Pastel Portraits: Demo de Gwenneth Barth-White

In her pastel portraits, Gwenneth Barth-White draws on the delicate nuances and rich sensuousness of layered pastel, as seen in this step-by-step demonstration.

Barth-White charcoal value sketch

1. Charcoal value sketch

1. Charcoal Value Sketch:

The sun is setting low, casting a red-gold beam on my model from the window. I’m crazy about this light situation in pastel portraits, and do a small charcoal sketch to see how this arrangement would work as a painting. I photograph the scene quickly.




2. Color study

2. Color Study

Then a small sketch in pastel as a study for color is in order. Whether creating pastel portraits or still lifes or landscapes, I need to determine that a contrast between warm and cool complementary colors will work in the piece.



3. Pastel value drawing

3. Pastel Value Drawing

After viewing the studies, I’m still excited by what I see, so I decide to commit! On Clairfontaine’s white Pastelmat mounted on Gatorboard, I sketch the scene and then draw it more precisely, leaving lots of space around my composition so that I can change it at will. I love to crop down to the essence of my pastel portraits, as this creates a sense of intimacy with the subject. I’m using a Caran d’Ache pastel pencil of the darkest brown, as well as the edge of Rembrandt’s darkest grayish brown pencil. Establishing values at the beginning of a piece is vital, as these are the foundation of a painting.



4. Alcohol wash

4. Alcohol Wash

Next, a wash of alcohol with a bristle brush pushes these pigments into the paper so that the surface will be completely receptive to additional pigment when I start with the color.



5. Begin color

5. Begin Color

I start applying the color with Rembrandt and Girault pastels, slightly blending this layer and pushing it into the paper with a pastel pencil. I avoid touching the paper at any time, and do any blending with the pencil, a pastel stick or a piece of Styrofoam.



6. Model

6. Model

I try for a maximum of pigment (Pastelmat holds it surprisingly well), now using Girault and Unisons, blended or not with a pencil or a pastel stick. As with oils, a lot of pigment makes modeling in pastel especially delicious.



7. Experiment on a photo

7. Experiment on a Photo

This is a moment for decisions. I realize that this painting can only be primarily a value or a color piece. I’m stuck in the blahs and am really unhappy, so I photograph the piece (as seen in image 7) and print out a few copies of it on matte photo paper, which takes pastel. On these copies I try out strong color contrasts (nope) and dark neutrals (deadly). Working on small photos of your pastel portraits gives you the freedom to try out variations, while keeping the painting fresh.



8. Maximize contrast

8. Maximize Contrast

I decide to go for maximum contrast, simplifying the background with darks (but nourishing them with cool greens, purples, and blues), and maximizing the golden light that I’d first loved. But how can I make that sunlight vibrate? Each of my pastel portraits is a mystery that takes an arsenal of techniques to solve. I speckle rich ultra-soft Schmincke and Terry Ludwig oranges and yellows in the shirt and neck, blending it just a bit. This is incredibly fun.

9. Lay in Final Lights


9. “Greg” (pastel on paper, 7×13) by Gwenneth Barth-White

Bringing out those last lights with a Schminke pastel produces one of those truly great feelings. I force myself to stop before the painting becomes too tight. Greg (above) is complete.

See More Pastel Portraits by Notable Artists

  • Read the feature article on Gwenneth-Barth White in the January-February 2015 issue of The Artist’s Magazine (available November 6, 2014)
  • Ned Mueller gallery
  • Alain Picard gallery; Alain Picard (preview of his DVD)
  • Z.L. Feng gallery
  • Ellen Eagle gallery


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