What Goes Into a Portrait

Today I finished a commission – a simple 8×10 drawing of a baby from an old photo. Pretty straightforward, eh? Not so fast.

First step, meet or communicate with the client about what they’re looking for. Is this a gift? What is the subject like? Where will it hang? Rarely will I accept one photo without looking at some options, because rarely does a client understand the difference between a nice photo and a potential portrait. In this case the baby was the daughter of the client and she wanted her to look vibrant.

pencilsNext step, choosing the medium. If it’s full-color I have to decide between colored pencil or pastel; if it’s a limited palette I have to choose between charcoal, hard pastels, soft pastels, pastel pencils, or colored pencils (hard or soft). Since this image was so small and delicate I wanted as much control as possible. Colored pencil is not very forgiving, being wax-based, so I went with a pastel pencil (dark brown), along with white and black charcoal pencils for detail, a white Conté crayon and a robin’s-egg-blue soft pastel for color, inspired by the paint color in the client’s livingroom.

Now for the paper. There are specific papers designed for specific media, so I dragged out every pad of pastel paper I owned and laid out some neutrals on the table. Since the goal was vibrancy but the subject was extremely delicate, I chose a light beige on the warm side, not too yellow or too gray, and tested it with the chosen media to see how they looked together.paper

The photo is then scanned into my laptop and adjusted, if necessary. I print out a hard copy in 8×10 grayscale to help transfer it to the drawing paper. For larger pieces I overlay a piece of clear vellum with a half-inch grid on top of the photo, and draw a one-inch grid on the paper, to be erased later. For this size I traced the darkest values with a graphite pencil, to get a sense of the proportions.

So that’s at least two day’s prep before the drawing or painting even begins.

erasersNow I work from a large monitor above my drawing table plugged into my laptop that lets me zoom into details. In addition to the pencils, I have various erasers and blenders, plus my fingers to manipulate the media. I work in silence, other than the dogs barking at squirrels and rabbits, and sip a cold-brew ice coffee throughout. This portrait was so small it required pointillism more than anything else, making the tiniest marks and trying to remove any eraser crumbs. Confession time: in the process of blowing off eraser crumbs I accidentally spit on this pretty little drawing. HEART ATTACK. Does spit dry clear? Can it be covered up?? Rest assured, it dries and disappears, unlike the coconut oil I accidentally transferred from my arm to a previous drawing (See “Keith and Emmett).

Now it’s time to sit, stare, take notes, move it around, fix things, take photos, fix some more things, and finally take the final photo, which is what you see. And at some point I’ll remember to sign it (heading back to the drawing table to sign it…).


Featured artwork: Anna, 2016. Pastel and charcoal on paper, 8×10 inches

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