Pastel: Wende Caporale: The Similarities in Painting Portraits in Oil or Pastel

Pastel: Wende Caporale: The Similarities in Painting Portraits in Oil or Pastel

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One of the top artists specializing in children’s portraits recently offered workshops for both oil and pastel painters. Although some of Wende Caporale’s specific instructions related to one medium or the other, her general discussions about the importance of drawing, value and temperature judgments, and dark-to-light progression were relevant to both.

by M. Stephen Doherty

The sequence of photographs
shown here document the
three-hour oil- and pastel-portrait-
painting demonstrations Caporale
offered during her workshop
in North Salem, New York.
Here she advised a student
in her studio.

The history of art is often the history of portrait painting, as many of the most important works by past masters such as Leonardo, Titian, Velázquez, Gainsborough, Holbein, Degas, and Sargent were portraits. Artists continue to be challenged to offer both a likeness of a sitter and a personal interpretation of what they observe, and there are a number of important contemporary portrait artists who conduct workshops, record video and DVD programs, and lecture at conventions. Wende Caporale is one such portraitist who shares her knowledge and professional experience with aspiring artists. Two years ago she allowed cameras to film an informative demonstration—Wende Caporale, Working From Life (Famous Painter Films, a Division of Jack Richeson Co.)—and this year she offered intensive workshops in Appleton, Wisconsin, and in North Salem, New York, for artists who wanted to paint the figure in either oil or pastel, the two painting media she uses to execute her own commissions.

In her workshops, Caporale offered demonstrations of her own approach, reviewed examples of her commissioned portraits, gave students time to paint from a live model, offered individual advice to each student, and concluded with general remarks about methods for continuing to learn and improve one’s skills and understanding. She offered similar lessons during her filmed program.

A detail of the oil-portrait
demonstration in progress.

In each of these classes, Caporale began by discussing the various decisions an artist must make while consulting with his or her client; then she gave instruction about drawing the model, laying out a palette of colors, and premixing appropriate skin and background colors.

Plan the Portrait
During her first meeting with a portrait client, Caporale discusses both the client’s expectations and her own recommendations. They talk about what is to be included in the painting—a head-and-shoulders, full-length, or three-quarters view of the person—where the picture will hang, and the subject’s personality and interests. Since many of Caporale’s commissions are for portraits of children, much of her dialogue is with the parents, but she always solicits opinions from the boy or girl about his or her preferences.

For the portrait documented in the video/DVD, the boy’s mother recommended a half-dozen shirts, jackets, and ties in neutral, midtone colors of brown, gray, and blue; and she sent one black shirt to be considered as well. Caporale recommended clothing that was not so stylish or elaborate that it would quickly date the portrait or distract from the child’s face. Caporale asked the model, Chris, if he would want to wear a formal outfit, such as a jacket and tie, or if he’d be more comfortable in a casual outfit. Chris quickly expressed a preference for an informal sport shirt, and Caporale indicated that one with a collar would be preferable.

Caporale looked at her
initial drawing through a
hand-held mirror to check
its accuracy. “Being able
to see a reverse image allows
me to become more objective
when evaluating my work,”
she explained.

With most of her commissions, Caporale takes photographs of her subjects in their homes, where they feel most comfortable, and she finds that natural light coming through a window is usually adequate. “I avoid having a child pose by a window where strong light is streaming in, as that may cause harsh shadows that age the appearance of the child’s face,” she explains. “I sometimes use a reflective piece of white board to bounce light into the shadow on the face to soften the shadows and make them less harsh. I may also try photographing the child outdoors with the sunlight coming from behind his or her head; but in most situations I prefer an indoor setting with the light coming from above the sitter—or what’s called a ‘Rembrandt lighting situation’—which draws attention to the cheekbones and chin line.”

When a client is able to come to Caporale’s studio in North Salem, New York, she has a greater number of options in terms of lighting, background cloth, model stand, and furniture. She illustrated how those varied choices can be evaluated during the filmed demonstrations. “I tried blue, white, red, black, and gray background cloths behind Chris, and each one presented a different balance of values, colors, and effects,” she described. “The red and black were quite dramatic but too strong for a young man; the white was too bland and made it hard to separate his facial features from the background. The gray, however, worked perfectly with the colors of his clothing, skin, and hair.”

Take Lots of Photographs
Once Caporale and her client come to a general agreement about the size, clothing, and pose of the figure, she takes dozens of photographs of the subject while asking him or her to move slightly in one direction or another, smile a little more or less, and angle his or her head in different ways. If there is still some uncertainty about the best clothing or background, the artist will take additional photographs, which can be used once a final decision has been made.

Caporale has contact sheets made of all her photographs, and once she has identified the one or two that will work best for the painting, she has 8-x-10 enlargements made. “I try to find the best photograph that has everything I want in the portrait,” Caporale explains. “I don’t want to be taking the eyes from one photograph, the mouth from another, and the hair from a third.”

After establishing the
initial drawing, Caporale
added dark pastel to the
shadow areas. Note the
“Rembrandt lighting” of the model.

