In Spring 2017 I had the chance to participate in a two-week pastel portrait workshop with Cuong Nguyen
in the beautiful Belgian city of Bruges. He is a Vietnamese-American artist who works in oil and pastel and is renowned for his life-like portraits and his glowing naturalistic skin tones.
Although we were only 5 participants, Cuong had insisted on teaching the course which gave him time enough to attend to each of us individually.
During the workshop, we worked from life models and from photographs. Cuong always started with a demo and then painted alongside us.
I will demonstrate his technique with step-by-step photos of a painting I did during the workshop from one of my own photos.
Material: Sennelier LaCarte in dark grey (Cuong’s preferred paper
colour), light blue or brown.
Stabilo Carbothello pastel pencils
Cuong has developed a palette which he adapts to the individual skin tone.
Cuong starts his portraits by measuring the proportions and putting featherlight marks on the paper. That way, he develops an ‘envelope’, a kind of outer frame for the head and then adapts the measurements and refines the individual features. A superb draftsman with experience of more than thirty years, he infallibly produces an amazing likeness while subtly enhancing his subject’s best features.
1. Cuong uses two values of caput mortuum for sketching and shading.
2. He then uses a light pinkish pastel to establish the highlights.
3. The next step follows Cuong’s famous ‘green foundation’. The concept is not new; oil painters have made use of a ‘Verdaccio’ underpainting for centuries. Cuong explains it this way: ‘The green layer is effective because it helps to balance the subsequent layers of earlier colours. Green and red are complementary colours, at opposite sides of the colour wheel, so their juxtaposition creates a more vibrant effect. The hint of green visible below the surface also suggests the veins just below the skin’ (Excerpt from Cuong Nguyen’s eBook ‘Creating realistic skin tones’ Volume 1).
Cuong uses two or three shades of green for the light and mid tone areas and for the shadow areas. He uses a very light touch, so the original drawing stays visible.
4. Cuong adds a light layer of dark ochre (shadow areas) and sienna (mid tone and highlight).
5. Cuong then adds a layer of Light Caput mortuum over the whole face. A layer of skin tone is added to the highlight and mid tone areas.
6. After so many layers, the highlights have to be re-established with a very
light flesh tone or ivory colour.
Now the magic begins; Cuong applies red to the nose and cheek bones and
around the eyes. All of a sudden, the portrait is becoming infused with blood
and the subject becomes alive. This is the end of the underpainting stage.
All the values have been established.
7. In the next stage, the colour temperature is refined and details are being worked on. Cuong now goes back and forth to build upthe individual skin tone. He also works on the eyes and the hair. This stage can take quite a long time, but the final result is a portrait that glows with life!
For a more detailed description of Cuong’s technique and the pencils he uses, visit his website and download his excellent e-books at:
Our host during the workshop was the ‘Flemish Classical Atelier’ which is housed in a historic hospital building in the old town centre of Bruges. For more information about their courses, visit:
The finished portrait