Not ALL photos are good for pastel portraits and believe me I get sent some corkers, including backs of heads! But sometimes even a great photo isn’t always going to make a great painting.

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I haven’t painted my son for a few years now and it was about time I did. So checking through my photos I found one where he has a very natural, gorgeous smile. BUT there were a few things wrong with it.

I treated my VIP Group members to a birds eye view of the whole process of choosing the photo, the pros and cons of using it and the whole journey from start to finish.

If you’re a member of the VIP Group, go check it our here – there’s a LIVE video too

Here’s the original photo that caught my eye

His head is small in comparison to the photo, so it doesn’t bode well for details when I zoom in. But, it’s not too bad, because there was a huge amount of light. We were in the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK that day, inside one of the domes.

Here’s the cropped image. Such a gorgeous natural smile and the quality isn’t too bad. 

Why could this be a bad photo choice?

1.The photo reference is small
2. My camera was not on best settings so the quality is less than best.
3. Poor lighting – no obvious light source. He’s surrounded by light from all directions at the Eden Project so it’s washed him out. There is a very small amount of directional light from the right.
4. Teeth! Most artists say that teeth are not good in a portrait and they become the focus over the eyes. But he has beautiful teeth, lucky boy!  But, it’s very hard to ask kids to smile without showing their teeth.  However, his eyes out sparkle his teeth, so this could be a winner.
5. Chin definition – you can barely see where his chin stops and neck starts in my print of this photo.
6. Angle – I’m looking down on him.
7. He has an interesting head shape. His brain is much wider than his face. Combine that with the poor lighting and his face could look very flat.  This is going to take some skill.
8. Small and dark eyes – can’t really see what his eye colour is.
9. Getting his sparkling, smiling but subtle character is going to be difficult.  this painting could go either way… wonderful or terrible!

BUT BUT BUT… This photo is full of life and his character and beautiful smile shine through so I’m going to put my big girl artist pants on and go for it!

Here’s the black and white version.  Look at his face, virtually all one tone. But I can adjust the contrast and colour saturation to help that.

Here’s the version I’m going to use with increased contrast and saturation:

And the following are my daily notes from my VIP Group as I worked through his portrait…

Stage 1:

The most important part, if the line drawing isn’t right, it’s not going to get any better. Or is it? Sometimes the line drawing doesn’t look like the person. This happens when there’s a lot of shadow or angles on the face. In this case angles. I can kind of ‘see’ him here, so this should be ok.

Stage 2:

I’ve made a start with basic tones using Caran D’ache pastel pencils pre-mixed skin tone colours.
Why am I using Caran D’ache?
⭐i love them
⭐ it’s a small painting, sticks would be harder
⭐ the tones are going to be tricky and the pastelmat only has average tooth. So i need to get where I’m going, fast.
⭐The Caran D’ache give a beautiful oil paint glow when they reach the sweet spot
⭐Did i say i love them? 😅 
⭐They are a wonderful compliment to Unison soft pastels.

I’m going to emphasise his tricky nose early and focusing on the darkest and lightest tones to get the form as soon as possible.

Stage 3:

One of the things you will learn as you progress in your art journey, is the ability to see better. Not only see colours better but to see form better and be able to read photos better.

You’ll then be able to paint photos that are less than perfect and spot the light changes that create the form. Without them, paintings can look flat. As a beginner you’ll be dumb – founded… why does it look flat, what did i miss? It can be so hard to see… Then one day it will jump out at you and you’ll really see!!

A few years back, I remember posting a photo of a dog I’d painted. It was a great painting, good composition, great fur but something was missing, i had no idea what it was and no-one could tell me…  A few years more experience and it’s so obvious to me now.

Look at the sides of his face by his ears, look at the subtle tonal changes. This is virtually impossible to see from the printed photo, so I’m using my phone image as a reference too.
He’s actually looking like his much younger self in this progress shot because his cheeks are too plump. My bright highlights are causing this, so i can just tone them down to make him look slimmer and slightly older.   My bright highlights are to remind me of the light source and to keep the form.  A classic beginners trait is to have poor contrast.

Still focusing on the tones and accentuating the highlights. Usually i do eyes first but the skin tone was the biggest doubt here so i started skin first.
I’m using the ochre from the Einstein palette, it’s really helping to warm up his skin.

Stage 4:

Time for eyes… and it is time… his eyes are tricky. Small and dark and the shape is so important… got to get this right, it’s make or break time. Oh, and he never looks right without his enviable, eyelashes!!
He’s not perfect at the moment, but my experience reassures me that little tweaks, a push or a pull of the pastel are easy and will fix anything that’s off

I needed my super sharp Faber Castell PITT pastel pencils for his eyes. Strong and sharp.

Stage 5:

Now he’s looking more like himself but his cheeks are still looking more like a baby! I’ve got the pink too high so they’re making them more plump then they need to be.

Teeth are in and they’re looking good he’s got beautiful teeth he’s a very lucky boy they’re very small so they’re very hard to do. His gums aren’t quite right I just need to add some more tonal variation in there.

His neck is looking good there’s enough pastel on there now, I just need to slightly lessen the contrast and make his neck look softer.

His chin line is looking good it’s a little too dark but I had to go darker before I could go lighter to emphasize it to make sure I had it in there and it was the right shape so I will be lightening that up.

,Stage 6:

Hello my gorgeous happy, kind hearted, smiley boy 😍 I see you 🤩

Hair used to be my nemesis.. it was so hard, beyond compare 😳😳😳
Obviously not anymore because i nailed his curly strawberry blond mop 🤩🙌
I used to try and draw every single strand and that was a painful thankless task!!
Now i look at shapes, tones and colours.
But I didn’t find that an easy concept to grasp.. It was so hard to understand what to see to be able to concentrate on shapes colours and tones!
but not only that,
a passion for the subject and curiosity to not get put off and just keep going.
Just his t-shirt to go…..

Stage 7:

Or is he?
His t-shirt took some layers to get right and there were a couple of ooops moments I’ve messed up!! You know that little devil on your shoulder…
Great comment on my earlier photo about the painting being more than the photo. In this case I really feel like I’ve achieved that. I’ve given him good lighting and I’ve used some beautiful colors.
We are all striving to be better artists and the longer you stick at it the longer it takes to get better. Each leap in ability is not linear. A beginner will see huge improvements but the more you improve, the harder it is to improve BUT oh so good when you get there and totally worth it 🙌🙌🙌
Now… the background…. I’ve got some supplies coming but i need to practice what i have in mind… i have several ideas to test… watch this space!

And what does Oliver think of his portrait?  “Mehhh, it’s ok.”  BUT when I show him my background ideas….  His eyes nearly pop out of his head with excitement!!   Me?  I’m a bit scared,  I’ll have to get even bigger, big girl artist pants on for that!!

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Sue is a Soft Pastel Artist and International Tutor from England UK
She’s passionate about soft pastel art and teaching her students from around the globe.

“Art makes my heart sing and my soul smile”