Pastel portrait in stages

A couple of years ago I did the following portrait and kept a record of different stages, so here are some of those stages as I went along. I used Art Spectrum’s aubergine coloured Colourfix, a sanded pastel paper about 19″ x 15″. I chose this colour as I felt it was fairly close to many of the tones in her skin. If you get the colour of the paper you are working on correct, you can save yourself a lot of headaches. I remember once getting the colour choice wrong and it was a nightmare to try and save my portrait. In fact, I should have thrown it out and started again, so you live and learn.

This is the finished portrait and I think I got the choice of paper correct. Colourfix has a sandpaper finish to it so it has a lot of ‘tooth’ (which means it’s quite rough) and holds a lot of pastel which means you can work in layers and you can blend or not blend to get different effects. I often blend with my fingers but it can remove a few layers of skin. I guess, like a weightlifter or a gymnast, you develope tough skin.

Here’s a closeup of her eyes. I feel that if you can get the eyes right, you go a long towards a very nice portrait. If you get them wrong, no matter how good the rest of it is, you might as well throw it away.

Eyes speak to people and I concentrate heavily on them so that a story can be told through them. It may be in the wetness around the lids, or the bags and creases, or a  rheumy  colour to the whites of the eyes. Observe carefully what you see.

If I’m working from a photograph I start out with a grid which I erase as I go. The grid helps me to stay accurate. I keep my drawing fairly basic and work in the detail with the pastels using soft sticks and pastel pencils.

I seem to think that my work goes through ugly stages as I try to bring things together at the end. This is because I work some areas to completion, other areas only a tiny bit and some areas not at all until later. In the first few pictures you will notice this kind of progression.

I also have a couple of ways I approach the eyes. Sometimes I’ll do them early because this does two things, i) it gives you a ‘win’ early on and keeps your interest up as your picture, if the eyes are good, will always look pretty decent and ii) you’ll know that if you’ve done a good job on the eyes, any further work won’t be wasted. The other way I do them is leave them til the end. This is for my own satisfaction, seeing the portrait come together right at the end which can be fun. However, the danger here is that eyes can be hard to do and easy to get wrong. If you’ve worked for a long time on a portrait and then can’t get the eyes right, you may feel like you’ve wasted a lot of work. The trick to that one is to be confident and simply expect yourself to always be able to get them correct, or to fix anything that may be wrong. Art is often about confidence.

I continue working my way from right to left. I’m a left hander and since pastels are easily smudged, I work from right to left – even though I put paper over my art and rest my arm on that, I still want to eliminate as many ways of smudging the art as possible.

At this stage I’m simply finishing off the hat and then adding details and pulling things together

And finally we are back with the finished portrait. The main differences from the last stage to completion (other than the hat) are toning down what was too harsh a shadow on the left hand side of her face (on our right), and I’ve added a lot more sunshine colour to her cheeks to warm things up a bit, and that way I can play the warm tones in her face against the cool tones in the background. I’m also careful to make the shadows ‘add’ to the image. Rather than them simply being darker versions of the rest of the skin, shadows nearly always contain reflected light so since I have a lot of purples and greens in the background, I’ve used these colours in the shadows. It’s a way to make your portraits more interesting and real

Here’s another portrait of someone we met in Malawi which shows how reflected colours in the shadows can help.