View Full Version : First pastel portrait - need help with hair!

10-05-2013, 11:36 AM
I am brand new to pastels. I'm working on a portrait of my son and need help with the hair.

I'm using Kohinoor Toison D'Or soft pastels on a cream Mi-Teintes, with colored pencils for the eyes and mouth. (I originally intended to do it on sandpaper, but I couldn't get the drawing to transfer to it.)

I think I made things worse when I went over the hairline with the brown pastel trying to cover the line from the drawing. But I don't know where to go from here. Any suggestions on what to do?


10-05-2013, 07:44 PM
First let me say welcome to the pastel forum! Thanks for joining us!

Second let me rotate your painting:


I have a couple comments that go beyond the hair - I hope you don't mind.

This is a very difficult photo to do a portrait from. It looks like a flash was used and there are very few shadows. In order to model form, you need light and shadow. A very common lighting for portraits is light coming from an angle from the side and front so that there will be a shadow on one side of the nose, for example. Without shadows helping depict the form, an artist is really in a tough situation.

When you do have light and shadow, this means that you will be painting shapes of light and shadow, not eyes, noses, and mouths, hair, etc.

A few years ago, I did a lesson here in the pastel forum about portraits. If you are interested, here's a link:


The link is for lesson 2, but includes a link for lesson 1. Lesson two includes a section on hair.

One thing to keep in mind when doing hair - it is not solid. You can see some of the forehead behind and through the hair. Plus, all the hairs are not the same length, there is some variety in the "line" where the hair ends on the forehead. While it is easier to paint in the skin tones of the forehead first, and then paint the hair over the top, it is possible to add some of the forehead color around and through the hair that you have already painted.

It looks like you have a good grasp on the proportions and general shape of the head and the features within!

Hope you don't mind these suggestions. And they are, of course, just suggestions, and can be ignored!

Portraits are the most difficult type of painting, in my opinion, which probably makes it even more difficult to learn a new medium!


10-06-2013, 12:49 PM
Welcome! Yes, you picked a very hard subject as one of your first pastels. Even harder for someone you know so well, like your kids. Believe me, I've been there, done that :) Just to add to Don's comments, I would recommend using a the grid method to get your initial drawing in place. Saves a lot of trouble in getting an accurate drawing. And be sure to have your drawing as light as possible, so pastel will cover the lines easily.

10-07-2013, 12:03 AM
Welcome to pastels. We all have to get our fingers really dirty many times before we can start to see some progress, so do not get discouraged.

I want to add a couple of things about doing portraits from photos: in the future if you take a photo specifically to work from, stand back farther when you take the photo. The closer you are the more the camera lens distorts the subject. When you stand back farther to take the photo you are working from something a little closer to painting it from life, because you would never sit this close to do a portrait with a live model! Also, whenever possible take your photo in natural light, or if you must flash, stand back and do it in an area with strong light coming from the side. I like warm light from one angle and cool from the other, just to give a little feel of reflected light vs. direct light. It also makes for some fun color choices. Just a couple of friendly suggestions.

Sometime we love a photo so much we want to paint it, no matter what. We have all done this a time or two, believe me! However, as you grow as an artist you will learn that sometimes it is best to just hang onto that great photo as a photo, and just create something brand new. But when you do succumb to using a bad photo, there are things you can do that help. One is to take the photo down to gray scale like this:


This helps you see values without the interference of color. Then take a photo of your work and gray scale it too . . . this will help you see where you are going with the values in your painting. I have learned over the years that if you get the values right, you can use almost any palette of colors you want to and you will capture a more real looking subject.


As you can see you worked at getting his skin tone, but it took the values too dark in relation to the values in the photo. A great way to help you compare values is to print out a gray scale from the internet, punch holes along the edge, and hold it up to both your reference photo and your work. (I use two, so I can compare them simultaneously!) This is a link to the gray scale I like to use: link (http://www.ady.com/Gray_Scale_1280x1024.jpg) I print it on card stock and cut it down to size, then punch the holes down one side. And here is how it looks:


Your drawing is actually pretty decent, but notice how different the mouth is in the photo from your drawing of it. Mouths are notoriously difficult and take a good deal of practice. It is all in the observation, and that is a skill that takes lots of practice too. Your son has a darling smile: see how his front teeth are larger than the others, and his lips part in the center to reveal them? And see how his upper lip is thinner than the lower lip? You will get it in time . . . . :)

Even great portrait artists like John Singer Sargent struggle with the mouth, as he famously quipped:

"A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth."

10-07-2013, 03:18 AM
As a beginner to pastels, and a beginner to portraiture, I want to warn you, and others as well, that your subject is not only difficult because of the type of lighting used, but also that you run the risk of battling with this portrait to get a likeness that will satisfy you, and be as good as, or perhaps better than a photo, because you simply do not have the experience you need as yet. Painting a successful portrait is simply NOT THE SAME AS COPYING A PHOTO.

