Conveying character


Medium: Acrylic paint – various manufacturers, Conté à Paris crayons and Derwent Graphitint pencils and charcoal
Support: Galeria acrylic paper 300gsm (140Ilbs)

  • Acrylic: alizarin crimson, phthalocyanine blue
  • Conté crayons: Naples yellow, flesh, raw umber, titanium white, vermillion, Van Dyck brown, ochre, sienna, ultramarine
  • Derwent Graphitint pencils: Dark indigo and mountain grey
  • Derwent Tinted Charcoal: white

Brushes: Daler Rowney System 3 – 1” short flat
Size: 29.7 x 44 cm (11¾” x 16½”)

For this exercise the aim was to convey character and I decided to paint a portrait of my mother-in-law Cissie. I worked from a photograph which had been taken at a family gathering and I was trying to catch the delight that Cissie always showed when her family got together. 

Initial tonal study for 'Conveying character'

Initial tonal study for ‘Conveying character’

The photograph had been taken with overhead lighting and some indirect lighting on the face coming from the right. To focus on key areas I did a tonal study in pencil to help me work on the range of tonal values.

I decided to work using Conté à Paris crayons which are similar to chalk pastels but harder in consistency. In using them I was aiming to work more quickly for this exercise and also to concentrate on what was essential rather than getting distracted by detail. 

Sketch using white charcoal pencil

Sketch using white charcoal pencil

In the photograph Cissie was wearing a bright red cardigan and matching top which seemed to reflect the warmth of her personality and I decided to use the warm red as a background to the figure. Instead of buying paper specially designed for pastels I used Galeria acrylic paper which has a woven texture that I hoped would provide a degree of ‘tooth’ for the crayon, particularly for the texture of the skin and clothing.

Initial development

For this session I used a technique from Ettore Maiotti’s book ‘The Pastel Handbook’ [1] which I had previously used when trying a self-portrait in pastels for another exercise.

After each session, a very light spray of fixative is applied to ensure that less pastel rubs off. This allows adjustments to be made without the risk of rubbing out colour that has already been applied and lighter highlights can be added in the next session.

Layout of light to dark skin tones

Layout of light to dark skin tones

For this first session I used a blend of ultramarine and vermillion for the darkest tone, sienna and Van Dyck brown for the mid-tone and flesh for the lightest. At this stage – working from the tonal study and photograph – I was just trying to block in the main range of tones and establish the features.

Development of features

Development of facial features

Development of facial features

Applying the fixative, however lightly, does darken the image considerably so in the next session I worked more on the light to mid range of tones on the face and neck and added detail to the hair. Already the crayon was settling into the weave of the paper creating small patches of darker colour which suggested the texture of older skin – something I wanted to suggest but not overdo. Similarly I didn’t want to be too detailed with the mouth and teeth but to try to convey her smile by getting the right size and proportion.

I also worked on the glasses adding in the reflection of light on the bifocals at the lower rim and highlights around the frames.

Work on clothing

Work on clothing

Work on clothing

In the previous session I had been more mindful of blending the pastel to build up the shape of the face and features. In this session I concentrated on working with the acrylic paper and used strokes of Naples yellow and raw umber to create a suggestion of the knitted texture of the cardigan. Again, I only wanted to hint at this to ensure that the focus was kept on the face.

I developed the shading on the neck and hair and made a slight adjustment to the mouth and surrounding shadows.

Final session

Final version for 'Conveying character'

Final version for ‘Conveying character’

For the final session I used a mix of ultramarine, raw umber and Naples yellow to develop texture on the cardigan with cross-hatching. I did a little more work on the neck and added shadows and pattern to the red top.

Using Derwent Graphitint pencils in mountain grey and dark indigo I added finer detail in the darker areas of the eyes, mouth and cardigan.

Learning Points

  • One of my aims for this exercise, as well as conveying character, was to work on an older face and to consider the differences in features compared with a younger model. Apart from the more obvious skin texture there tends to be less detail around the eyes and eyebrows and less definition around the lips. In some ways using crayon ensured that I didn’t fuss so much on detail and concentrated on capturing expression.
  • I’m working largely on instinct with the crayons rather than following any specific techniques. Using the fixative between sessions does ensure that less chalks rub off but I had to almost over-work the lighter values to make sure that they didn’t darken down too much once ‘fixed’.

Overall I feel that I have managed to capture the warmth of Cissie’s personality. My husband thinks that the area of ‘triangle between the eyes and the chin’ is very like her. In the photograph her hair had more natural waves in it and I think that in making it slightly straighter I made her look younger – or perhaps that is just that sense of young at heart coming through.


1. Maiotti, E. (1989) The pastel handbook with charcoal and sanguine: learning from the masters, London: Aurum Press Ltd


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