Steps to CJ’s Portrait

Snapshot of CJ
Snapshot of CJ

CJ’s dad, Casey, who is also an artist, asked me for the steps to making CJ’s pastel Tweak portrait. I told him they take about eight hours so I’d try to give the condensed version.

First I find a photo that strikes me. Why? Different reasons-the way the sunlight shines through someone’s hair, the soft light falling on a soft cheek, but mostly the fact that the subject’s personality is there. This is a mysterious quality; people are far more than meat. Any commercial photography studio can capture the physical form of a subject far more accurately than an artist, if that’s all you want.

cjoriginalpastelFirst I made a regular pastel sketch of CJ, striving for the expression almost the way a caricaturist does. Isn’t it odd that a caricature is recognizable as the subject while some painstaking portraits are just not “them”? I work to get the proportions correct, knowing that they won’t be perfect. The background colors are chosen with attention to the mood and coloring of the subject. CJ has a deep tan and the warm tones of his skin needed a cool background. I cannot get the details I want in pastel. Pastels are chubby stubs of chalk and they create an impression (often a gorgeous impression) of the subject.

But I was a professional oil portrait artist long ago and I like the little details that make a person unique, like the slightly crooked smile or the dash of green in blue eyes. So I photograph the pastel portrait and take it into Photoshop. I set up a panel with the photo on one side and the pastel on the other and begin the many hours of tweaking.

This is not a Photoshop tutorial and this cannot be done unless you are fairly skilled at painting in Photoshop. There are big, fat books on Photoshop and I own one. Why not just paint the whole thing in Photoshop? For me, it’s too slick. I like the sparkle, randomness and translucence of the pastels. I compare the colors, use the rulers to check proportions, paint with the various sizes and opacities of brushes (I made my own hair brushes), just like I used to do with oils. I smudge and blur and liquefy and agonize.

cjblocked inAt the stage when the color planes are laid in, before any blending, I often save the image because it has an abstract quality that is interesting. Hours have passed in these struggles when I leave it for awhile, because I can no longer “see” it. When I reopen the image, any mistakes come glaring out at me. In CJ’s case, his ear was way too big and too low on his head. I fuss at myself while I fix the errors.

CJ’s portrait had another challenge-that hair! Beautiful ringlets with frizzy trailing tendrils. Hair can be painted in Photoshop and this would look more real than reality and take another several hours. It would also mean losing the spontaneity of the wild pastel strokes.

So I went back to the pastel “cartoon” and re-worked the hair and background and photographed it again. I imported it into Photoshop and cut and pasted the hair and background onto the finished face (this requires lots of fiddling with sizing.) This looked ugly until I joined the two images together properly, adding some painted sections to the pastel ringlets. Then I take another break and re-open the image. If it moves me in some way, I’m done. If it lacks life, I despair. And try again the next day.

The portrait is now digital. I send it to a professional art printer and the client will receive a portrait on linen art paper in 8X10, 11×14, 16×20, or larger sizes. They can also be printed on canvas, including gallery wrapped canvas ready for hanging. The advantage to having prints on archival paper is that colors won’t fade over time, smudge if you rub them, be ruined if you get them wet. And clients can order more prints as gifts for relatives at a low price.

Note: You may notice that the portrait is subtly different than the photo. CJ is a good-hearted and laid back young man. People who know him LOVED this portrait, in which he sparkles-but calmly. : )

Pastel tweak portrait
Pastel tweak portrait

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