Jumping into the deep end like this, can be compared to attempting to play a complex piece on the piano, to an audience, when you have only just bought the piano and learned the basics of piano playing, and are still unfamiliar with reading music!

I know this sounds hard, but actually , I want you to understand that if you find yourself disappointed with the portrait, it is not to do with any lack of talent on your part, it is absolutely to do with lack of learning, experience and practice.

I really recommend that if you are determined to tackle this project, you start by finding out more about portrait drawing and painting. there are good books out there you can find, perhaps in your library. One I really recommend :

THE ARTISTS COMPLETE GUIDE TO DRAWING THE HEAD by William L Maughan. He will show you how to understand value and tone, shadow shapes and edges, the form in light, the main principles of drawing the head including perspective, proportions, what to look for when tackling all the individual features of the head, structure and anatomy, highlights, and more, how to draw hair,putting it all together and the end section moves you from drawing to painting. Now perhaps, after reading this, you will see how much there is to learn about, and you will learn masses from him. It is fun to learn!

Then, I suggest you try taking some better pics of your son. Nothing wrong with that photo you chose - as a photo - he is too cute for words - but the form is flattened by flash lighting, not at all helpful for painting. Directional lighting from just one side is FAR, far better to help you with the form of the head.

I also recommend highly that you find a book which explains pastels techniques - or look here on WC for this information. And then spend some time practicing all the different strokes and methods for applying pastel to paper, so that you gain some familiarity with the medium.

I know this all sounds like a lot of work on your part, but you will find it pays off in the end.

Portraits are arguably the most difficult of subjects to paint. Even I, with all my years of experience as a painter, avoid them because of their difficulty! They require enormous accuracy, and a thorough understanding of anatomy and structure to achieve success. Some lucky artists do seem to be able to capture a likeness effortlessly but they the lucky ones. Others, like me, have to work slowly and carefully, measuring all the time, checking and double checking and yet still failing to do it all effortlessly except on the odd occasion when it isn't important to me. Your gorgeous son is important to you so I know you will want to do him justice.

I hope these words will encourage you to keep trying, but to keep trying with your eyes wide open and with a willingness in your heart to learn and grow and perhaps achieve success in due course.

10-07-2013, 09:09 AM
Thanks for all the suggestions. I've been working through a book on portraiture but hadn't gotten to the hair chapter yet, so I read that and also the section from Don's portrait lesson. My third attempt was somewhat better, but at this point after trying to remove the pastel and redo it twice, it seems better to start over on something else. The brown line at the hairline keeps getting in the way and I can't get the base tones smooth enough at this point to then add the highlights and hair strokes over it.

I will take the advice about photos in the future, though I guess that means mostly shooting specifically for painting, as most photos generally do not use one-sided lighting.

Actually, besides the hair, I was fairly pleased with the results for a first attempt. I wasn't expecting it to be something frameable, but since I'd eventually like to be able to paint people, I thought I'd give it a try rather than spend years painting fruit until I feel like I'm good enough to try something else.

Just wondering, if portraiture is the most difficult subject, what is considered easy? Other than still life, which I personally do not find very inspiring. Landscapes intimidate me, but maybe that's just because I haven't specifically studied about them.

10-07-2013, 11:29 AM
What is "easy" and what is more "difficult" is different from artist to artist. All of it becomes more automatic the more you sketch and draw. Books are great, but we all have had to learn to close the how-to books and open the sketch book much more regularly to begin to perfect our observation and drawing skills.

Can I ask, are you doing still life from life or from photos? Still life is one of the best ways to learn to draw from life, because they sit still for you! You can control the lighting, and the composition. If you are doing them from photos to try to learn to draw, you are not giving yourself the advantage of life drawing. Sketching landscapes can be less intimidating if you limit what you draw to smaller venues, like instead of the whole valley, focus on the few trees near the brook, or even the tall grasses near the gate, for instance. And if you really want to learn to do portraits, sketching quick studies of people from life is the best exercise there is. Your best investment as a budding artist is a good sketchbook and a pencil or piece of charcoal you are comfortable with. My class notebooks in junior and senior high school were filled with 1-5 minute studies of fellow classmates studying, and I got to the point where I could even capture enough of their unique characters to get a likeness of sorts in many of them. (I would kill to have those notebooks now!) It is the repetition of your eyes and hands working together to draw what you see that teaches accuracy. Learning to draw well before you paint is one way to have more successful paintings. Practicing your drawing skills is also the best way to tame the photo-copying beast -- as it allows you to use your artistic brain and your creativity more readily.

