News from Stark Raven Studios: Dan and Saga's blog about blacksmithing, art, and daily life and  work on their tiny Wisconsin Northwoods homestead.

Evolution of a Portrait

Pastel portrait of Ariel

by Saga Erickson

I love to do portrait work and I recently got a commission from a repeat customer (always a good thing). Several years ago, she had me do a pastel portrait of her granddaughter, Ariel. Now she has a grandson, Tyler, and wanted me to capture his character in pastels as well. I thought it might be a cool idea to show folks how I do a portrait. So, I'm including step by step pictures of the process. I'm hoping to do a video of the next commission, which I'll be starting next week. 

Original photoby Lifetouch

Original photoby Lifetouch

When I start any portrait type of work, whether is people, animals or a combination. I do work from photos. When I am doing illustration work, I am less likely to use a source. But, portrait work is more precise. I use a technique that is hundreds of years old and was used by the great masters throughout the ages. I use a grid. I take advantage of modern technology when I do a layout of more than one image and will do my layout for a new portrait in Adobe photo-shop, that way I can manipulate the composition until it looks right and will work as a painting. 

grid layout

grid layout

Once I have a layout I'm happy with, I print it and grid the surface that I'll be working on to scale. Then I number the grids to correspond with each image. Then I do a rough sketch from the gridded layout, square by square.

When I'm happy with my rough sketch, I erase the grid-lines and begin to fill in the background. Then I start building layers of shadow and light. It doesn't matter what medium I am using, I begin blending and sculpting the pigments with my fingers as well as my brushes. It can get pretty messy. 

This particular portrait was meant to be in grey scale, but I started getting a bit carried away and added color accents as well as some pop culture imagery in the background. I sometimes get a bit carried away when it comes to "artistic license." 

Finished Portrait

I love seeing a portrait come to life beneath my fingertips. A swipe of a pastel here, a brush stroke there and both hands into the piece, molding, shaping contouring.  Sometimes it feels that I am sculpting a symphony of colors, where every shade and nuance gives the piece greater depth.


I like to finish a piece with some fine line work to enhance certain features such as the eyes, a lock of hair or maybe the curve of the nose. I also put in additional highlights to bring out the subjects personality and character.  

For more information be sure to contact us! We're always happy to do custom work and we also offer classes.

Be sure and check our calendar for upcoming classes and events. We also offer individual classes,  if you'd like to learn how to paint or draw