I fell in love with pastels for their bright and glorious boldness but as our relationship developed I began to appreciate more and more the quiet beauty of the muted greys. So in this video I explore the more restrained colours that can help develop a more subtle mood.
Painting with pastels is very intuitive. I think this is because it takes us back to our childhood when we used crayons and chalks in a very fluid way. We hadn’t started judging our art yet so we were happy with every picture we drew. For me, picking up a pastel stick takes me right back to that happy place where each stick of luscious colour was there to be slathered on the paper with joyous abandon. I don’t worry about the end result I just enjoy the experience.
Using pastels is a combination of drawing and painting and there are many different mark making techniques to experiment with. The more you paint the more ways of manipulating the pastel you’ll discover.
When I started out I used a small range of simple marks and they still form the basis of most of my paintings. Of course I’ve learned a lot over the years and developed some of my own ways of adding texture and interest but the basics underpin all my work. You can check out a demonstration on my mark making video.
Different pastels for different marks
The type of mark you make with a pastel depends on a number of factors:
the hardness or softness of the pastel stick
the amount of pressure you exert
the part of the pastel that comes in contact with the paper
Soft pastels v. hard pastels
Soft pastels give up their colour more generously with less pressure than hard pastels. It’s surprising how easy it is to “eat” up a soft pastel when using it on sanded paper. Less pressure is the rule here! The marks are generally softer and more rounded than a hard pastel as it’s more difficult to keep a sharp edge on a soft, round pastel. Soft pastels lend themselves to natural forms such as clouds, trees, flowers, landscapes, skies, animals etc
Hard sticks are often square and are wonderful for sharp, linear marks that you would find in grasses, wire fences, boat masts, rigging and architectural details. Compared to soft pastels you will need to use more pressure to get the same amount of pastel deposited on the painting surface. They are also a more economical way to block in large amounts of colour in the early stages of a painting with the added advantage of leaving gaps in the colour to allow optical mixing of later layers.
Here you can see the larger swathes of colour left by the soft pastels creating shadows in the grass clump and the crisper linear marks made with the edge of hard pastels help to define the individual grasses.
Where the pressure has been lighter the pastel has less contact with the paper so the grasses are thinner and finer. By increasing the pressure you can vary the thickness of your mark.
Side of the pastel v edge of the pastel
Using the side of a round or square pastel you can lay down broad strokes of colour quickly to establish areas of sky, water and land. Then the edge of the pastel can be used to add crisper details.
Here you can see that I’ve used the broad side of different blue pastels to make sweeping bands for the sky and water. Layering these blues will give your sky and sea more interest. Then I came back in with the edge of a white pastel to suggest some sails.
Rounded end v sharp tip of the pastel
The rounded end of a pastel is useful for painting trees and bushes in the landscape. Just moving the pastel the paper in a scrumbling motion will give a soft rounded form. When you come to adding in branches, trunks and stems a sharp tip is just the thing.
Try slanting the pastel so differing amounts come in contact with the paper to give a natural variety in your tree and shrub shapes.
Bringing it all together
So let’s see how we can bring these basic techniques together to create a painting full of life and interest. This a little 30 minute sketch using the basic techniques. You can join me and paint along as I demonstrate how to paint this in a step by step video.
You can copy and print this reference photo if you would like to practice these techniques or paint along with me.
I would love to see your paintings so feel free to post a link in the comments section.
It’s a fact that the more familiar I become with a painting subject the easier the actual execution of the elements becomes , the freer the paint or pastel application flows and the more instinctual the response to the material is. All this adds up to a fluid, responsive, and totally “in the moment” painting experience.
When I stop thinking about how to get the shape of a particular rock , or what colour to use in those shadows or how to create a sense of movement in the water things happen almost by themselves.
How do I get to this stage?
Getting to this stage is relatively straight forward – I paint a series! Of course this can become all consuming if I let it so I need to know when I’ve exhausted the material and said all there is to be said about it. To help recognise the moment to stop I organise myself before I start.
Preparing the references for a series.
In an earlier post Cropping is my Friend I explained how I took the original photo above and cropped it many times to create new painting references. From the many crops I did I whittled it down to three possible series – and here they are.
The Shadows series
Here I focus on the shadows on the sand using different formats gradually cropping in to a intimate view which emphasises the subject. Here’s my my first painting in this series.
The Reflections series
Now I turn to the reflections bringing more attention to the water. Although the shadows are still in there it’s clear that the real subject focus has shifted to the golden reflections of the cliffs.
Shadows and reflections
The Cliff series
It seems a natural progression to zoom in on the cliffs now. The ochres and yellows glow and there are opportunities to make a feature of the gumtrees on the headland.
Cliffs and boat
The Abstract series
After all those crops it became apparent to me that the reflections were the real pull for me in this photograph so now I get rid of much of the other subject matter and just focus on a sliver of the shore and the wonderful golden reflections.
Abstract reflections 2
I’m a bit excited by these possibilities now so all I need to do is get started painting!
When I paint a picture I aim to make a composition that will engage the viewer as long as possible in exploring the various elements of the painting. I do this by creating a pathway that leads around the painting, providing areas of interest for the eye to stop for a moment before leading on again to a different area. I need to introduce design elements that will stop the eye from moving out of the painting edges too soon – of course the viewer will want to move on eventually but by using lines, shapes, careful positioning of elements , colour and texture they can be encouraged to explore the painting a little longer.
