Finding Confidence

Dalmation pastel painting by Julie Swan
Dalmation, by Julie Swan

What does confidence mean to you?

Confidence to me means not being afraid of failing or messing up. Personally, failure is not a term I use because anything that doesn’t turn out the way we intended is something to reflect and learn from. Particularly with art, it is so subjective, who is to say what is good or bad, wrong or right.

Yes, there are techniques and skills to learn but if you look at a piece of art and it speaks to you isn’t that all that matters?

One of the challenging areas to get right though is in portraiture. Painting people or animals with their unique energy, capturing the exact features and markings but also the soul. Now that is a challenge!

The first time I was asked to do a commission I made excuses not to. A friend asked for it for a birthday present. I turned it down. I said I didn’t have time because I felt I needed to practice in order to do a good enough job. To be honest I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to do a good enough job and I was certainly too scared to even try. That wasn’t very long ago and yet now I jump at every opportunity to do work for people.

So what changed?

I discovered the amazing medium of soft pastels! When using paint I find that although I have the vision in my head of what I want to create it often doesn’t translate onto the canvas. Colour mixing is complex and trying to find the right mix to recreate the colours of nature is a skill and takes time to learn and master. Maybe that is why we refer to the historical, artistic giants as ‘the great masters’. I am working on developing my oil painting and I do love it but it will be a lifetime project and expensive to boot.

So why pastels?

Soft pastels are pure pigment moulded into sticks of colour with binders. They look and feel like chalk sticks and have the same, powdery, delicate consistency. They come as individual colours which means you can reach for the exact colour you need at the time – assuming that you have a large enough collection. Materials wise it is not a cheap medium to get started in, but it is, oh so rewarding.

Pastels can be blended to create skin like smoothness of colour or layered to give a painterly effect. There are pan pastels which are cakes of colour that can be applied with sponges, stick pastels for large areas of colour and pastel pencils for working on top in fine details.

My favourite brand is, of course Unison for their wonderful properties of heavy pigment and ease of use. Having a large set of colours enables me to be confident that I can recreate what is in front of me. Unlike watercolour, where if you make a mistake it’s hard to correct, with pastels you can brush the colour off and work over it. They are immediate, unlike oils, there is no waiting for them to dry before completing or framing them. I can start and finish a pastel painting in one session. That feels like a real achievement. I love being able to see the way the image comes to life.

Somehow pastels take on a life of their own somewhere between my hands and the paper and they seem to capture the very essence of the subject which is why I love them for portraits and places that fill the soul with happiness. If you look at my website you will see that the majority of my work is in pastel.

If you are looking for a way to kick start your creativity you will find that with an open box of pastels in front of you, you can’t avoid picking them up and trying the colour.

Happy pastelling!!

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3 Responses

  1. Very inspirational blog for me as I have the same fears that Julia had. I am now going to get started in trying to capture the wonderful expressive face of my friend’s big cockapoo.

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