Here are two sketches I did fairly quickly that show you don't have to do lots of detail to get the point. I actually did the tree on a scrap of mat-board with a piece of charcoal briquette while we were barbequing one day on our deck. And the other one I did on New Year's Eve while at a party where some of the guests were engaged in a game of Texas Hold'em: it was done quickly with Koh-I-Noor woodless colored pencils on black paper, which allowed me to concentrate on dark and light shapes, which are all you need to tell a story.


And for beginning pastelists I can recommend Jackie Simmonds Pastel Workbook. (http://www.amazon.com/Pastel-Workbook-Complete-Course-Lessons/dp/0715327712) It helps you build a foundation of basic knowledge in the use of this wonderful medium.

10-07-2013, 12:33 PM
I will take the advice about photos in the future, though I guess that means mostly shooting specifically for painting, as most photos generally do not use one-sided lighting.

Shooting specifically for a painting is a good idea, but not always necessary. For the most part, just avoid frontal flash. Otherwise you can position people so that either sunlight, window light, or interior light is coming from an angle.

Actually, besides the hair, I was fairly pleased with the results for a first attempt. I wasn't expecting it to be something frameable, but since I'd eventually like to be able to paint people, I thought I'd give it a try rather than spend years painting fruit until I feel like I'm good enough to try something else.

Still ife is often recommended as the best place to start painting, but, I'm with you - not really interested in fruit! In my opinion, the best things to paint are what excites and interests you the most. You need not paint anything else. Being interested and excited are the most important things you need to do a painting.

Just wondering, if portraiture is the most difficult subject, what is considered easy? Other than still life, which I personally do not find very inspiring. Landscapes intimidate me, but maybe that's just because I haven't specifically studied about them.

While all painting has similarities, landscapes are very different from still life and portraits/figures because they deal far more with depth and distance. While it is certainly a good thing to be versatile, it is better, in my opinion, to not try and tackle too many different subjects all at once. Again, do what interests you the most. If portraits and people are the subject you want to tackle, by all means do it!! Don't be discouraged by comments here on WC. We are here to help if you want (you can ask for critiques or specify no critiques, too), but don't let any of our comments get you down! They are just opinions which can be ignored!

Hopefully, the portrait lessons I linked to earlier are of help, but there are certainly many other resources to help you on your journey. The most important thing in my opinion is that you just have fun and experiment in the beginning stages of learning art and/or a new medium like pastel. If you want to go onto the 3rd and 4th lessons in the portrait series, here's a link to our learning center, where you will find many threads of interest:


Also, you might be interested in our monthly Spotlight - an activity thread that has covered numerous topics over the past few years. You'll notice older archived threads in the learning center, too!

Portraits are difficult becasue they are the only subject that needs to have a likeness. When you do a still life, it doesn't really matter if your painting looks exactly like that specific apple or banana - as long as looks like any old apple or banana. For that reason, it may be easier to start by painting heads and faces and people that don't necessarily have to have a likeness. Just a thought!

Good luck and enjoy the journey!


10-07-2013, 03:54 PM
Don is so right....portraiture is the one discipline where you cannot get away with producing something which is a poor likeness! If you make a tree slightly different to real life, who is going to know? And you do not need to "spend years" sitting painting still lives endlessly...the great thing about learning to draw and paint is the journey...the trying-out of all different kinds of subject-matter to see where your interests lie. Every drawing is a brick in the wall.

I am glad you were not necessarily hoping for a frameable image of your child...because that is a sure-fire way to end up disappointed, because of the whole "likeness" issue. But that is not to say you should leave portraiture alone completely...follow the lessons Don has offered you, and perhaps see if you can get hold of the William Maugham book I mentioned above, and you could certainly do well to copy some of the ddrawings of individual features, noses, eyes, etc.....as a student, I was encouraged to copy many old master drawings, it is a legitimate way to learn. There are certain specific things you need to know about how to TRANSLATE the three dimensional world, into marks on paper, and copying another artist (I used to copy Rembrandt drawings, and Durer, and many others) will teach you loads.

The best thing is to treat the whole learning thing as a fun occupation, trying out everything, learning what you can as you go along.

You will get all sorts of advice here, you have to sort out the wheat from the chaff, go with what feels right to you, put the other stuff to one side and relook at it at a later date. Often, what you hear on one particular day, you might not be able to use until you have a bit more experience under your belt, and then you might have a lightbulb moment!

10-07-2013, 07:51 PM
Paul Taggart has a whole series of facial feature lessons on YouTube.

10-09-2013, 04:27 PM
something not mentioned is that a graphite pencil and pastel don't work well together ;
the graphite has something greasy which won't mix with the dry pigment of pastel .

vine/willow charcoal sticks work way better , especially on paper .
if the line looks too dark , go over it with a tissue or soft brush ;
the result is a faint/diffuse line ,
and pastels will easily work over the line .

the charcoal sticks don't have a point , so they need to be pointed up often on a piece of sandpaper ;
120 grit or finer .

hope that helps . :)