Demonstration: Still Life in Soft Pastel

You may be surprised that there is generally much planning involved in painting. Several things must be considered. Follow along as we go through the process:

Subject selection:
The first thing to be done before lifting a pastel stick is to decide on a subject. I selected a simple piece of lace and dogwood blossom against a neutral fabric background.
Lighting the subject:
Next, I decide how to light the arrangement. Moving the light vertically and horizontally, I try several possibilities. I decide to position a single light source at a 45 degree angle above and to the left of the subject. My intent is to emulate a single, relatively bright light to bring out nice shadows under the fabric and blossom. Lighting is critical to the "mood" of the setup. I want a light but rich painting.
The painting surface & setup:
Now I can prepare my materials for painting. I've selected an 8 ply museum board coated with a mixture containing pumice as a "ground" or rough surface so the pastel will grab hold and stay on the painting. (Pastel paper can be used as well.) This also allows for many layers to be applied. The painting board is mounted on a more rigid board vertically on the easel so the residual pastel dust can fall straight down instead laying on the painting surface.
Looking at the setup, I pull pastel stick colors from my collection to get me started...a few dark blues, greens, violets, grays, a few cream colors, etc. As I paint, I will select more colors.
"Roughing in" the painting:
I finally get to paint! Just before beginning I stand and just observe the setup to get a feel for what I wish to do, noting relationships, sizes, shapes, etc. The arrangement has all of the information I need to paint the scene. I use a stick of soft vine charcoal to rough-in the subject - lightly to begin with so adjustments can be made as I go along. I sometimes use a pastel pencil or stick to rough in the painting.

Painting from dark to light
The order of applying the colors in soft pastel is generally from dark to light. That way, the colors will stay fresh and clean and prevent getting "muddy." Since pastel is an opaque medium changes can be made easily. To begin, I apply the darkest darks observed in the shadow areas and leaves.

Building the painting:
Now I'm beginning to have fun with the painting. I put in a few lighter colors to give me an idea of the range between the light and dark areas, saving the very lightest colors for later.
I work all around the painting, not just in one area. This allows me to keep the painting balanced the entire time. I build up the fabric and begin working more in the lace. (Notice that there are no details yet!) If I put them in too soon or incorrectly it will be more difficult to make changes. I want to be free to make changes during every step in the process. I also stop frequently to step back to take a look at my work. I also redefine areas that have gotten lost while working.

Building form and volume:
At this point the painting usually begins to take shape and have a personality of it's own. It "tells" me what it needs. "Reshape here, work on the mid tones there, too much green so gray it down"...many decisions to make and actions to take. I work on the blossom and leaves more. Still have not finished the lace! But the body of the lace is complete. The only thing left to do is to balance the colors, put in the brightest highlights and lace details...
Thanks for joining me in the studio while I paint! Click to see the finished painting, Carolina's Pride! It will take a few extra seconds to load as it's a bit larger to give you a better view.

Johnson is an award-winning artist and instructor with over 30 years experience and was Founding Editor of Plein Air Magazine (now Fine Art Connisseur. See all her current and archived sold works at http://www.LDianeJohnson.com
©1995-2009 L. Diane Johnson

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