The reference photo
This is a pretty good composition already – the shed is a a touch too central and to the edge but the client really wanted the view sweeping down to the lake from the cabin porch so I left it there and emphasized other areas of the scene to draw attention away from the shed. The bottom left corner seems to pull the eye out of the painting so I plan to make the flowers a little taller and a bit bolder. At the moment the garden bed is a bit like a river running down hill!
The flower bed fix.
You can see how the riot of colourful flowers just lifts the whole composition. I took a few liberties with the reference photo to add greater interest but it’s still very recognisable as the original flower bed. I made the orange flowers much taller, fuller and brighter and now the garden bed doesn’t seem to flow out of the corner. The orange flower bush acts as a full stop and the eye is drawn back into the painting. I also flattened out the grassy slope at the edge of the lake a little which helps to keep the eye from running out of the picture at this point.
Some composition fixes
The flower beds
There are layers and curves that lead the eye into the painting.
First we follow the contours of the garden bed from the bottom left up to the shed, now down through the lawn terraces towards the lake . When our eye reaches the trees we start following the lake edge around until we come to rest on the trees behind the shed and again back around the far edge of the lake until we come to the tall trees again. The trees lead our eyes up into the sky where we skim across the hilltops until we reach the tall trees behind the shed again. Now our view is pulled up to the clouds across the sky following the cloud shapes and when we come to the trees again they pull our eyes back down to the grassy area and across to the orange flowers where we start all over again.
Next time you’re looking at a painting notice how your eye is drawn into and around the picture. Soon you will find yourself noticing the design elements an artist has used to help you enjoy the different areas in the composition, a place to linger , a jolt of colour to excite, a quiet area to let your eye rest a moment. If you find yourself lingering in front of a painting chances are the artist has created a strong visual pathway.
This is my very first post! I thought I would start with a demo painting of a local seascape to share my painting process with you. Hope you find it interesting…
Sometimes I’ll know just what I want to paint – other times I’ll look through old photos or my ideas board until something says “paint me”! Today I chose a photo of a local beach at low tide – I like the sense of distance and the diagonals in this photo. I know it will need something else to bring it alive but I have an idea for that.
Choosing the paper.
So I’ve decided which reference photo I’m going to use and now I need to choose the colour of my sanded paper. I use either Canson or Mi- Tientes sanded pastel paper because the tooth holds layers of pastel and I don’t need to fix the finished paper. ( more about fixative later!)
Anyway how to choose one colour from all the possibilities?
I take the photo and look for papers that either provide a strong contrast with the main colour or temperature of the subject or one that matches the dominant colour and temperature or maybe one that matches the temperature but is a darker or lighter tone than the dominant tone of the subject.
Here I’ve narrowed it down to 3 colours so I lay the photo over the intersection of the papers and see which one I think feels right.
I choose the mid tone colour as I think it will give a good under colour showing through the pale foreground sand , it takes care of the middle ground and won’t dominate the sky which I want to stay light and bright.
Now for the pastels!
This is when I get out my boxes of pastels and the fun starts. I’m going for my Great American ArtWorks seascape set, a fantastic set of Sennelier half sticks and my “orphans” box and a couple of pastel pencils to sketch it up.
I could transfer the image by any number of methods but I’m not too fussy about getting it exactly right and just sketch in the main forms of the mountains, hills, horizon, sea and sand The one thing I am careful about is getting the horizon dead level! I use a dark pencil for the background and then a light one for the sand and sea as I don’t want the dark to show through later layers.
Now I start blocking in the main shapes loosely. Mostly I use the local colour ( the actual colour I see in the photo) but in the middle ground hill I pop in some bright reds and golds. I want these to show through a little under the final greens to give some added warmth to the painting. I make sure to put in some light pinks and yellows at the base of the sky for some sparkle. The wet sand gets a swathe of dark blue as it will be useful later in establishing the dips and shadows in the sand. Once I’ve finished blocking in smooth the sky and hills with the side of my finger to blend the colours.
The sky and hills
Next I work in some blues in the background hills and some greens in the middle hill. I add the suggestion of trees and some more golds into the dry paddocks. Also a little work on the junction between the wet and dry sand.
The sea and sand
I add more layers of pale pinks, yellows and blues to the sky and some of the same colours in the sea. I start adding layers of creams, siennas, ochres and some purples to the wet sand and darken the edges of the sand bar . Now I add a sprinkle of washed up sea grasses to the edge of the wet sand.
Next it’s a bit of a suggestion of the path and then some seaweed on the dry sand.
Some shadows on the path
Now some seaweed
I work up the grasses around the path using darks and then some lighter colours for the sunlit side. I use some hard conte sticks for the grasses. Notice I’ve darkened the water’s edge some more and added a little pink to the water as well. I want to give a sense of how shallow it is here. Some shadows from the grasses help to show the slope of the path.
I want to add a little life and movement so I pop in a few wading birds on the wet sand. They also help carry the eye from the strong sand diagonals back towards the water and hills. You can see I’ve also strewn a few white shells and some darker marks around for a bit of added interest and texture to the sand.
A final distant sail boat , my signature and the painting is finished. On the whole I’m quite pleased. The finished painting retains the strong compositional lines that first drew me to the subject but I’ve warmed it up, strengthened the contrasts and added some movement.