Rely on Accurate Drawing
During her workshops, Caporale takes a considerable amount of time to offer tips on drawing the human head accurately. “Even if you work from photographs, it is very important to be able to draw well,” she tells her students. “You have to be aware of photographs’ inherent distortions and be able to adjust them accordingly. Furthermore, drawing skills are critical in making adjustments during all stages of the painting process.”

Using a piece of vine charcoal, Caporale made quick drawings of members of the class to demonstrate how an artist can use the average proportions of the head to determine how a specific model’s features may vary from that norm. “The standard proportions divide the head into three equal units of measure from the forehead to the eyebrows, from the eyebrows to the bottom of the nose, and from the nose to the bottom of the chin,” she explained. “When you look at a sitter you can judge how those relationships might be different, and that gives you a clue as to how to draw or paint a likeness. For example, if you recognize that the person’s forehead is larger than most, you can draw or paint it that way. Knowing several other standard proportional relationships will also help you judge the placement of the ears, the width of the mouth, and the distance between the eyes, for instance, because those averages help you determine the specific proportions of your subject.

A detail photograph of the
completed pastel portrait

“Some artists find it helpful to draw straight or angular lines rather than curving lines because those can sometimes be easier to use when judging distances,” Caporale added. “That is, lines indicating the top, bottom, and side of the head can be useful when determining the placement of the head on the canvas, and straight lines drawn from the head to the edges of the shoulders can aid in accurately putting a neck and chest below the head. You can use whatever system helps you arrive at an accurate drawing, but the most important thing is to be confident that you have the right framework on which to build your portrait.”

Caporale’s drawing demonstrations are usually done on a 16-x-20 sheet of paper because she finds it to be the most comfortable size for head-and-shoulders portraits of children. A student in the workshop asked Caporale to clarify a remark she made about using a plumb line to evaluate the lines of a drawing. She responded by explaining that artists use a variety of tools, including weighted strings, rulers, pencils, and paintbrushes, held in front of their eyes to judge the lines of their drawings against horizontal or vertical lines. “The point is to determine if your drawing is slanting one way or another and whether you have the features properly aligned,” she said. “You can use an actual carpenter’s plumb or just hold a pencil in front of your eyes at a 90-degree or 180-degree angle to your line of vision to make those determinations.”

Workshop students developed
their own portraits in
oil and pastel.

Premix a Palette of Oil Colors
Up to this point, all the instructional material covered in the workshop was general enough that it applied to either pastel or oil painting. The subsequent demonstrations applied to oil painting, and then to pastel painting.

Caporale’s standard palette of oil colors includes the following pigments, arranged from left to right: flake white, ivory black, Prussian blue, raw sienna, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow medium, Shiva cadmium scarlet, alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, raw umber, burnt umber, sap green, Shiva Thalo green, manganese violet, and Shiva violet deep. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that Caporale doesn’t usually use cerulean, cobalt, or ultramarine blue. “I find that Prussian blue is an intense, transparent color that combines well with other tube colors to give me what I need,” she explained.

It’s Caporale’s practice to mix several of these tube colors with varying amounts of flake white so that she will have a range of values available when painting. She demonstrated to the students exactly how she uses a brush to add increasing amounts of flake white, starting with the Shiva cadmium scarlet, followed by yellow ochre, and finally raw umber. “Those mixtures give me a full range of flesh tones,” she said. The artist also described circumstances in which she might blend ivory black, raw sienna, and flake white to make a greenish-gray color to balance the skin tones.

2002, pastel, 24 x 18.
Collection the Abernethy family.

Caporale then shifted the discussion to pastel painting and pointed out that she works with a complete set of Unison pastels. “As you probably know, pastels aren’t mixed together the way oil, watercolor, and acrylic paints are,” she explained. “An artist has to select the specific color and value needed, or he or she has to overlap several strokes of pastel so they blend in the viewer’s eyes to appear as if they have been physically combined. That means a pastel artist must have a wide assortment of pastel sticks to work with, and he or she may also need a few hard pastels, such as the Nupastels I use to begin the painting process.”

One of the principles common to both oil and pastel, Caporale pointed out, is the method with which an artist suggests depth and projection in a painting. “With both media, the degree of contrast among the colors and the relative hardness and softness of the edges are primarily responsible for indicating whether an object projects forward in space or recedes in the distance,” she described. “Generally speaking, colors are sharp and crisp when they project toward the viewer while edges become softer and the transitions among values become subtler as objects move back in space.”

A workshop participant picked up this discussion of projected form and asked Caporale about the special situation of painting a portrait of a person in profile. She answered by saying that since there was an absence of the usual value and temperature variations that would separate the left and right halves of a face, an artist would have to rely more on the difference in value between the figure and the background and between the sculpted appearance of the cheekbone and the eye socket. “You are correct that when painting a face in profile there is a tendency for the features to become flat,” she responded. “In that case you would have to depend on the contrast in values among the head, hair, neck, and background to give the figure a sense of dimension.”

2003, oil, 7 x 5.
Private collection.

