From Graphic Designer to Pastel Artist

When asked by Helen at Unison Colour to write a blog regarding my successes and how I’d achieved them – I must admit I froze feeling like a rabbit in the proverbial headlights as this is me out of my comfort zone analysing the whys and wherefores of my art, but as the saying goes no pain no gain so here goes!

Making the jump to become a professional artist just over 5 years ago never in my wildest dreams could I ever have thought so much would happen in such a relatively short period of time.

The majority of my previous career was spent as a creative, which included running my own Graphic Design business for over 20 years, so I’m very used to hard work and the inevitable long hours. As a designer I found my conscious and unconscious mind working overtime to come up with ideas and the subsequent solutions to fulfil a client brief. I have always woken at random times of the night to make notes or jot down ideas for future projects as well as catching thoughts at the strangest of times during my waking hours again in case they become reference ideas for some project that may manifest itself. This practise has definitely also spilled into my life as an artist – I don’t ever seem to switch off from it – if I’m not in the studio I will be thinking of the next project which involves gathering photos I’ve taken, taking walks in my beautiful Suffolk surroundings, reading books for inspirational text or listening to music for possible triggers for working titles… inspiration is all around me, no time for procrastination!

Pastel painting of 2 young ballerinas about to enter stage, by Michele Ashby
Entreé of the pas de deux, by Michele Ashby

I started as a pet portrait artist, which was a great springboard to me finding my feet and pushing myself in other directions and discovering what I really love to paint. About 5 years ago my husband kindly bought me the Unison Pastel Portrait Colours set of 36 which I love. I must admit I was quite terrified to use them looking so delicious in their little wrappers. I love the vibrancy of Unison Colour pastels and the fact that they are pretty sturdy compared to some other brands, which I find terrifyingly crumbly.

I use a combination of Unison soft pastels alongside a wide range of pastel pencils; this works for me with my style being contemporary realism and highly detailed.

As my art began to develop I started finding out just how many social media sites there are to inspire, connect and share in the passion of pastels. This lead me to finding out about the Pastel Society and its prestigious exhibition held at the Mall Galleries, London each year. Never could I have believed that my work would ever be selected to hang amongst the glitterati of Pastel Royalty on my very first year of entering!

Mitch, pastel portrait by Michele Ashby
Mitch, by Michele Ashby

Having a competitive nature coupled with the fact that there is only one Pastel Society in England with just one call for entry exhibition a year, I started looking further afield to other Societies as well as International Pastel Societies in America to try and showcase my pastels with a view to start making my mark in this vibrant artistic community I’m now very fortunate to inhabit.

2017 was the start of a wonderful few years winning Best in Show with the Institute of East Anglian Artists and exhibiting with The Pastel Society, The Society of Women Artists and The Royal Marine Society at The Mall Galleries, as well as becoming an Associate Artist with Unison Colour.

Having become a Signature Artist with the Pastel Society of America in 2018 and less than 2 years after becoming a professional artist, I decided to submit to the Pastel Society of America’s Annual Enduring Brilliance exhibition. I was truly honoured that not only was ‘Jamel’ juried into this incredible pastel show, it also won the Chartpak Inc. Award for excellence in pastel and went on to exhibit at the Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio as part of the Pastel Society of America’s travelling show.

Jamel, pastel painting by Michele Ashby
Jamel, by Michele Ashby

When putting my work forward for these Call for Entries I look carefully at what made the grade in previous exhibitions, to try and gauge whether I feel my work is right for that particular exhibition. If so (and obviously it is still all in the lap of the Art Gods) I will enter my strongest work that I feel stands a good chance. As previously mentioned I am competitive by nature – BUT and it’s a big but, if I don’t make the grade it’s because the work that I entered just wasn’t right for that particular show, when that happens there’s always tomorrow and another exhibition to apply to. The judges and jurors have their own agenda and know what they are looking for to make a cohesive exhibition, it’s as simple as that, there’s no point over analysing it.

Recently I have had notification I have accrued the necessary points to become a Master Pastelist with the Pastel Society of America – again an incredible honour that I often don’t feel worthy of.

