The anonymous portrait series is a set of oil pastel drawings on black paper. For each drawing, I chose two or three oil pastel colors—usually bright, and often not skin toned (for example, the drawing below uses bright blue oil pastels). I referenced anonymous individuals in stock photos. I intentionally chose photos with harsh light to provide more interesting shadows on the faces.
Here’s my most popular image from the oil pastel portrait series:
If you’re an artist, I recommend trying some drawings like these. It’s a great exercise for developing two abilities in particular: first, it develops your ability to capture face likenesses.
This can be an intimidating skill to practice, because even getting a face a little bit wrong can result in an absurd-looking drawing. Using stock photos helps remove a little bit of the inertia leading up to working on this skill, since the photos were already relatively absurd or cheesy (so your drawings can hardly make them look sillier) and because they are of people you don’t know (so you don’t risk drawing someone you know in an inaccurate or unflattering way).
Secondly, it develops your ability to break down light and shadow. Choosing 2–3 colors based on their relative lightness or darkness and not by their resemblance to actual skin tone causes you to do a little bit of mental gymnastics. You have to switch your thinking from about what the face looks like, and instead focus on where the dark, medium, and light tones fall on the page.
I wrote another blog post that explains some of this thinking in greater detail with a concrete exercise you can try.
I started the series in 2011, but I still may occasionally add to it from time to time. As I do, the new images will show up here in this post, so if you like the series, keep it bookmarked!
Why a series?
Much of my art is in series, as opposed to one-off works. While I enjoy doing both, I do so for distinct reasons. If you’re an artist, you’re welcome to apply the philosophy I’m about to outline to your work as well.
One-off art pieces work well for an idea that can be contained in one frame. That may seem obvious, but I spent a lot of my art-making time not giving myself the freedom to extend an idea beyond one frame. Next time you have an idea for an art piece, allow yourself to explore options beyond a single frame—you might be surprised about what else you think of.
Art series work well for me for three main reasons. If you’re an artist who hasn’t experimented with series before, I recommend considering each of these as you come up with your next art idea.
- Defining a series is a great way to focus in on getting better at a particular subject, art style, or medium. It takes discipline to figure out how to use a new skill, but you can make that process more fun. It’s harder to come up with new one-off pieces to work on than it is to continue a series. If you want to really sharpen a skill, you’ll can motivate yourself to work on it through an art series.
- I like to create art based on text for exploratory or educational purposes. If this is a mode you use to get artistic inspiration, you may find that often, series are a much better way to do this than one-off art pieces. They allow the artist to focus on smaller bits of information in each art piece. This way, you can approach a topic from multiple angles instead of just one, giving both you and the viewer a more in-depth experience.
- Sometimes, you might just want to try out a new art supply. This may not be your experience, but in mine, often someone will donate an art supply to me and I’ll need to figure out a use for it. You might be surprised how often this happens; people buy art supplies thinking they’re going to take on a new hobby or skill, give up, and then give me free art supplies. I won’t complain: I’m always happy to get these donations.
In almost every series I create, I have reasons from both the first and second categories above. In this series, it was a combination of all three that kicked the oil pastel on black paper series into gear.
About the anonymous portrait series
I started this anonymous portrait series for two reasons: first, because a friend donated a pad of black paper and a set of oil pastels, and I needed to learn how to use them.
Secondly, as I mentioned above, I wanted to be able to draw the human face accurately and with less difficulty. There are so many subtleties to an expression, and I wanted to work on analyzing and recreating these subtleties with more expertise.
Oil pastel on black paper turned out to be an excellent combination of materials. I chose the subjects of my drawings from miscellaneous stock photos—often really cheesy ones at that. I wanted the people in the portraits to be from totally anonymous faces.
I did this for two reasons. First, with this method, I could practice creating expressions without the pressure of needing my drawing to accurately represent the person’s likeness. With an anonymous subject, it wouldn’t really matter if the nose was slightly too round or the eyes a little farther apart—the person would still look like a person. I was free to totally focus in on the mood.
Second, I liked the idea of taking something cheesy and extracting a drawing from it that was anything but. I don’t think I succeeded at this in all of the drawings, but it was a rewarding challenge.
Each drawing only took about an hour to create. I still have a long way to go before I use up the entire pad of black paper and all the oil pastels.
Here are the remaining drawings in a slideshow. Click to enlarge.
Unofficial series additions
I’ve created quite a few other anonymous portraits that don’t stick with the canonical medium of 9″ x 12″ black paper and oil pastel that I established for the series. The parameters for the subject matter were the same (I used an anonymous stock photo for reference), but often I varied the medium for exploratory purposes. In these additional drawings, the materials include spray paint, watercolor, marker, acrylic paints, chalk pastel, illustration pen, charcoal, and more.
In most of the drawings, I put my own spin on the expressions represented in the photos.