How to Paint a Portrait: Expert Pastel Techniques

Rather than go for traditional lighting with pastel portraits, which is subdued and even, Rita Kirkman is interested in the effects of uncontrolled light on human faces. “I’ve always felt that direct sunlight, which creates highlights and shadows, and the naturally reflected light all around, is so interesting,” she says. She’s also infatuated with the vibrant milieu of the Renaissance fair. “I love the romanticism of the era, the interesting people, the costumes—even if they aren’t always correct for the time period.

“The subject in King’s Guard was [at a Renaissance festival] standing on stage behind the actor playing the king on the tournament field, where jousting takes place. It was late in the afternoon, and my zoom lens wasn’t strong enough to shoot anyone’s face in particular, so I just shot the stage. When I got home, I looked through all of my photos and observed which ones had interesting light patterns on the faces. I had a lot of crops from photos taken at festivals over the last three years that I hadn’t used yet, so I went through those, found the ones that popped out at me, and combined them with the new photos.”

Below the artist shares pastel techniques for how to paint a portrait with a step-by-step demonstration of one from her “Renaissance” series. Read more about Rita Kirkman in the October 2013 issue of Pastel Journal.

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Reference Photo

I work from the (cropped and adjusted) reference photo on my iPad, keeping it next to my easel.

pastel portrait reference photo | how to paint a portrait

Step 1

I start with the darkest value (in this case, Terry Ludwig Eggplant).

pastel portrait step 1 | how to paint a portrait

Step 2

I then lay in the next darkest values, beginning with a dark green.

pastel portrait step 2 | how to paint a portrait

Step 3

I continue laying in dark values with a dark red.

pastel portrait step 3 | how to paint a portrait

Step 4

Before moving along too far with the darks and mediums, I like to key in the base tone of my light area, so I’ll know how the other values will react to it.

pastel portrait step 4 | how to paint a portrait

Step 5

Sometimes I need to revise as I go along. Here, I corrected the position of the left eye and reestablished some of the darkest darks.

pastel portrait step 5 | how to paint a portrait

Step 6

I continue to establish the various temperatures of midtones throughout the painting.

pastel portrait step 6 | how to paint a portrait

Step 7

I work on my midtones in the cool highlights on the black.

pastel portrait step 7 | how to paint a portrait

Step 8

I add more midtones in the definition of the features.

pastel portrait step 8 | how to paint a portrait

Step 9

With a series of slightly lighter values, I glaze across the under layers, slowly tightening up my rendering. Here, I added the buttons and warmed the highlights.

pastel portrait step 9 | how to paint a portrait

Step 10

I make some final adjustments to cool down the shadows and add deeper reds in the coat. After a couple of days’ rest I typically go back in to revise; I went back to widen the left collar into a shape that seemed more logical.
pastel portrait step 10 | how to paint a portrait


Finished Painting

pastel portrait final painting | how to paint a portrait

King’s Guard (pastel, 8×6) by Rita Kirkman

View more of Rita Kirkman’s pastel portraits in the October 2013 issue of Pastel Journal.


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