Pastel portraits using limited colours


This portrait was made using only five colours: black, white, sanguine, burnt umber and yellow.


I loved the photo that Adrian sent me: he had photographed himself with a yellow towel for a background, which when I enhanced the contrast made him look exactly like an Italian Renaissance fresco painting.  But to get the proportions and tonal values, I used a grey scale print. The drawing is larger than the photo, so I had to use proportional measurements to check my freehand drawing, such as comparing the distance from the eyebrow to the base of the nose with the base of the nose to the chin.  In a profile it’s very important to place the ear correctly – we so often underestimate its distance from the eye, and it’s so easy to place it too high or too low in relation to the eye and the mouth.


I’m now using the colour photo to help me with the intermediate tones. The sanguine colour represents the mid tones as well as the colour of his skin. As one of my students is colour blind, he needs to select colours that are distinctly different in tone, so the sanguine would appear to him as a medium grey. I use a burnt umber, which is a darker tone, to indicate the shirt.

Now I’m placing the highlights, using white pastel, and overlaying some of the white areas with sanguine to produce a pink, which represents an intermediate tone.  As I’m excited by the yellow colour in the photo, I use it to enhance both sides of the profile: on the left it emphasises the dark shadows, while on the right it contrasts with the white of his hair, while remaining a lighter tone than the background grey of the pastel paper. I’m also increasing the contrasts by adding more black pastel.

I blend the colours with a foam spreader before increasing the tones using black, sanguine and burnt umber. I’ve also added some touches of yellow in his face.

Adrianp6 It’s important to keep checking the proportions and the exact contour of the profile, so you are capturing the character of your subject. Now I’m beginning to add the facial texture, including his moles and freckles – they have to be in the right place! I”m also adding more white on his hair but not making it too detailed – it’s too easy to copy every detail from a photo, when the emphasis needs to be on the facial features.

Adrianp7.jpg I hope I haven’t overdone this. I had one more hard look at the profile and made sure the eye wasn’t too large – we tend to over emphasise what we can see of the eye in profile.  I have carefully analysed the structure of the ear without making it too detailed, as the facial expression is the focus of this picture. I have tried to ensure that there is plenty of light/dark contrast even though I have also aimed to convey skin texture and colour.  There’s no need to finish the background as that would merely distract the viewer. This has taken over 2 hours: much longer than the 20-30 minutes I usually have when drawing from a live model.

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