Establish Shadow Patterns
Caporale finds it most effective to work from dark to light values on a surface toned with a middle value. “There are distinct advantages to that approach with both oil and pastel,” she told the class. “With oil it’s preferable to start with thin, transparent shadows and work into them with progressively lighter and thicker mixtures of color. With pastel it’s helpful to have underlying dark values as you make a variety of diagonal and horizontal strokes.”

Using her premixed palette of oil colors, Caporale demonstrated to students in her Wisconsin workshop how to use the darker values to block in the shadows, balancing the warm and cool temperatures she observed on different sides of the face as they were influenced by the light source. “The illuminated planes of the face closest to the light will likely be warm because the artificial light has a warm, yellow tone to it, and the shadows on the opposite will tend to be cool,” Caporale asserted. “Without complicating the demonstration too much, I’ll also mention that one will find warm color within the cool shadows and cool colors in the warm highlights. I’ll explore that further, but I just wanted to point out there isn’t an absolute separation between warm and cool colors.”

During the filmed demonstrations of pastel painting, Caporale took a similar approach to blocking in the basic values she observed in her live model, defining the dark color in the hair as well as the cast shadows on the side of the nose, cheek, and under the chin. She chose a cool violet Unison pastel and applied it in the areas previously outlined in hard Nupastel. “It usually helps to draw the outlines of the features and shadows with a hard pastel even if the colors aren’t completely lightfast,” she told the students. “If you keep those marks to a minimum, you shouldn’t have any problem, especially if you cover the hard pastel with quality soft pastels, such as those in the Unison line.”

2005, oil, 20 x 16.
Private collection.

Block in the Background
One of the reasons Caporale prefers to work on toned surfaces with oil and pastel is that the midtone value allows her to quickly establish the balance of dark, light, and middle tones in a painting. “Unless your model is posed in front of a strong, dark background or a very light piece of drapery, there’s no need to spend a lot of time working around the head until it is fairly well established,” she said. “The only reason you might want to adjust the color of the background, which is what I’m going to do now, is to keep the color temperature in mind as you go further in painting the flesh tones.”

Move Into Halftones
As she continued the process of working from dark to light, Caporale made diagonal strokes with midtone pastels while carefully observing the planes of the model’s face turning into the light. “You can get at least three different values from each stick of pastel depending on the amount of pressure you apply and the distance between the strokes,” she described. “You’ll get the richest effect by putting lots of pressure on the pastel. If you lighten up on the pressure or make the marks farther apart, the value will appear lighter or darker, depending on the colors beneath.”

A similar situation occurs with oil colors when the amount of solvent mixed with the paint is varied and when new strokes of color are pushed into those already on the canvas. “Artists will develop an instinctive understanding of how the variations can be used in developing a portrait,” says Caporale.

1998, pastel, 20 x 16.
Collection the Secor family.

Reference the Highlights
Although Caporale wasn’t completely finished developing the midtones of her pastel portrait, she felt the need to apply a few strokes of lighter colors in the representation of Chris’ forehead and on the left side of his face. “I want to have a sense of where I am going as I build the pastels from dark to light, and adding those few strokes of light color gives me that reference point,” she said. “I will keep in mind that the middle values need to become light enough to create a harmonious transition to the highlights without getting so bright that they compete with those final accents.”

Check the Drawing, Values, and Edges
Throughout the process of painting in oil and pastel, Caporale constantly stepped back from her developing portrait to recheck the drawing, identify potential problem areas in the color and value statements, consider the hard and soft edges, and confirm her plan for the next stage of the painting process. She also used the standard technique of looking at a reverse image of her painting in a hand-held mirror. “The mirror allows me to see both the model and the painting next to each other, and it jars my comfort level enough that I can immediately see any problem areas that need attention,” she pointed out.

Smooth Transitions and Add Highlights
Caporale was particularly concerned about the soft transitions of values on the bridge of the nose, in the cast shadow under the chin, and on both sides of the lips. She used light strokes of the Unison pastels to soften those transitions, sometimes moving the stick in a horizontal direction rather than a diagonal one. “In general, I stroke a brush or a stick of pastel in a motion that follows the contour of the face, but occasionally it helps to apply color in horizontal strokes,” she explained.

The final stage of any painting process is the addition of highlights, and those are especially important in a portrait because they give life, dimension, and sparkle to such features as the tip of the nose, the pupils of the eyes, the bottom lip, and the cheekbones. Bracing her hand with a mahlstick, Caporale used both a sharpened Nupastel and a warm colored Unison pastel to add those important accents.

About the Artist
Wende Caporale is a master pastelist with the Pastel Society of America and has received awards in juried exhibitions organized by American Artist and by pastel societies in Connecticut, Kansas, and Maryland. She holds a B.F.A. from Paier College of Art, in Hamden, Connecticut, and she studied painting at the National Academy and the Art Students League of New York, both in Manhattan, and in private workshops. She is a popular instructor of pastel painting for the Portrait Society of America, the Northern Westchester Center for the Arts, in Mt. Kisco, New York, and in workshops. Caporale and her husband, artist Daniel E. Greene, live in North Salem, New York, with their daughter, Avignon. Contact Caporale for more information.

M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief of Workshop.

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Watch the video: How to Paint Portraits wih Pastel (May 2022).