Creating Masterful Pastel Portraits
Great pastel portraits are more than a likeness. They express something beyond superficial appearance, encouraging the viewer to contemplate what it means to be human.
This is true of classically trained artist Gwenneth Barth-White’s stunning pastel portraits. They’re skillful, accurate portrayals of her sitters. But even more, they suggest what’s beneath the surface.
In the demonstration below, follow along to learn how Barth-White captures emotion and likeness in a pastel portrait in just 11 steps.
Step 1: Starting Out
To situate the figure on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, I use the edge of a Rembrandt burnt umber pastel stick loosely and lightly to get a feel for the shapes and space.
Step 2 (enlarged): Finding The Anchor
I determine the placement of the triangle between the eyebrows and the nose, which serves as the anchor. I can then work outward in sections.
Step 3 (enlarged): Reference Section and Vertical Division of Thirds
I sketch the nose; its dimensions will be used as a comparative measure to establish the other dimensions.
To find the vertical proportions of the model’s face, I consider that it’s divided into three equal sections. I measure with a plumb line from the top of the forehead to the top of the eyebrows; from the top of the eyebrows to the bottom of the nose; and from the bottom of the nose to the bottom of the chin.
Step 4: Finding the Light Source
We don’t paint objects or people. We paint the light that flows over them. The direction and the hierarchy of the light are all-important: strongest nearest the source and digressing from there; strongest on the planes that are perpendicular to the light; and digressing on the planes that aren’t perpendicular.
To begin, I need to see the subject in blocks of dark and light. Here I have two light sources. I choose the strongest one and ignore the second. Careful of the axis of the head, I develop the drawing, chiseling with straight lines that are easily comparable. I’m using Stabilo CarbOthello pastel pencils No. 635 and 640.
Step 5: Finding the Darkest Dark and Lightest Light
To be used as a reference throughout the portrait, nothing should be lighter and nothing should be darker than these two points. The terminal line between the light and the shadow tends to be the most interesting area; the darks, overall, will be darkest there.
Step 6: Establishing the Darks
I block in the darks with Rembrandt burnt umber and pay attention to the weak second light. Before starting with color, I need to establish a strong value base.
Step 7: Adding Color
I place the color, keeping the planes alive by chopping the sections in “tiles” of varying warm and cool tones.
Step 8: Adding Complementary Colors
Having arranged the lighting with a strong warm source and a weaker cool one, I contrast the hot yellow-oranges with cool purple-blues, as well as some pinkish skin tones with greens.
Step 9: Adding and Enriching Colors
With the secondary cool light now in place, I progressively thicken and enrich the texture with softer pastels (Girault) into the first harder pastel layer (Rembrandt).
Step 10 (detail): Softening the Edges
Because the face is the center of interest, I find simplifying the clothing and the hat, and softening those edges, brings the eye to what’s important.
Step 11 (detail): Final Touches
While adding the textures in the face, I refine the transitions between planes while deliberately keeping the overall effect loose and impressionistic in Been Such a Long Day (19×15).
Now it’s time for the big reveal of the completed pastel portrait:
Need More Inspiration Creating a Portrait?
Artist Alain Picard unmasks the mysteries of rendering facial features in this preview trailer of Learn to Draw: Portraits with Alain Picard below.
Learn more of Picard’s tips and techniques by streaming the entire video workshop here.