Monday, December 15, 2008

Behind the Front Lines II - Pastel Portrait - Coloring With Pastel

I'm still recovering from the sheer number of commissions I've done for clients these past months, and once I finish the last of my responsibilities I'll post a few for everyone to check out.

For right now, I'm finishing up some of the other things I've needed to attend to, and starting at number one is the Gumby Pastel Portrait.

Emphasizing the Monk
Those of you keeping track of my project remember that I originally chose this particular subject in order to emphasize the idea that the monk parakeet named "Gumby" and the model are sharing a laugh.

Up to now, the only way I've emphasized that point is to draw the image with Gumby fairly centered in the middle of all the image's negative space. There are a couple reasons why Gumby stands out though...

1. The model is looking at him. Think of the people in any image you see as arrows, pointing your attention at whatever the artist or photographer wanted emphasized. By simply looking in a certain direction, we tell others around us that there is, "something over there" that is worth attention.¹

2. The lines in the image generally go toward Gumby. If you look at the drawing, you'll probably be first drawn to look at the model's face. From there, the downward angle of her hair and of her upper arm carry attention down to the base of the image, and from there the forearm and a few of the wrinkles in the dress go toward the bird. Gumby, however, is isolated in the negative space, and so the attention must jump to refocus on the girl, making it generally easier to find your way to the bird than away from it.

Now we use color to add more reasons to focus on Gumby. Note that as the post continues you'll see process photos; I'll refer to them directly as I come to their sections in the post, but to avoid clumping them all together I've spaced them through the remainder of this post, so their proximity doesn't really have anything to do with the text near them for the first few photos.

Color Me Pastel
I basically just have an assorted set of 20 Sennelier Soft Pastels that I work with. I've purchased a couple more individual sticks to capture skin tones more effectively, but I'll tell you right now that professional pastel artists have tons of pastels in every hue possible.

The reason for this is that pastels are generally not considered a medium to mix. Unlike paint, in which you can blend colors together to achieve different hues², pastels don't mix. So, pastel artists have as many hues as they can to overcome this shortfall.

This does not, however, stop you from mixing colors to a degree - you just have to take advantage of a person's eyesight to achieve the color you want. Basic pigment color mixing is called Subtractive, whilst the mixing of light colors is called Additive. I'll avoid getting into how the two work (you can click on this wiki link if you're interested), but when we can't mix the colors to get a result we want, we can lay the colors close to each other, and allow their proximity to blend into a color. This is essentially how your television and computer monitors work. In artwork, we cross hatch the two colors by applying the pastels with short gentle strokes.

There are two great reasons to apply pastels with short gentle cross hatches though. The first is the whole color mixing thing. Two is that you don't waste the pastel when you apply it in this fashion. I think many might be eager to give these pastels a hard push against the paper to fill in the color like you would with crayons, but that's a mistake. If you did it that way, you'd breeze through the pastel in a day, and if you ever bought soft pastels before ($$$) you'd know why that's something to avoid. So light little strokes are the ticket.

Head Towards the Light
Remember that in the previous Behind the Lines post I said that we'll be working from dark into light? Well, I did. So guess what I did? That's right! I start with my dark colors and go lighter as I get to the end.

The process is pretty simple when you get into it. Simply look at the area you want to start coloring in, and ask yourself what color the shadows are in that area. Remember that color theory will have you see warm shadows in cool light, and vice versa for warm light. This means that our model, which was lit from indoor lights that are very cool in color temperature, had warm shadows.

I went with dark purples for shadowing, but I also chose an ultramarine blue that I thought also worked well to hatch in with the purple (although I probably would be better off keeping it completely warm). I used these colors primarily for the model's hair and skin, and also the feathers on Gumby. Don't forget that you'll be going back over these areas though, so don't fill them in, just lightly sketch the color onto them.

