Exploring Pastels

One of my real passions is pastel painting & I love sharing the knowledge that I have gained over 20 years or so of working with them.

Susie at her easel

I first discovered pastels when I studied the Impressionists at Art College many years ago, but such was the wat art colleges worked in those days that nothing was ever taught. So, it was many years later that I decided to ‘have a go’ for myself – such a big learning curve which constantly continues.

I have introduced many of my art holiday guests to the joys of pastels during the fifteen years that I have been running courses here at our home in South west France that, for the first time, I decided to devote a whole week’s course specifically to pastels.

I could talk just about my own work and my experience of using pastels but hope that it might be more interesting to tell you about my recent week teaching our guests how to use these beautiful sticks of colour and the methods of making pictures with them. During the 5 day course I wanted to help the students develop their interest in the medium and help them gain confidence to produce exciting pictures, as well as giving them a basic knowledge of the versatility of pastels.

We welcomed our guests on the Sunday evening with an Introductory meal where I ran through the plan for the week and found out a bit more about them.  There were four students with some general art knowledge but only limited actual pastel experience. One lady had been to one of my previous painting holidays a couple of years before during which I had introduced her to pastels. She had fallen in love with them then and wanted to find out more, hence coming on this week. Another had only ever used pastel pencils which she enjoyed working with but was a little nervous of trying the fatter, softer variety. The other two on the course loved art but had very little knowledge of the pastel medium and were very keen to learn. Having spent a relaxed evening getting to know one another we were then ready to start work in the studio on Monday morning.

I thought it would be interesting to outline how the course worked and discuss some of the things that we did during the week.

Day One – Monday

We started the morning with a general discussion talking about the advantages of using pastels, the lack of a great deal of preparation and how quick and spontaneous working with them can be. Going straight to colour has advantages especially, if like me, you want to capture the essence of a subject first and then concentrate on the detail later. I firmly believe that what you feel about the subject in front of you and the visual excitement is more important than accuracy of detail, which can be worked on later.

Using a selection of small squares of coloured pastel paper I demonstrated the characteristics of the various types of pastel – oil pastels, wax pastels, pastel pencils, hard and soft pastels – we discussed their potential uses and everyone tried them out for themselves. We discussed a lot of the well-known brands and I showed them samples of the various makes in my collection, but as my major source of pastels is Unison I unashamedly gave them a big plug!

We then discussed the different types of pastel paper and I demonstrated the different textures available. I showed the papers I use with different types of “tooth”, Canson, Ingres, Sennelier and also the velour surfaces like pastelmat and, one of my personal favourites, Canson mi-teintes touch. I also showed them examples of my own work using the various papers. I think that everyone was fascinated at how the textures and different colours of the papers had such dramatic effects on the results achieved with the pastels, particularly in terms of light and dark papers and how the colours popped more with the darker shades.

We discussed the importance of keeping your pastels clean and I demonstrated a very simple method of doing so with ground rice in a plastic tub.

This all led easily onto the first project of the week, a still life of peonies and seasonal vegetables.

Look & See – Still Life

I call this project Look and See – are you really looking and are you really seeing what you are looking at?

I like to start this project with the students working at easels doing several quick studies (2 minutes, 3 minutes, 10 minutes) working with charcoal. I find that this helps build their confidence and appreciation of the need to look.  We then spent 35 minutes doing a charcoal drawing on cartridge paper with a tooth suitable for a little pastel to work on top. This helped to build up confidence before tackling their main pictures.

You can see the result of these experiments below:

We discussed using a view finder to ascertain what they felt confident about doing as a picture, cropping some areas out if they wanted to. I am more interested in the students interpretation & emotional reaction to a subject than realistic accuracy.

We then spent the rest of the day working in pastel from the rough sketches they produced during the morning session. I spent time with the individual students and when necessary demonstrated specific techniques for them to use to achieve their particular objectives. You can see the results of their efforts below:

As you can see we crammed a lot into this first day so after a quick round up critique of the work at that stage we left the studio to finish work the following morning.

Day Two – Tuesday

We continued on the Still life project for another hour in the morning and continued on to the next project.

In order for the students to work outside in our large garden I developed a project to look at natural patterns. Working “en plein air “ can be so disconcerting if you haven’t done it before.

So I suggested subjects that got them looking at natural patterns and textures:

  • Bark, maybe even to try a bark-rubbing with an oil pastel
  • Stone
  • Lichen
  • Wooden objects like old doors
  • Driftwood
  • Flower centres and leaves

Then they did a single colour exercise with either coloured pastel, conte or charcoal of their choice from the above ideas. Following that exercise they did pastel pictures including these natural patterns and textures, working mainly outside for the rest of the day.

Day Three – Wednesday

We spent a gorgeous morning visiting La Roque Gageac on the River Dordogne drawing preparatory sketches, taking photographs and doing colour references.

What more could you want – sunshine, a river, boats, chateaux and amazing rock formations and buildings built into them. The biggest problem was deciding what to concentrate on!!

After returning to our base the afternoon was spent working on the ideas from the morning and producing pastel pictures from them.

Day Four – Thursday

Everyone continued working on their pictures from the previous day in the morning before having a relaxing afternoon visiting the local area.

Day Five – Friday

A visit to a local market is always popular and an opportunity for  sketching, taking photographs and producing colour roughs in the morning. The afternoon was then spent doing some quick pictures – not all completed –  based on the morning’s visit.

We rounded off the week with a small exhibition of the work done, a little critique and a meal in a local restaurant.

I felt that it was a very successful week and all our guests seemed to enjoy exploring pastels more and judging by some lovely comments in our guests book and follow up emails everyone was happy.

I certainly enjoyed passing on some of my knowledge to such a receptive group and it has encouraged me to think about running more pastel workshops in the future. It also made me really excited about doing some more of my own work again soon as well – maybe I too will be “looking and seeing” more during the next few weeks.

I was lucky enough to stumble upon Unison pastels over twenty years ago and asked for a set for my birthday. I fell in love with the “buttery’ texture and amazing colours of the Unison collection and, although I now use slightly harder pastels and pastel pencils for some parts of my work, they remain a firm favourite of mine always. I just love the new colour selections that evolve from other artist’s palettes and I recommend them to all my new students, particularly the half pastels, which are not so intimidating for beginners.



*Please note that the photographs of the work produced by the group have been used with their permission.

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