Pastel Portrait Demonstration: Tips on Painting from Life

Portraits have plenty of challenges on their own, and painting from life can add even more variables. Keep reading for tips from artist Brian Keeler as he presents a pastel portrait demonstration to a group of students!

Pastel Portrait Demonstration: Painting from Life with Brian Keeler | ArtistsNetwork.com

Model Sally

  • “There’s this…system of thirds, which I refer to a lot. Start with that idea of thirds, and then see how the model actually differs from that perfect ideal. When I look at Sally, I think the difference is the distance between her hairline and her eyebrows is a smaller proportion than the eyebrows to the bottom of the nose. That’s the second one. The third one is the nose to the bottom of the chin, and her hand is covering up where the bottom of her chin would be.”
  • “They say that most of the mistakes are made in the first five minutes, so it’s good to try to get the proportions right here.”
Pastel Portrait Demonstration: Painting from Life with Brian Keeler | ArtistsNetwork.com

Charcoal Sketch

  • “In regards to the size of the head, I usually do them life-size, and if you extend your hand, the distance from your thumb to your middle finger, it goes right about to the hairline. That’s a good way to work life-size. If you want to work larger or smaller, that doesn’t work. But that’s a simple technique to use.”
Pastel Portrait Demonstration: Painting from Life with Brian Keeler | ArtistsNetwork.com

Starting with Darks

  • “With pastel I want to work light. And part of the reason for working light is to not fill up the tooth of the paper too quickly. That’s one of the advantages of a hard pastel. It doesn’t come off as readily as the soft pastel.”
  • “The hair and the clothing in a model is always going to change from time to time. The thing to think about is to try to see certain things that look interesting and then making a decision to go for those.”
  • “Part of my thinking of color is that if you get the value right or the tone right, you can use whatever color you’re incline to. It’s part of arbitrary color. It gives you a little more freedom to not be restricted by local color.”
Pastel Portrait Demonstration: Painting from Life with Brian Keeler | ArtistsNetwork.com

Mid Tones

  • “The whites of the eyes, we call them the so-called whites of the eyes, and you can see this for yourself as you look at Sally, it’s relative to the light part of her forehead by virtue of the fact that they’re in shadow. They’re nothing near bright white in this kind of lighting. If you had a flash photograph the whites of the eyes would look white, but this is a more natural type of lighting.”
  • “One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is figure-ground relationship. Basically, that mean whether you have a light object against a dark ground or vice versa. I use that a lot. The color often gets the credit, but it’s actually value that does the work. It’s all done with the virtue of the light and dark contrast.”
Pastel Portrait Demonstration: Painting from Life with Brian Keeler | ArtistsNetwork.com

Into the Lights

  • “The idea of a figure-ground relationship is going to come into play right here on the model’s nose, and what I mean by that is I’m trying to bring out what actually defines Sally’s nose, and it’s defined by the fact that it’s slightly darker and maybe warmer than the cheek area behind her hair.”
  • “With pastel, it’s kind of layering a number of layers, whereas in oil paint you might be able to get it down in one shot. With pastel, I’m thinking of taking the strokes and sort of glazing them, not unlike a pointillist painting where all these colors are combining to make the final color.”
Pastel Portrait Demonstration: Painting from Life with Brian Keeler | ArtistsNetwork.com

Starting the Background

  • “The background illustrates this idea of figure-ground relationship. We have a nice contrast here between the model’s hair all being dark and the background is a mid tone, this nice rust color, and it relates to the rust colors in the model’s face, too. So the model’s head makes a nice frame, and her face is basically a light value.”
  • “You can let the color of the paper show through and become part of the finished painting. You don’t always have to cover every square inch. The value and the color of the paper can work for you at certain times.”
  • “The transition between the skin and the forehead and the hair…you don’t want it to be too sharp of an edge. You want to think about that in a portrait or a painting. Be selective of where the edges are crisp and where they’re soft. In a portrait we have a low depth of field, so the front of the face and the eyes are generally more in focus, and then as you go to the back of the hair, you soften and diffuse it more.”
Pastel Portrait Demonstration: Painting from Life with Brian Keeler | ArtistsNetwork.tv

Final Portrait

Preview The Pastel Portrait from Life below, and find the entire pastel portrait demonstration on ArtistsNetwork.tv!

See more from Brian Keeler in Painting the Portrait in Oil!

About the Artist

Painting in oil, pastel and watercolor, Brian’s subjects range from portraits to landscapes, and his instruction is full of helpful painting techniques and historical insights.

Watch an exclusive interview with Brian here.

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