Capturing the beauty of Iceland using Unison Colour Soft Pastels

Iceland is a unique and spiritual country bursting with inspiration for artists. I was lucky enough to travel there in December, 2021 with my family and on my return I built a small body of work based on this fantastic experience. In my every day practice as a pastel artist I love to paint trees, employing a distinctive bold colour palette that reflects my response to the woodlands in my local area of North London. It was quite an adjustment to paint the waterfalls and geysers of Iceland, in a country with very few trees and the ones they have are small and only make up one percent of the land area due to deforestation. Cue the overused but funny Icelandic joke:

‘What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic Forest?’

Answer: ‘Stand up’.

For my trip, I took with me a small sketch book and pen as I thought I might be able to do some plein air sketches. The weather suggested otherwise! With it being so cold, snowy and windy, I decided to wait and paint in the warmth of my studio using lots of photos and videos of my visit. To say we took in the sights of Iceland is an understatement as we went on tours every single day, and one day even did two so that we could see the Northern Lights.

In the end I decided to do paintings based on my visit to the waterfall at Seljalandsfoss and The Great Geysir (did you know that Geysir is the original Geyser? And is nestled in the picturesque Havkadur valley?)

As I couldn’t decide on whether to do a landscape or portrait format I look the bull by the horns and opted to do both. I had never painted a waterfall before so I started by researching how other artists tackle waterfalls before trying a mini painting on a piece of encaustic board I had been given when I did an encaustic workshop 7 years ago in Youghal, Ireland.

Capturing the beauty of Iceland using Unison Colour Soft Pastels 1

Mini Pastel Painting…

Capturing the beauty of Iceland using Unison Colour Soft Pastels 2

Feeling more prepared for the challenge ahead I decided to work on a much larger scale.Using 50 x 70cm graphite pastelmat paper I began with a sketch of the scene using a china marker pencil. Then I applied the darkest area of shadow using a dark blue unison pastel.

Mapping out the scene…

Capturing the beauty of Iceland using Unison Colour Soft Pastels 3

After this I started lightly adding in colour. I always apply colour very lightly in the early stages of a painting as its easy to overload the paper.

Adding colour using Nupastels and Unison Soft Pastels

I then added more colour and some interesting mark making to start to bring the painting to life.

Capturing the beauty of Iceland using Unison Colour Soft Pastels 4

Adding more colour and mark making using Unison Soft Pastels

I continued to add more colour and marks until finally I stopped and stood back and really examined my painting. It’s very easy to get so engrossed in a painting that you stop looking at your subject, so it’s helpful to find different ways to look at it with fresh eyes. I like to take a picture of it and convert it to grey scale. This makes the lights and darks more obvious and allows me to check the tonal values with those of the original black and white photo.

Black and white photo of the painting…

Capturing the beauty of Iceland using Unison Colour Soft Pastels 5

Black and white photo of Seljalandsfoss…

Capturing the beauty of Iceland using Unison Colour Soft Pastels 6

By now the painting was starting to take shape and I was feeling really excited about it. However, the difficult part was still to come, which was the actual waterfall. This part I tried avoiding for as long as I could.

Applying a darker tone, I built up layers of colour in the water before having a light bulb moment. Why not apply clear gesso to create more texture? This created a little bit of texture but it still wasn’t enough because I wanted to create the effect of a hanging lace curtain. I therefore employed an old water colour trick: using an old tooth brush and isopropyl alcohol I dipped the brush in the alcohol and then rubbed the tooth brush along a Unison pastel before flicking the brush over the painting creating various spatters of colour. Initially I started with a Blue Violet 9 and then went lighter but avoided using a bright white. Anything I didn’t like I lifted off lightly with a bristle brush after it dried and I protected the other areas of the painting using kitchen roll. What was quite interesting was that on the landscape painting a few spatters did escape me but I kept the happy accidents as I liked the effect.

The final paintings of my wonderful trip are shown below. They are completely different to my usual landscape paintings but I really enjoyed the challenge of being outside my comfort zone. As far as future paintings are concerned I’d really love to visit this wonderful country in the summer and maybe do a residency there as I was blown away by Iceland and didn’t stop talking about my trip there for weeks!!

Seljalandsfoss, Dawn Limbert, 2022
Seljalandsfoss, Dawn Limbert, 2022
Landscape version of Seljalandsfoss, Dawn Limbert, 2022
Landscape version of Seljalandsfoss, Dawn Limbert, 2022
Geysir, Dawn Limbert, 2022
Geysir, Dawn Limbert, 2022

You can see more of my work on the following:

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Associate Artist Intake for 2022

It seems a while ago since we asked for applications from artists to become an Associate Artists & wow the applications came in thick & fast. So much so it took our Unison Helen a good while to get through them all.

Plein Air to Pastel Painting

As a pastel artist who loves to paint landscapes, sketching in my local nature reserve in North London is at the heart of my practice.

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18 responses

  1. Fabulous detail in the process Dawn, you have really captured the waterfall using you technique. Well done 👏

  2. Fabulous waterfall detail and thank you for sharing your methods: I didn’t know that clear gesso could be used over pastel layers, I’ve only tried it to add tooth to surfaces before adding pastels.

    1. Hi Jane neither did I but it seemed to work. Sometimes you will try anything! The best thing that worked was the old water colour trick! That really worked!

  3. You captured the beauty of our visit to one of the most magical places, we’ve ever visited. It was a joy to watch you, captivated by the beauty of Iceland, packing so much into, and creating so many memories of a wonderful experience.

  4. Thanks for the ideas, I hadn’t thought about brushing alcohol on the tip of the pastel, I’ll definitely be trying that when my new Unison set arrives! I love the compositions if your waterfall painting.

  5. It is so interesting to know about the artist’s step by step process and how the painting evolves, the challenges of working with an unfamiliar subject matter. Water is so tricky to paint! This is an interesting and helpful blog post.

  6. You have captured the excitement of being in an incredible landscape through your pastel drawings. I love the dramatic colour contrasts

  7. Fascinating read. Thanks for generously sharing so many tips. Great to see the way your beautiful paintings develop. Love your work!

  8. I have never really used pastels before but after reading this I would love to give them a try! Thank you for sharing your methods and I love the outcome of your work! Makes me want to go to Iceland too!!

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