Pastel Portrait PaintingTips | Dan Slapo

Painting a pastel portrait is a wonderful experience; however, there are some considerations—and pitfalls—that pastel artists should keep in mind, according to Dan Slapo, Pastel Society of America 2013 Hall of Fame Honoree.

Study (pastel) by Dan Slapo

Study (pastel) by Dan Slapo




















Getting Started 

– Use a life-size or larger reference photo, if at all possible. A reference smaller than 2 inches makes it difficult to get the correct proportions.
– Avoid using a flash on your camera when taking a portrait reference photo. The flash eliminates all shadows on the front of the face and cancels out the shadows and mid-tones.

Principles of Drawing

– Learn the principles and techniques of drawing. You can’t create a good portrait if the proportions are incorrect.
-Use vertical and horizontal plumb lines to place the features correctly in relation to one another.
– Use the correct angle of a line. If your angle is incorrect, the distance of a line will change and negatively impact proportions.
– Avoid drawing a pastel preliminary sketch with graphite, because pastel won’t cover graphite. Instead, draw with a pastel pencil or stick with a value that’s darker than the paper on which you’re drawing.


– Place a subject off center to provide more visual interest.
– Avoid allowing the crown of the head to touch the top of the paper. It makes it look like a ceiling is resting atop the head. There should be a space above the top of the head that’s the same height as the forehead.
– Divide the face in half vertically. The half that turns away from the viewer gets narrower.
– Refrain from assuming that both sides of the face are perfectly proportioned.
– Measure the distances between facial features in relation to the center line.
– Work from big shapes and planes first and then add the features.

Drawing Eyes 

– Compare the width of the “wings” of the nose with the width of an eye, including tear ducts, when measuring.
– Compare the outside corner of the eyes with the inside corners. Usually, the outside corner is higher.
– Note that the top and bottom of the iris is slightly covered by the eyelids. This is because the pupil is closer to the top eyelid than to the bottom eyelid.
– Avoid making the value of the iris lighter than the mid-tone average. The highlight on the eye should be half in the pupil and half in the iris—and placed on the same side from which the light source emanates.
– Avoid painting the whites of the eyeballs pure white. Use values that give the whites three dimensions.
– Note that eyelashes are curved in the direction of the sides of the eyes. They’re never vertical or horizontal.


– Paint the background early so you can relate the values of the face to it. You can use the value of the paper surface as a reference.
– Avoid painting the background all the same value and color. Mix some colors, but don’t make the background too exciting because it will detract  from the portrait. When painting the background, the light side of the head should have a darker value behind it, and the dark side of the head should have a lighter value behind it.
– Ensure that the background color touches the hair and face shapes.
– Turn the portrait upside-down when painting the area over the head so that the pastel dust doesn’t fall over the face.

Shadows, Highlights and Details 

– Avoid making shadows too dark on women and children, as it ages them. – Paint what you see. If you can’t see the details, don’t add them.
– Note that reflected light can only be seen in dark areas. It’s always lighter than the value of the shadows on the face.
– Keep in mind that highlights on metal, jewelry, etc., can only be seen if the supported color underneath is dark enough.
– Avoid adding too many details in the ears. You want the viewer’s attention drawn to the face, not the ears.



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