing in and the hair on. It's far easier to add darker colors and heavier shadows later on, than it is to lighten it up if I've initially worked too heavily.

I add details (that I can't achieve with dust on a Q-Tip!) with Prismacolor colored pencils. These are soft and "oily" enough to add a nice sheen in the details of the eyes and hair.

At this stage I have the skin tones and basic expression set, and the hair is pretty well done. Very dark hair is more difficult for me to render than lighter hair (due to my technique) because if I were trying to use pastels to do this woman's black hair, the result would be a dark, but dull gray. To work around this, I blocked out each section of wave in the hair, and using a very dark brown and a black Prismacolor pencil, I drew in each strand--or so it seemed! It's important to keep the pencil very sharp in order to avoid a "crayon" look due to the textured paper. More may need to be done later, but now it is time to turn my attention to the clothing.

Bridal portraits tend to be a bit of a challenge because of all the "white," and contrary to what I said earlier about not using the pastel stick to draw directly on the portrait, I started the veil by using white to form a base of white pastel in this area. This makes it easier to blend in the grays and pale blues. After applying the pastel, I used a cotton ball to gently rub over the whole veil to brush off the excess. Then, using very pale blue and very pale gray, I established the folds and shadows using dust on a Q-Tip again. While I try to capture the basic detail of clothing on a portrait (particularly on bridal portraits) I do simplify. I want the focus to be on the subject's face, and so I frequently eliminate stripes and patterns in clothing unless there is something particularly significant about what the person is wearing.

Using a thin-lead (non-oily) black pencil, I lightly hatched in areas of shadow and used a Q-Tip to blend, blend, blend. I also used pencil to define and add shadows on the bottom sides of the seed pearls on the cap of the veil. Once this was done, I used a little more pencil along the folds, and then used white pastel again directly on the paper to highlight the brightest white areas.

The dress is open backed with a sheer layer of textured gauze over it. The first step, then, was to establish skin tones with pastels, and so I used the mixture that I used on the face. I worked on the other side of the dress and then continued to darken, soften, lighten and work my way around the whole portrait (using a cover sheet!) until I was pleased with the final result. Areas of the hair were darkened and defined, and minor changes were made to the face and neck.

I spray finished portraits with a clear acrylic fixative, and recommend that they be matted and then framed under glass as soon as possible.

Click here to see a larger version of the finished portrait.


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