Beyond the Photograph

I’ve been painting in pastel since I was about 10 years old. My father, George Greig, on advice from a local art supply department, brought home willow charcoal and white conté chalk, grey textured paper, and the wonderful book ‘How to Draw Horses’ by Walter T Foster. I followed every word of that book, tried all the techniques – next, my father brought home a set of Rembrandt pastels.

This set my course in motion as a pastel artist – he could have brought home any kind of paint, but was advised pastel could be perfect for me, and it was. I was obsessed with horses for many years, they featured frequently in my paintings. Eventually I held my first solo exhibition at Cobham Intermediate school, Christchurch, New Zealand.

I learnt about drawing then layering pastel in a painterly way over the following years, specialising in horses, dogs and portraits. In those early stages I would rub the pastel smooth (and dead) adding details on top, using Canson papers on the smoother side. I developed a way of working from top to bottom, lean to fat layers, which I still employ.

Champion Show Horse, Baz, painted in soft pastel by Julie Greig
Baz – Champion Show Horse
Benny and Zac, horse portrait in Unison Colour Soft Pastel, by Julie Greig.
Benny & Zac – showing the start of the pastel, charcoal drawing on Art Spectrum Colourfix
Completed horse portrait in soft pastel, by Julie Greig.
Benny & Zac complete

Fast forward many years, I had joined Pastel Artists of NZ as their Treasurer when it first formed in 2002, and I had begun teaching pastel classes. I was also painting in oil. I don’t recall how I first got my hands on Unison Colour pastels, but it was a eureka moment, lush but controllable, these gorgeous colours worked very nicely with my harder pastels. These grunty pastels had an immediacy of pigment which inspired me to move away from my tight smooth realist paintings into some more expressive, more textured, allowing air into the artwork through multiple layers and varying marks. I understand this is called a ‘naturalist’ way of painting, where the main area of interest is in focus, the background and beyond less so, a support act. For my own work, I tend to scumble colours over each other in multiple light layers – my pupils call this ‘Greigling’!

Big Cat cubs painted in Unison Colour Soft Pastels, by Julie Greig
Blissed Out
Chocolate Labrador painted in soft pastel, by New Zealand artist Julie Greig.
Sot pastel painting of old rusty pickups in a field.
Dead Heat

From horses to landscape, and everything in between – I’ve painted portraits, still life, water, vehicles, big cats and little cats, dogs and buildings. I am currently in the throes of painting the landscape and rivers in Central Otago, New Zealand, where I live. The inspiration in this vast spacious landscape is constant.

Reference photo for Julie Greig's painting, 'Opportunity'
Reference image for ‘Opportunity’
Julie Greig's pastel painting 'Opportunity', an old gateway to a field, with beautiful side-lighting.
“Opportunity’ complete. Winner of the Master Pastellist Award, Pastel Artists of NZ, 2020

For a few years I was blessed to have the Unison Agency in New Zealand, with my basic stock in racks on my studio wall, sending them out to clients and pupils by mail order; or carrying the stock to my workshops which was wonderful for pupils to find just the colours they needed, and build their collections. I also carried all the stock to our Pastel Artists of NZ annual conventions – I have fond memories of esteemed Master Pastellist Tony Allain (and several others) creeping along behind the audience to pick the colours they needed before the stampede! When Tony lived in Marlborough NZ, I would order all his special favourites in multiples, particularly A30. Another artist in Christchurch loved the largest sticks as he preferred to create his large pastel paintings on the back of wallpaper. When Unison pastels are dropped and break, that dreaded sound, I show my pupils how to remake a Unison pastel easily so nothing is wasted.

We moved to Australia for a while, so I was grateful to transfer my stock to Impressions Art Supplies, Richmond, NZ. As an Associate of Unison I’m fortunate to be able to supply a selection of Unison pastels to my workshops.

An example of the forgiveness of Unison pastel – this background was really wrong for the subject, the Eastern Grey Kangaroo – I realised when we moved to Queensland, Australia.

I took the painting outside onto the lawn, with scrubbing brush and hose flowing gently, and got rid of the background, then laid the painting flat on the floor to dry overnight. I then re-primed for pastel using Art Spectrum Colourfix in white.

We had many fires in the area that year, the smoke had a pinky grey tinge. I changed the background with soft hued Unisons drifting together, and thought I’d add more Kangaroos, but it began to look cluttered. The story I was trying to tell of this alert little fellow, who sprang away in an instant, was getting lost.

