Cuong Nguyen’s Pastel Technique

Cuong Nguyen pastel demo LGAA 3:9:12

Cuong Nguyen demonstrating his pastel technique today at the Los Gatos Art Association

Cuong Nguyen talking with LGAA members 3:9:13

We were eager to watch the process unfold while Nguyen shared bits of wisdom.

Cuong Nguyen's pastel demo at LGAA 12-13

In no time at all Nguyen had sensitively rendered the focus of the portrait. I love all the color that’s layered in the pigment!

Marie Cameron with Cuong Nguyen at his LGAA  demo 3:12

OK, I really need to get a camera that’s easier to operate! Thanks Coung!

We were really fortunate to have Cuong Nguyen share his pastel technique with us today at the Los Gatos Art Association!  He’s not just a fabulous, award winning portrait artist  represented by John Pence Gallery in San Francisco and teaching at Triton Museum of Art but he’s really a pleasure to be around funny and insightful and he has a wealth of knowledge to share!

He demonstrated his process of layering pastel in rendering a woman’s face. After the initial outline of his drawing, he uses his sharp pastel pencils at a very oblique angle to softly shade in his subtle layers of color. He begins with greens for the undertones and builds up with with ochres and siennas that blend seamlessly. Once the mid-tones are fairly well established, he goes back in with his highlights and shadows. It was just magic to watch him work and he tossed out all kinds of fab tips that oil painters like me know nothing about. For instance, you can’t erase pastel or wet it, you’ll only ruin the sanded paper. If you need to remove something you need to lightly whip it with a soft paper towel.

I was lucky enough to snag him before the demonstration for some quick advice on a portrait I’ve been working on. In seconds he was able to point out the areas that were really working  (the painterly lace, cut off jeans and skin) and zoom in on the issues I had with the deep contrast between light and shadow playing over the subject’s face. I need to soften up the contrast he said, especially in painting a woman’s neck and face and watch the “cut out” effect extreme contrast can give around the edges of forms as well. This really can flatten them out. That’s the problem with painting from photos. He said sometimes you have to paint not only what you see but also what you know. I think this is brilliant and key to remember in the struggle to capture a likeness, after all, do you want a likeness of a photo or of a person?

It’s funny, I brought my painting into the meeting because I thought there was to be a critique after the demo  – turns out it was a competition and even in it’s unfinished state my painting was awarded second prize! The best prize of course was Nguyen’s golden advice maybe once I apply it three will be a first place lurking around the corner!

You can see his work at!




  1. Betty Cameron says:

    Art is all about sharing, many do this in the pieces themselves, others just have it in them to be very generous givers in person, aside from the work & give freely an essential part of themselves….their personalities when engaged & sage experienced advise, the gem of sharing when solicited.

    These are the not-to-be-forgotten persons-fellow artists, truly.

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