How I started
Like all good adventures it started as a dare. I had just started working in the art shop and I discovered the display of Unison pastels. They’re by the till in an antique wooden unit of thin drawers with a glass display on top. Each draw contains a different colour group; blue violets in one, reds and red earth in another, you get the picture. Every time I got the chance I would open one of these drawers, reveal the colours and just drool. It was during one such moment that a customer asked which colours I used. Caught somewhat off guard by the question I thought well why not. My work is all about colour so there was no good reason why not. So here we are a few months on and I have been having great fun with this medium that I thought I would share my adventures with you in this blog.
What I’ve been doing
After working in the studio over the winter I decided it was time to dust off the drawing kit and head outside into the spring sunshine. What better way to get to know a new medium than use it in the landscape? I planned to create sketches of landscapes, and clouds, capturing the same place in different weather. This isn’t just an academic exercise I want to observe the effects of weather conditions and time of day on colour.
In addition to my basic drawing kit, here is the list of the equipment that I found most useful.
- A variety of different sized sketchbooks, ranging from pocket size to larger 8”x 6” one. Hardback cover books are best because they provide a base to work on.
- A variety of different spiral bound pads of paper, including white pastel paper and cold pressed watercolour paper.
- Unison pastels, a starter set and a range of blues and greys.
- Low tack tape and clips, the wind is the enemy when working outdoors.
- Wet wipes.
- Plastic bag, to sit on and to put any rubbish in.
Before I went off sketching I tried out each of my soft pastels. I rubbed and blended each of my pastels on the first page of my watercolour pad. This gave me some idea of the nature of my colours. It is possible to work more elaborate colour samples, laying one on top of another, but my time was short and I was excited to get going.
What I have discovered about pastels
I love the immediacy of this medium. You can take a stick from the box drag it across the paper and straight away you have an area of colour. You are not at the end of a paintbrush, removed from the work. Pastel has the familiarity of a pencil but none of the restrictions of working with only lines. When you vary the way your grip you instantly have areas of colour or line. All this means that pastel is prefect for marking out the basic composition. An outline you can work back into, something that proves very useful as colours in the landscape change in seconds and these effects are difficult to record in pencil alone. Soft pastels are quick to work with so you can capture light hitting the tops of trees or and the movement of clouds across the hillside. In addition, working plein air can be daunting and it’s good to get something on paper soon after you set up. This helps me to build up my confidence. Sitting back and looking at these first colour studies helps me to decide my next steps.
Pastels are very forgiving and it is possible to radically change things if you want to. A bit of judicial rubbing with kitchen roll and the first colours can be knocked back, then you are free to add a new colour layer. Although the first colours never completely disappear their presence is ghost-like and creates unity that might not otherwise have been there.
Which brings me onto blending. The number of individual colours in the Unison range is amazing, although it could be a bit daunting. As the pigments blend together, a small set will take you a long way. For example, my starter set does not contain a brown, which is something of a disadvantage when working in the landscape. After a few sips of tea I remembered I could mix a vibrant brown using red and green. I shouldn’t have been surprised when it worked. As you can see using these pastels can sharpen your knowledge of colour theory in a rewarding and practical way. All this is very useful experience to take back into the studio.
Invest in a good fixative. You might have got away with using hairspray as a fixative when you where at college but this is not a good idea. Hairspray has a yellowing effect. Also remember fixative is not something you use at the end, you can fix an area of colour and then work back in on top.
It is worth remembering that you are not going to like all you drawings. Soft pastels help you record a wealth of information not only about colour but, space proportion and perspective as well. So don’t discard any sketch take it back to your studio, consciously or not they will feed back into your finished work.
Now I’ve got the bug I’m hoping for some dry weather so I can go back out drawing again. Having bought a large sheet of pastel paper and I am planning to make a bigger cloudscape. I want to study the interaction of different cloud formations and the effects that the changing light has at different times of the day. So far I have only used white paper, experimenting with different types and colours of ground is the next area to try.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog and feel encouraged to give soft pastels a try. They really are a lot of fun and not as difficult as you might think.
Fine Art & Printmaker