If At First You Don’t ‘Quite’ Succeed

This scene happens to be close to home and presents a lovely natural composition. So often the hardest step for the plein air artist is to find a view that inspires. So I was grateful to set up my easel in front of this scene one morning with a late winter’s sun shining perfectly on the gentle curve of the farm track, lined by conveniently spaced trees on one side and a thorn hedge, with breaks through which the low sun shone, along the other side. The eye is led naturally around the track and watery pools in tractor tracks reflecting the clear blue sky provide foreground interest. Perfect for a mixed media painting. 

I had chosen a sheet of Canson Moulin du Roy 140lb (300 gsm) watercolour paper as my support; a beautiful paper that is sufficiently heavy to accept lashings of water and ink without the need to stretch, and with sufficient ‘tooth’ to accept layers of pastel. 

After quickly, but carefully, sketching the scene using a pure graphite 4B pencil…

If At First You Don't 'Quite' Succeed 1

…I then apply a range of acrylic inks freely using a large round watercolour brush, and sometimes the pipette from the ink bottle, keeping the marks free and energetic to provide an expressive tonal base for the painting…

If At First You Don't 'Quite' Succeed 2

I am careful to leave areas of white paper to help capture in due course the contrasting light of sun drenched areas against those in deep shadow. The inks dry quickly and I move on to the pastels stage, always the most exciting for me, using a range of my favourite Unison pastels. I strive to be expressive with my mark making, avoiding blending so far as possible, but also leaving some ‘quiet’ areas (the sky) to avoid the eye being overwhelmed with marks.  

If At First You Don't 'Quite' Succeed 3

I use fixative throughout the painting process, both as a further painting medium to further darken the darkest areas, and also to create a further element of tooth to ensure that further pastel pigment, applied over existing, retains its vibrancy. 

The danger, for me at least, is overworking this stage in an enthusiastic feast of pastel painting! I have many times felt that I have lost the excitement and energy of the initial underpainting stage by overuse of pastel, and I felt that had perhaps happened here when I considered the finished work. 

If At First You Don't 'Quite' Succeed 4

And so a few days later, but in very similar conditions, I returned to have another go, this time from a little further down the track…

If At First You Don't 'Quite' Succeed 5
If At First You Don't 'Quite' Succeed 6

I feel this painting makes more of the contrasting light / dark elements, emboldens the sky (while still keeping it ‘quiet’), and avoids (I think) too much overworking with pastel. This view shows a greater expanse of the field to the right and I felt it was in need of a focal point and so artistic licence introduced a non-existent barn which both provides a point of interest to draw the eye around the composition and also serves to further accentuate the beautiful winter light. 

Creating more than one version of effectively the same scene is often (should that be ‘always’) helpful. There will inevitably be an element of learning from previous mistakes, and a familiarity and better understanding of the scene gained from earlier visits and attempts is bound to assist subsequent efforts. I enjoyed both attempts but on balance I think that the second is the more satisfying result. Of course, the joy of art is that it is always subjective, and so I will leave it to you to decide which one you prefer! 

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27 Responses

  1. Great post Andrew, I read the bit about overworking and thought that’s what I’m most guilty of! 🙂 Quick question, as an untrained painter I would never have thought to use a paint / ink first. Do the pastels (and im assuming they do) sit well on top of the ink and would you use any other paints such as standard acrylics or does ink work best? All the best Nigel (Hope and Mania)

    1. Hi Nigel, glad you enjoyed the blog and thanks for your comment! Yes, pastel works well with a variety of media but works best I’d say with thinner washes of ink, acrylic, watercolour, gouache, water soluble media (eg Derwent inktense) etc. Thicker acrylic paint can be used but more ‘tooth’ will be lost so the pastel may not sit so comfortably. I like the unpredictable nature of inks – it helps to keep things ‘loose’ and any major accidents can usually be dealt with at the pastel stage. Hope this helps. Happy painting!! Andrew

  2. I’m just starting experimenting using inks and paint together, and charcoal and pastels .
    I both draw and paint with the ink. I was really interested to read about your process.
    I would like to ask which surface texture of Canson Moulin du Roy paper you use please?

    1. Thanks Fiona! Sorry, I managed to miss that detail out, and you’re not the only one to have asked! I use HP which I find to be ideal but other surfaces will work for different effects.

  3. I found this very helpful; both interms of your description of process and the techniques you used. A well composed painting.

  4. Hi lovely fresh feeling. I actually prefer the first picture. I like the textural effect and I feel an airy breezy walk coming On when I look at it. Honest and relateable.
    Smashing, work Nigel.

    1. Many thanks Eve! That’s good to know! I still quite like the first, just have that feeling of having overworked the pastel, not for the first time!!

  5. They are both beautiful paintings but I prefer the second picture. The first is quite a strong image but the second I like for its distancing, delicacy.

    Barbara Lennon

  6. Thank you for this, Andrew! I’m a novice and really enjoy using the pastels: I am interested in what you said about the fixative – I didn’t realise that it was good for the overpainting – and I like your use as a darkening agent! I will try to take these on board in the future!

    1. Thanks Tony. Fixative is the marmite of pastel artists, but so many only use it at the very end and are disappointed when a heavy hand leaves the picture too dark. My advice is to use throughout the painting process as described (and NO hairspray!)

  7. Both so different. I suppose if I had to choose one over the other it’s the first. I like the richer colours and the left hand close up. The hedgerow on the right looks as if it’s been just cut, the upright and flat top.

  8. Both my husband and I prefer your first attempt Andrew but they are both two amazing paintings. I didn’t feel that it was overworked at all. I love the trees and details in the foreground and found the composition more interesting than your second one. I felt that the closer view of the trees framed the painting.

    1. Many thanks Annette. Interesting points you make and I can certainly see what you are saying. Strange how a simple track and some trees can provide so much interest for the artist, from various viewpoints – I’ll be revisiting again!!

  9. Andrew, your paintings and technique certainly added to glorious results! When I have used underpaintings I have used pipe foam over the initial lay-in of pastels or alcohol. I have tried the watercolors, but never the inks. Do you think the inks provide a more solid color in the paper, or is there another reason you use the inks. You have given me a new idea for my paintings along with using numerous applications of fixatives throughout my painting. Love your results and the new information !

    1. Hi Susan, apologies for the late reply. Yes, I tend to use inks for the boldness of the colour and as they do not lighten when they dry. I enjoy using watercolour as well and in some respects it provides more control in getting initial tonal values as you want them but, not being an experienced watercolourist, I do still find it difficult sometimes to assess how light the tones will become when dry. Many thanks for your comment

  10. I love both versions. I enjoyed reading about your underpainting techniques as this is something I am keen on trying. A great and informative read.

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