First, A Bit About What You Don’t See:
I have to admit that I’m fascinated by what you don’t see in this portrait: the amazing, beautiful hunting dogs that made this bounty possible. They are highly disciplined creatures that go through intensive training to overcome their own natural and powerful instincts. Their devotion, patience, and obedience is inspiring (a reason why you should pop over to The Remarkable Reasons Why People Love Dogs More Than Cats).
Planning Ahead (Pun Intended):
Even with a fairly large canvas (sanded paper mounted to board), the heads ended up being rather small. And small is no friend to detail work in pastels, I assure you! I plan every commission around the head because that’s where the most interest usually lies and, hence, where the most detail should be located.
- Hard pastels (I don’t remember the brand and I’m sitting here looking at it and there is no discernible branding on it, but I can tell you there are 140 pieces in it)
- Rembrandt soft pastels
- Stabilo pastel pencils
- Ampersand Pastelbord (18×24)
There are plenty of camouflage and earthy tones in this composition so I picked a nice green pre-toned board. You may not believe it, but green also makes a fantastic underpainting for skin tones. (Hmmm…I should remember this for future reference, I seem to keep forgetting.)
Sketching It In:
I could have sketched the foundation in with a dark pastel, but that would never have worked for the water nor the heads. I wanted to preserve the luminescence of the faces so they remain a strong focus of the painting. In pastels, it is very hard to regain the light after you’ve gone dark so you need to plan ahead.
I used a projector to copy the photo onto the drawing surface. (That’s right, I admit it!) When I’m doing a commission I need accuracy, and I’m on a deadline so I need speed. Tracing has become my go-to shortcut that fulfills both of these needs.
Starting With the Background:
A pastel painting is a very dusty business. As you draw the pastel stick across the sandpaper-like surface, dust invariable forms. Even when your painting surface is tilted slightly forward as it should be, some dust can still dirty your painting as it falls. Because I want the foreground objects to be as crisp as possible, I try to paint from top to bottom and from back to front.
The sky was bright and clear so I chose a warm light blue as the main sky color. You might be surprised to find out that I use just a hint of lemon yellow as the sky approaches the horizon. (You can see it now, can’t you.) This gives the painting a sense of the atmosphere in the distance.
Making Water Shimmer:
Water reflects the sky, but often in cooler tones. I chose grays and soft lavender to note the reflection in the distance. As the water approaches the viewer, we can see down into the character of the marshy depths. In this painting, the water was a shallow marsh upon deliciously reddish mud. (Alabama red mud is legendary and crazy hard to wash out of clothing, I might add.)
Interestingly, as marshes go, there were a lot of reeds in the water. I chose to edit them out because I knew the painting was going to be busy enough. I mean, look at all the gear and those ducks – it’s a lot for the eye to take in. I edited out as much of the extraneous detail as I could without compromising the activity to keep the focus on the two gentlemen.
Building the Colors:
This is where the masses of colors are laid in. I try to find one unifying color that represents the whole of a particular area, be it the arm, or jacket, or legs. After a large blocking in, the shapes and colors are refined with tighter and tighter details. The faces will contain the most detail because that is where the main focus will be. The ducks become a secondary focus.
Pushing the Darks:
Suddenly it pops! Pushing those darks makes it so much more visually interesting. Darks give you depth and realism.