When you're ready to get lighter, take the next lighter color up and go from there. It's important that you're always referring to the photograph you base the image on. Essentially you are matching the colors you see there, but even if you weren't (for monochromatic, bi-chromatic, etc. pieces), you'll still be matching the values you see, and that photo is the most important tool you have to represent the model realistically.

I find that it's best to constantly step back from whatever I work on and look at it from a distance, but it also helps to get a mirror and look at your work through it. Doing these sort of things allow you to view your image in a fresh way, rather than up close where it's easy to lose track of the bigger scope of a piece. Perhaps the best help you can have in this regard is another set of eyes completely.

Pastel application, like most things in art, is a practice of patience and concentration. Go slowly, carefully, and make sure each mark you make is calculated against the effect it will have on the piece. With pastels you don't have the option to erase mistakes like you did with pencils.

Always remember that you're going dark to light though. The piece should build up in front of your eyes as you add the lighter hues, but all at once, not section by section.

Hold on though, let's not get too ahead of ourselves...

The Color of Attention
We still need to use color to emphasize Gumby, and that means that I chose something which would make him stand out against the background.

Green and red are complimentary colors of each other, and this makes them stand out against one another in a pleasing way. So, I went with red for the background, and I was pleased with a second result, which is it slightly blends with the model's skin color.

This effect doesn't hide the model because of her dark hair and the light orange and yellow highlights on her skin, but it does add to the general removal of focus that I'm going for.

The Final Touch
Finishing involves a lot of tiny focused work. I use a few things to help me get the soft, blended look that helps with details. A blending stump, sanded to a point is great for putting in details in pastels; you simply rub it in the color you want and then apply it to the drawing. The same tool also works in picking up color off the piece, but always make sure it's sanded clean before touching it to new color areas.

You can also use the erasers and chamois you've used before if you decide color is too intense in certain areas, but they always need to be clean before being used so as to avoid muddying the colors on the piece. As a general rule though, your use of erasing tools like a kneadable eraser and chamois should be done sparingly. If your follow the rules of patience and calculated marks with the pastel, you'll barely need erasers anyways.

Like every piece of art I ever attempt, there is usually a good two or so hours of nitpicking and detail work. The difference between doing this and not can be the difference between looking "Great!" and it simply looking "OK". Plus any art professor you'll ever meet has an uncanny eye for this type of thing. The amount of times I've heard the words, "Looks great, but when will you finish it?" is too many to count. I've learned my lesson.

The best way to do this of course is what I mention above...step away from the drawing, look at it in a mirror, and get other people's perspectives. Most important for professional artists is the customer's opinion, although I'd recommend not asking art editors whether or not they think something is "done" or not...very unprofessional! For portrait pieces like this pastel though, often you will be dealing with a single private client who cares about the look of their commission, and will appreciate having a say in the way the piece ends up.

Is It Done Yet?
Click on the image for a larger version.

Don't forget to apply a light coating of spray fixative³ on the pastel when you're done. For my piece, the pastel is still bound to the masonite with artist tape when I sprayed it. After spraying, I carefully removed the tape and signed the piece in the border area that was left untouched under the tape.

For storing and transporting, get a good piece of glassine that covers the piece completely, and keep it laid flat in a folder, portfolio or envelope. I recommend buying Alvin Art Envelopes, because they include a black acid free matte board that looks great with your artwork, and the envelope itself is a solid piece of thick plastic.

And that, as they say, is that. I hope you enjoyed and/or at least found interesting, this latest installment of "Behind the Lines". If anyone has questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section of the related section, or in the main post for all sections.



"If they took away my paints I’d use pastels. If they took away my pastels I’d use crayons. If they took away my crayons I’d use pencils. If they stripped me naked and threw me in prison I’d spit on my finger and paint on the walls." - Pablo Picasso (unsourced)

¹ As an interesting side note, people with Autism have trouble reacting this way.
² Red and Yellow = Orange for example.
³ Don't forget my tips on spray fixative from the last post!

Previous Posts in this Project: Reference PhotographyLaying in a Foundation ILaying in a Foundation II