Portrait Demo in Soft Paste: "The Cowboy"

I've just completed, "The Cowboy", a little portrait for a client whose grandchild was so proud to be a "cowboy" with a bandana wrapped about his neck. Hope you enjoy this little demo as much as I did creating it.

This was not painted from life but from a photo printed out on an inkjet printer. It's difficult enough painting from photos, but when painting from a digitized inkjet printer the colors are still further from the truth. The original shot (as you can see from the original below had other issues to deal with as well.

For instance, a flash was used right in front of the subject which flattened and washed out the face. This automatically eliminates shadows and floods the face with light. Additionally, the colors were much redder overall than would be found in real life. I'll show as we move along how I addressed these as well as other issues associated with using this photo.

To give me more information to work with, I asked the client for more photos to supplement for eye color, skin tones and the like in the hopes of creating a stronger painting. These were of great help for comparison.

I used Homasote as a backing board with several additional sheets of the same Canson paper beneath the painting. This allows the surface some "give" yet not mushy to paint on. If I paint on the Canson without extra pieces behind it, it would be like painting on a brick. Pastel can be wasted without this extra cushion because less goes onto the surface and falls from the painting.

Working in soft pastel on Canson was my choice (using the "felt" side) in this case as I wanted the child to have some texture but not as much as I would use for more rugged portrait treatments. I also knew the background would not be painted, therefore, the gray paper I chose was one which would work in harmony for a little boy with warm skin tones.

I started with a simple, light sketch of the basic facial structure, staying very loose at first. Also, knowing the scarf was an important feature to the client I had to be sure it would fit in the portrait.

Next, I indicated where the eyes would be again, loosely, since I wanted the flexibility for change; then I indicated some basic skin tones.

Note as well, that I added a bit more to the child's neck. I did not want him to look like his neck was attached to the scarf so opened that area up a bit.

After working the head a bit began painting in earnest, solidly blocking-in the largest areas Since the face and eyes in particular are where I wanted the viewer to look, that's where I concentrated my efforts But then I needed to add the red scarf to better relate it to the face. Red is a very intense, overwhelming color. So I knew I had to control it from early on.

Next, I began developing the scarf, pajamas, and continued refinements to the face. I elected not to add the pajama decorations since that would make the painting too busy.

Once the scarf was in, I developed the lights and darks and overlaid the design. Notice that I did not put in all of the designs, only those which would "read" as the original fabric and add to the "story" rather than detract from it.

Notice that compared to the original photo, I changed the position of where the light was coming from to bring more interest, dimension and naturalness to the boy. Therefore, I placed the eye highlights to the left rather than centered on the iris as the camera flash had done. I moved the nose and forehead highlights accordingly, but did not overdo as I did not want to lose the likeness or integrity of the subject.

I did not have a golf club handy as I usually do to use as a mhal stick to protect the paper from smudges of paint. So I carefully lifted excess color from around the figure using an kneaded eraser.

Lastly, I refined the skin complexion and applied more depth to the scarf.

I did not blend at all in this painting. I simply grazed one layer over another with ever increasing softer pastels. On the face I applied tiny strokes using Rembrant, Girault and NuPastel with notes of Sennelier, Terry Ludwig and Unison pastels to give body and solidity to the painting.

Here is a larger image of "The Cowboy." Finished size 16"x20"


Johnson is an award-winning artist and instructor with over 30 years experience and was Founding Editor of Plein Air Magazine (now Fine Art Connisseur. See all her current and archived sold works at LDianeJohnson.com
©1995-2009 L. Diane Johnson