As artists we have many choices to make, starting with the medium we choose. The pastel medium is unique in many ways, and each of you can tell your own story about why you have chosen it. My reasons for choosing pastel as my medium are a story for another day. This article will address a topic that pastelists frequently inquire about – how to choose a harmonious palette for a painting.
With a box full of colours, how do pastel artists achieve colour harmony in their paintings? Having all those colour choices is wonderful but, at the same time, can be overwhelming. Using too many colours in one painting can create chaos. You have heard the saying “Less is more.” Here is a good place to apply that maxim.
As you begin the process of creating a painting, you have many choices: choices in design and composition, in what details to include and what to leave out, what mood or emotion you want to convey, whether it will be high key or low key, what colours you will choose, and more. You can create chaos or harmony. If harmony is your goal, a well-thought-out plan will be of great benefit in achieving that goal.
Whether plein air painting or painting in the studio, careful planning makes the painting process come together quickly and with greater success. Choosing the palette ahead of time gives you control over colour harmony and the overall mood of the painting. For most paintings I try to limit my total selection to less than 30 pastels.
As I choose my palette, I keep the selection in a separate tray (in the photo below). This selection is kept separate from the main box of pastels until the painting is finished. If I set the painting aside for a while and come back to it later, I still have all the colours used in the painting at hand without having to search through the entire inventory of pastels.
In the process of choosing the palette I ask myself several questions.
- Do the chosen colours enhance the mood of the painting?
- How are the colours reacting to each other and to the whole?
- Is there a full range of values selected?
- Are the darks dark enough? Do I need a darker, more colourful dark?
- Do the colours sing when placed next to each other?
- Do the colours create harmony?
Using a gray scale aids in getting a good range of values (lights and darks) for each colour used in the painting. While choosing the palette I look for a selection of both warm and cool colours plus greys.
To test the colours, I use a colour swatch of the same surface I will use in the painting. This allows me to see how the colours will appear on the paper I have chosen and how the colours will appear next to one another.
A good way to “see” the values of the colours selected is to take a photo of the colour swatch, the gray scale, and the pastels. Then, using a photo editing program, convert the photo to black & white.
Using the same paper choice that will be used in the final painting, I do a small, quick colour study. You might think this is a tedious and unnecessary step, but 20 to 30 minutes spent on the study will allow for any problem areas, such as colours, values, and composition, to be worked out before the final painting is begun.
If the colour study is kept handy while you paint, you can continue to use it as a testing ground. For instance, if you feel the need to add more colours as you paint, they can be tried out on the colour study before adding them to the painting, avoiding mistakes on the final painting. I save the spicy, juicy bits of colour and the lightest highlights for the very end, once again using the colour study to try these colours to see if they will add interest without being distracting.
Time spent in preparation can save frustration and disappointment. With a plan in place the final painting can be approached with confidence. But even if you do get carried away and add something you regret, do not fret. Remember pastel is one of the most forgiving mediums and you can always brush off your mistakes and try again!