Pastels is a great medium for pet portraits. In fact, it's probably my favourite and is certainly one of the most popular with my clients. However, the finished artwork doesn't necessarily portray the amount of work that actually goes into a pastels painting. You see, it's all about technique and that means layering..... lots of blending and layering!
Any work will always produce better results if quality tools are being used (not forgetting the skill of the person using them). I always use professional standard papers and pastels. They are more expensive, but produce wonderful results and, for my clients, it means the vibrancy of their paintings (if cared for) should last a lifetime and beyond.
Starting with the paper then, I usually use Pastelmat or similar. This is more akin to card than paper and is ideal for pastels because it has a subtly 'toothed' surface which holds many layers of pastel and therefore allows the picture to be built up without requiring fixative. In case you're wondering, fixative is a spray which basically wets the pastel powder and bonds the grains together as it dries – I don't like using it, as it affects the colour of the pastels and I usually end up re-working areas to rectify.
OK, so we have our paper and now we need to create our portrait. I usually work by viewing my reference photos on the computer screen and, as I always say, the higher the photo's resolution, the better for capturing the finer details.
I start by sketching out a basic outline and positioning eyes, nose, mouth and other key details, such as specific markings. Sometimes I find it easier to do this bit on cartridge paper, as it allows me to make corrections more easily. I'd then transfer the outline drawing to pastelmat or the surface of choice.
Once I have my sketch I begin 'filling in' with a tonal layer. This marks out areas of light and shade and sets base colours to be built upon. It also helps avoid having bare areas where the paper shows through. I work quite quickly on this part, as it doesn't need to be perfect. It's the base from which the magic grows.
One of the features I add early on is the eyes. Again, I don't complete every detail, but I do like to have the eyes in place and recognisable early in the process. Once the eyes are there, the portrait has 'life' and the artist/subject relationship is established. Yes, we really do have a 'relationship' with our subjects, even when purely working from photographs and I know I don't just speak for myself here.
Developing the portrait is then simply a matter of perfecting the likeness and adding and blending colours, whilst regularly referring to the reference. I say 'simply', yet it's anything but simple really. Many more colours are used than you might expect, which combine to create the illusion of depth and breathe life into the image. For example, if I am painting the portrait of a black dog, I'm likely to use more blues and browns than black. To simply fill in the outline with a black pastel stick would result in a painting that was flat and lifeless. Additional colours may also be added to reflect the specific lighting and setting of the composition.... many factors need to be considered and no two portraits are the same.
It takes many hours and a great deal of patience from the point of making the first mark, to developing the portrait, layer by layer, into a 'living' portrait. each one is a labour of love.