Kangaroo painting in soft pastel, by Julie Greig.
“Look Before You Leap’ complete. Full sheet of Art Spectrum Colourfix.
Reference photo for Julie's painting, 'The Sowburn Walkway, Patearoa'.
Reference image for ‘The Sowburn Walkway, Patearoa’
Close up detail, from Julie Greig's painting ‘The Sowburn Walkway, Patearoa’
Close up of the detail
‘The Sowburn Walkway’ by Julie Greig.
‘The Sowburn Walkway’ complete (2021)

As I’ve learnt how to project how I feel about my varied subjects, through my paintings to viewers, I’ve moved away from a photographic or realist finish. As artists we have the freedom, and choice, to share what we see in any subject, how we feel about it, the textures of surfaces, airiness, aerial perspectives and of course to make the most of light falling on our subjects. We don’t have to render every detail, we can compose selectively and mindfully to gain the most impact. I will show a way of simplifying subjects in a later blog.

Many of us feel the disappointment when a photo doesn’t capture all we see, the feeling of being there. Thank goodness we were artists – we can craft that feeling into the artwork.

Pastel painting of a stage deer standing on the bank of a small river.
‘A Fleeting Glance’, based on the Rollesby Valley, Burkes Pass NZ

I suggest to my pupils – as you learn to truly ‘see’ (not just with your eyes!) and understand what you see, you will find beauty everywhere, even in the most mundane – especially the mundane. Consider what is speaking to you in your reference scene or image, or when painting outdoors – distill what has attracted you to that image or still life setup, the personality in a portrait and emphasis that subtly. As artists we strive to connect this x-factor to our viewers, making our artworks desirable for collectors. Painting is expressing ourselves.

To quote Jerry Saltz: ‘Art is just a container you pour yourself into’ (from his book ‘How to be an Artist).

Until next time, I will keep practising!

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16 Responses

  1. I have rarely seen two examples that show so clearly how an artist’s interpretation can shine a different light on a photographic image. The structures of the scenes are to all intent the same as the photographs, but for me the interpretations give very different meanings to the landscapes.

  2. Thank-you for sharing the journey of your self-reflection! It is inspiring to read how much of yourself goes into your artwork. A couple of technical questions: what papers will accept both water to wash away pastel and colourfix?Also, how did you block away the kangaroo so closely?

  3. Oh wow Julie, your work is spectacular and truly amazing! Such a treat to see your wonderful work and hope that in some way I can only aspire to paint like you.

  4. The process of moving away from the photo is one which I’ve personally been working on for a long time but only in recent months have I started to see some small positive results. I think much of it is to do with confidence; changing the photo layout to make a better painted image, for example. And zero-ing in on the parts that really interest me. Getting hung up on minor details has been a very long-term battle, but I have to remember that most people aren’t likely to take the painting and compare it to the real thing for checking up on it all. I find that once the first areas of pastel are laid down, the picture takes on a life of its own and the photo steps back to its rightful place of being a reference. I can see what you’ve done with “Opportunity” and it works great, focusing on those lovely golden grasses.

  5. What a beautiful article. And what a wonderful journey. You have beautiful light in you landscapes. There may be a typo. Did you mean Jerry Saltz? Auto correct has its fingers in everything.

  6. Your work is gorgeous and the sentiment and appreciation just shine through. What a beautiful gift you have in how you see things.

    Oh, and yes, I loved Walter Foster growing up, too! C.W. Anderson’s illustrations were my bedtime muse when I was a little girl.

  7. I too am trying to let the photo be my guide – not trying to replicate very detail. I loved your landscape interpretations and look forward to your next blog post!

  8. Thank you Julie. You are an inspiration for me. I don’t have the ability yet to move away from the photo and trust my instincts, but with more practice I will develop this. I love seeing your original photo and your finished interpretation together. I hope to do another workshop with you soon.

  9. Your article was heartfelt and inspiring, and your pastel paintings so beautiful. I really admire your delicate touch and placement and knowledge of colour. Thank you for touching my soul.

  10. Wonderful work at its best, merging photography and painting visitors are touched in the soul.

  11. Thank you, I really enjoyed your blog, especially your paintings. They are incredible. I believe capturing the emotion in the subject is important, far more so than the reality. I love your work, the emotion shines through.

  12. Julie
    It is so inspiring to read your blog. You are truly seeing with all your faculties. A true artist indeed.

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