Stephanie portrait in progress - start to finish
Updated: Jul 28
I’ve been laid up with an injury for several months and unable to work, so I decided to share some of my earlier portraits with you.
This portrait of Stephanie C. was commissioned by Vincent F. in 2008. I can’t tell you the whole story because it’s private. What I can tell you is that Stephanie was strongly connected to the Phoenix. You may know the Phoenix is a mythical bird that dies in a blaze of fire and then is reborn again whole from it’s own ashes. It symbolizes renewal and rebirth. Did you know that the Phoenix’s tears are healing? Vincent specifically wanted the Tears of the Phoenix included in Stephanie’s portrait. Because, he said, Stephanie healed him.
I don’t know a lot of the story. I think they both had hard lives. What I do know is that Vincent had struck up a friendship with Stephanie…they were hanging out together more and more…and he was falling in love with her. He commissioned the portrait as a surprise gift for Stephanie because he wanted to “take things to the next level” with her. Vincent told me he wanted the portrait to show Stephanie how beautiful she is.
I thought that was one of the most romantic things
I’ve ever heard from a man.
Here are the in-progress pictures I made to share with Vincent at the time. These steps show how the portrait was made….
I decided to work on “bisque” Canson paper — to capture the warmth of fire, and the beautiful mocha tones of Stephanie’s skin.
I start putting in the skin colors with colored pencil very lightly, because I will build up many layers very thickly to get smooth, luminous skin. On her forehead I’m just barely rubbing off pencil pigment onto the “tooth” of the paper, to get the form of her forehead (see close-up below).
I put in the dark hairs on either side of her face first….so I can build up the lighter pencil in between the hair gaps.
This shows a closeup of the Canson paper’s “tooth” - it’s texture - with the pencil rubbed across the “high peaks” of the tooth, on her forehead. Pressing harder and building up more layers of color (like on her cheek at far left) drives the pencil pigment down into the “valleys” of the paper’s tooth…thus covering the paper color more densely. The warm tan of the paper will always show through a little bit, no matter how heavily it’s covered, and influence any color pencil that is put over it.
The details of her eyes are pressed in very densely with sharp pencil. I don’t want tan color showing through there - in the whites, the dark pupil, the black lashes, or the white highlight.
I continue building up the colored pencil layers. Just starting to lay in the first highlight layers on her nose….
You can see where I have sketched two large ovals from the bottom edge of her hair. (Where the hair will end at her arm.) In the photo of Stephanie there were more stray hairs but I want to form a perfectly smooth oval for her head, her black hair. That will be a centerpiece of the portrait, and is what frames her glowing face. The lower curves of the oval will be covered up by her arms. They are just to guide me on getting a perfect curving flow, a perfectly balanced oval to her hair on both sides.
That is one of many little ways an artist creates more perfection in a portrait than what is in a photo. And a harmonious and pleasing composition.
Glowing cheeks and nose accomplished by carefully building up many layers of pale peach, pink, and “seashell” pencil colors, smoothing/blending them into each other, and into the tooth of the paper, as I go.
Her hand and fingers - full of many pencil colors and shades of color. I always start with the lightest color (like the pale beige on the side of her palm, the only pencil color there at this point) and then blending and working the darker colors, gradually into the darkest shades like at the upper edges of all her knuckles.
Her chin and beautiful smile. The skin on these lower, shaded parts of her face are full of mauves, pinks, dusty orange, muted purples and lavender-grey, blended smoothly with neutral “flesh” color pencil.
Lips are challenging to do. They have texture….but can’t look lumpy, nor too smooth like they are made of plastic. Teeth are very challenging too. Never, ever make dark lines between teeth.
The following 4 pictures show the artwork taped up on the wall of my studio.
After I had the skin of Stephanie’s face and hand finished, so that I could see the values (lightness/darkness) compared to the background, and the left side of her hair to create a sharp edge there…. I then put in the background using acrylic paint thinned with water (so it’s like watercolor).
The bluish-grey at the top is the finished color that will be there. The various shades of black in the rest of the background is an underpainting for the fire. I thinned the black paint more with water for the lighter areas and less for the darker blacks. Actually, the black watercolor makes a deep brown (not actual black) because the beautiful orangey-tan of the Canson paper shows through. Giving the whole painting a very rich, warm color-scheme.
Next I paint in red watercolor (acrylic thinned with water) for the color of the Phoenix.
I painted around the knuckles of Stephanie’s right hand, because I will do all of her skin with colored pencil, and I want that lovely paper color to show through to influence her skin tones. I have put just a thin wash on the shadowed parts of her arms so I don’t have to do quite as much coloring with darker shades of pencil. That’s just a bit of a time-saver.
The underpainting gave me a base to put in the glowing flames with bright white, yellow, orange, and red colored pencils. I didn’t need to color in a lot of darks with pencils because that was already there. That allows me to keep the bright, sharp colors of the flames very crisp with pencil strokes.
All of Stephanie’s skin completed.
The whole portrait is almost finished. All that's left to do is add the "pieces" of flames at either side. You can see the way I used the underpainting as the basic dark shapes of the fire, and then worked with bright colored pencils over that to give the flame details.