An Artist’s Experience: 5 Day Pastel Challenge with Nina Squire, by Susan Brooke

It’s fair to say that my artistic endeavours have been in a state of deep hibernation for more than a year so when my friend suggested doing this challenge with her, I thought maybe this is what I need.

From the start I could see this was a well thought through course with a good reference photo, a comprehensive equipment list, a clear plan for the day and an informative daily video demonstration. There was also a dedicated Facebook page where we were encouraged to post our progress, and a live Q&A every evening where we could pose questions that were answered by Nina and the Unison team seemingly within minutes.

Day 1 – Outline and paint sky

I printed the PDF which outlined Nina’s top tips for the day and watched her half-hour video demonstrating the first task. I was eager to start with my pastels but Nina reminded us in the video to spend as much time as possible on the drawing. I quickly sketched the outline on pale blue Clairefontaine Pastelmat (A3) using a dark grey Pitt Pastel pencil and felt reasonably happy with the drawing. I already had the Unison colours Nina suggested for the sky, so started applying them. Rather hesitantly, I posted my first picture on the Facebook group page and then noticed that other participants had made much more accurate drawings than me…

An Artist's Experience: 5 Day Pastel Challenge with Nina Squire, by Susan Brooke 1
Day 1

Day 2 – Base sea colour and horizon

I attempted to tidy up the horizon freehand but actually I wasn’t that confident and it showed. I used a ruler and then resorted to a bit of masking tape which seemed to do the trick. I applied the dark sea colours and then thought I’d have a go at working with wet pastel. I tried using water and a flat brush but it just seemed to go into an alarming blobby pool, probably because I had used too much liquid (see dark patch under the cliffs). Time for a cuppa while it dried off. In her video, Nina had also suggested trying alcohol, such as vodka, as a fluid so I thought I’d give it go. In the absence of vodka in the drinks’ cupboard, I used gin (Tanquery and Plymouth – well you need to compare!) and that seemed to work much better than the water as it spread more smoothly and the alcohol evaporated faster. I noticed, however, that while Pastelmat is normally a great pastel support, the Fisher400 paper is definitely more robust and would have been a better choice for this challenge using liquid. 

As you can imagine the Facebook group was buzzing with vodka and alcohol quips all day and that carried on into the evening Q&A – it was hilarious!

An Artist's Experience: 5 Day Pastel Challenge with Nina Squire, by Susan Brooke 2
Day 2

Day 3 – Sea details and rocks base colour

The colour of the sea now seemed a bit too dark in the background and so I started applying paler hues by dragging and scrapping the harder Conté pastels across the surface varying the pressure.  I started to block in the base colour of the headland veering a bit more to my preferred purple and violet hues (Unison’s BVs). I had another go at brushing alcohol onto the pastel to give the rocks a good dark base, and yes, I may have glimpsed one or two ‘vodka-on-the-rocks’ comments on the Facebook page…

Jokes aside, it is was very noticeable how supportive the Facebook group was of everyone’s work and how questions raised, were rapidly answered by other members of the group, Nina or the brilliant Unison team – a real community spirit.

An Artist's Experience: 5 Day Pastel Challenge with Nina Squire, by Susan Brooke 3
Day 3

Day 4 – Headland details and sparkles

It was bound to happen – meltdown day! As I started to apply details to the headland, I suddenly doubted the accuracy of my original drawing. Panicking, I lengthened the headland then shortened it and then lengthened it again. I suspect that I ended up pretty much where I had started. I also seemed to lose some of the bold marks I had made on the sea from the previous day. It was all a bit stressful, but I learnt an important lesson – start with a proper drawing! However, after a tea break, things seemed to settle down and I started applying more shadows to the rocks and some very bold orange reflections on the sea, along with a few sea sparkles using hard pastels. When I posted my day’s work on Facebook, I had some really positive feedback from my fellow artists and that encouraged me.

An Artist's Experience: 5 Day Pastel Challenge with Nina Squire, by Susan Brooke 4
Day 4

Day 5 – Foliage and flowers

This was the stage I was most looking forward to. I really enjoyed putting in the flowers and foliage. I wanted a real pop of colour so went for more oranges, yellows and pinks than the original reference photo. I did tone down the orange reflection in the sea a little and though the sea colour is probably a bit too vibrant, it has a reassuringly warm and sunny feel and so I have decided to leave it like that for the moment. I expect there will be further tweaks in the coming days but that’s enough for now.

An Artist's Experience: 5 Day Pastel Challenge with Nina Squire, by Susan Brooke 5
Day 5
An Artist's Experience: 5 Day Pastel Challenge with Nina Squire, by Susan Brooke 6

Taking part in this challenge has meant a lot to me. Not only have I learned new pastel techniques but, more importantly, I’ve shared the experience with so many other artists from around the world.

A huge thank you to Nina Squire and the fabulous Unison team who have all worked so tirelessly to make this happen and looking forward to the next challenge!

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13 Responses

  1. (Translated) Perseverance and purposefulness will always give results. On the other hand, participation and good advice help to achieve the goal. In the comments there was kindness and desire to help those who are not sure of their actions when mastering new technology. I knew to dilute the drawing with water, but with vodka… And a miracle, the paper was not subdued. The truth is the quality of my pastel did not quite correspond. I had to put up with it and continue drawing the same way. I love to draw and I love to learn! (Original) Упорство и целеустремлённость всегда дадут результат. С другой стороны участие и добрые советы помогают достичь цели. В комментариях чувствовалось доброта и желание помочь тем, кто не уверен в своих действиях при освоении новой техники. Разбавлять водой рисунок мне было известно, но водкой… И чудо, бумагу не покоробило. Правда качество моей пастель не совсем соответствовало. Пришлось смириться и продолжить рисунок прежним способом. Люблю рисовать и люблю учиться!

  2. Your journey through this was enlightening showing how we doubt ourselves but you ended with a great painting and it was informative to see where you felt you were making “errors” but how you managed to overcome them. One day l will give this a try and thankyou for your honesty

  3. I could really relate to your qualms art the start! I’m not experienced in using pastels, and I’m not good at seascapes, however, after seeing your results and being so impressed with your painting, I want to explore the we challenges a bit more!!😯🙏

  4. Your pastels may have languished for 12 months but you certainly haven’t lost your touch Susan! A great description and a beautiful result, as usual.

  5. Well, you know how to gin up a crowd and keep us in good spirits! I was cheered by your fresh flowers in the foreground and the movement that you engendered with your strokes and sparkles of the water. Very beautiful and refreshing! Thanks for sharing!

  6. It was fascinating to follow you through this process, and to see your results each day. This really gave me a view of the artistic process, which I absolutely take for granted when I look at a finished picture.

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