Sandy Johnson: Express Yourself

Consolation (pastel, 25×19)

Of all the painting elements, I?ve found that light and strong color are really what capture the life of portrait. The subject not only is affected by the light around it but also by the reflections of light on surrounding objects. While I strive to incorporate a variety of techniques in my work, what?s most important for me is the sense of light that dominates a portrait.

Although I began painting from life, I now paint most of my portraits from photos. I?ve found it?s important to have experience painting from life because it makes you aware of the colors photos don?t reproduce. This knowledge is invaluable when working from photos—you can exaggerate the color to create a more vivid painting. I avoid using a flash when taking photos because it eliminates a lot of the shadows that help me capture a likeness.


Concentrating on the size and position of the shapes, I put everything together like a puzzle. I don?t always paint everything I see. When it comes to backgrounds, I?m selective and remember that the focus should always be on the figure.

After totally covering my paper with Nupastel, I move on to softer Schmincke and Sennelier pastels. I build up my lightest lights with thick layers of these soft pastels. I let the layers beneath show through and gently blend some areas to give the eye a resting place. Sometimes I spray fixative on the layers of color before I add another layer. Then in some of the blended areas thin feathery strokes of Nupastel with a lot of crosshatching on the finished painting to add a sense of atmosphere. I don?t try to complete one specific area at a time but work on all areas as I go. As I?m using a color, I like to see if it can also be used in the background or somewhere else in the piece.

Mikey (pastel, 18×24)

Knowing when to hold back is an important part of the process. Exaggerating color and texture everywhere in the piece is too much of a good thing. If everything is emphasized, nothing will stand out in your pieces. By focusing on color and light, your pastel portraits will have a magical glow.

Mark Gottsegen is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

You may also like these articles: