Using oil pastels, my Advanced Drawing students tackled portraits with vibrant color and expressive style. My strategy for helping them work with bright colors is to first research examples of different color schemes and have students use one as a reference. I told students that we would be creating contorted portraits by giving our subjects exaggerated expressions. The features could be pushed or pulled; the tongue could stick out; eyes could bulge or be tightly closed.
Left: Eric L., Grandma, Gold Key winner, Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Right: Sophie W., Young Souls, Gold Key winner, Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.Left: Lauren F., Grandpa, Silver Key winner, Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Right: Ryan S., Smile!, Honorable Mention, Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
Using oil pastels, my Advanced Drawing students tackled portraits with vibrant color and expressive style. My strategy for helping them work with bright colors is to first research examples of different color schemes and have students use one as a reference.
Searching online for brightly colored stylized portraits (think bold paint strokes but also some realistic detail), I look for works painted in both pastel and acrylic. I rely on my artistic instincts, but there are some criteria I consider. The examples need to have a full range of value so shades must go from white to very dark tones. The portrait must also have detail and modeling and a range of bright colors. I would suggest finding five color schemes for students to choose from. Students might struggle to design an appropriate scheme of their own and will also be busy learning to use the oil pastels and taking their own original source image.
Controlling Oil Pastel
The first step was to play with the oil pastels and learn to control them. My students had very little experience with the medium. First, they selected a color scheme and then determined a value style. Look for oil pastel sets with a great selection of color choices including some dark valued colors other than black, which I suggest avoiding when working with bright colors.
Students looked closely at their chosen color scheme to find all the colors used, grouping them in categories of light, medium, and dark values. Then, using mirrors, we drew our own eyes, applying the colors from the value scale. The skills we practiced using the oil pastels were more important than the finished eye. I demonstrated how to produce small details, including thin lines. I also showed students how to apply the colors in strokes. I asked students to let the colors blend but also to allow bright, fresh colors to sit next to each other without getting muddy.
I told students that we would be creating contorted portraits by giving our subjects exaggerated expressions. The features could be pushed or pulled; the tongue could stick out; eyes could bulge or be tightly closed. This was a great opportunity to use someone from a different age group as the subject, particularly an elderly grandparent, who might have some extra wrinkles to create some interest. We would also need a light source to create shadows and a full value scale.
I worked with each student individually to choose the final photo and color scheme they planned to work with. I always want to ensure success for each student, so we make these choices together. I also don’t want to overload students with too much at once. Isn’t it enough to shade a detailed portrait in a stylized color scheme, using a medium you are not familiar with?
When students have confidence in their drawing skill, it’s easier to get the hang of using a new media and style, so I have students use a transfer or grid method to draw their portrait. The portrait photo students are working from should be converted to black-and-white. It’s simpler for students when all they have to do is match up the value scale of colors to a black-and-white value scale!
Imitating Color and Style
As students worked, I encouraged them to trust their color value scale and to observe and emulate the shades and shapes in their chosen color scheme example. Further variations in hue were needed on especially large areas. For example, a large area of orange might need some lighter peach or darker orange to make it appear more detailed and not so flat.
As students finished their portraits, we took time to experiment with ideas for background colors that would repeat and lead the viewer’s eye around the artwork. Overall, the portraits had a big impact. Viewers at our school found them stunning, and many won Scholastic Art Awards! Even without prior knowledge of graphite shading, portraits, and color schemes, students solved a number of problems from start to finish in this project. Through careful planning, we tackled complex styles and the medium of oil pastel to create colorful portraits that showed true expression.
Play and process-based art abound in the summer issue! Art teachers share lessons in which students can take risks and experiment with materials in a stress-free environment. Students create artful sound sticks to express emotions, assemble 3D hats inspired by art careers, collaborate or work solo to engineer mixed-media parade floats, draw colorful portraits with exaggerated expressions, and more.