32A, pastel painting of a cast iron spiral staircase, by Michele Ashby.
32A, by Michele Ashby

Life has been an absolute whirlwind since then in many ways for me personally as well as professionally. I am so incredibly proud of my achievements and the giant steps my career as an artist has taken, doing what I love any time I want to really is something I will never take for granted. Sadly my mum is no longer here to witness these achievements – although she did see my pastel ‘32A’ hanging in the Pastel Society in 2018 and she got to meet a much admired celebrity Michael Portillo. She truly was my biggest supporter always there in times of self-doubt with cups of tea and just the right words to set me straight for the next undertaking.

Zaria Forman exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Arts

On a recent trip to New York City I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Private View of “Scale: Possibilities of Perspective” at the Children’s Museum of the Arts; where one of my favourite pastellists, Zaria Forman is exhibiting two of her beautiful paintings.

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10 Responses

  1. (Translated by Google) Incredible work Michelle! They have so much depth and content! Just wonderful! To tell you the truth, I tried several times to submit my work to some exhibitions. but looking at the work of artists. I felt their high level and skill, which showed cowardice and indecision. The portrait community of America for me is just a union of geniuses, such faces and subjects of portraits! I tell myself that I’m not ready yet, I justify my cowardice. I need to draw and learn! Thanks to the Unison team for the opportunity to talk about my feelings and communicate with great teachers!

    (Original) Невероятные работы Мишель! В них столько глубины и содержания! Просто великолепно! Сказать по правде я несколько раз пробовала подать свои работы на некоторые выставки. но просмотрев работы художников. чувствовала их высокий уровень и мастерство, что проявляла трусость и нерешительность. Портретное сообщество Америки для меня просто союз гениев, такие лица и сюжеты портретов! Говорю себе, что еще не готова, оправдываю свое малодушие. Надо рисовать и учиться! Спасибо команде Юнисон за возможность говорить о своих чувствах и общаться с великими учителями!

    1. Hi there Natalia,
      Thank you so much for your kind compliment about my pastels I really appreciate it.
      Regarding call for entries for exhibitions I totally understand where you are coming from regarding other artists work.
      Personally I think if you stay true to your style and ethic and continue to practise and hone your skills then you will know when you are ready to apply.
      But to be honest if you enjoy what you are doing then that is the most importrant thing of all.
      Best wishes and good luck in the future

  2. Thanks for this lovely post Michele… so interesting to read as I too only picked up the pastels four years ago (actually almost to the day!) during some teacher snow days when the ‘Beast from the East’ struck us! I was inspired by Emma Colbert and with the help of inspiring artists such as yourself, the encouragement of Emma and friends and family, have gained much confidence with my work. This year, I too am taking the plunge to leave English teaching to become a full-time artist (eek!)! Perhaps we could meet up some time and share the pastel joy (or I could pick your brains about how to survive as an artist!) since I too live in Suffolk (Hollesley, near Woodbridge). Please feel free to get in touch:

    1. Hi there Teresa,
      Thank you for your lovely comment – I’m so glad you enjoyed the blog especially as it’s not something I find easy to do.
      So you’re a relative newby to pastels too! Good for you taking the plunge to become a full time artist, I’m sure you won’t regret it for one day plus you’ll go from strength to strength with all those extra hours of practise and experimenting.
      I’d love to meet up, let’s do it!
      I’ve messaged you on Instagram.
      Many thanks

  3. Wow. I’m not surprised that your art has won awards. I’m in awe of your work. Can hardly believe these are pastels, they are just exquisite..

  4. I found great encouragement in reading your blog. Like you I was a graphic designer and in the last year have started to do animal pictures, what a coincidence! I have not exhibited any yet but have had a few commissions. I have been trying other mediums as well as pastels which I find quite invigorating and exciting.

  5. Hi there Judy,
    Thank you for you kind words regarding my blog – it’s not something that comes naturally so I appreciate that.
    It’s amazing that so many graphic designers have become artists – but then again I guess it’s a naturally progression back to the fundimental routes of our artistic journey.
    I wish you every success in the future.
    Many thanks

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