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.
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’!
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.
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.
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.
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!