‘I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.’
Vincent van Gogh
For most of my life I assumed art was not for me, obviously I tried it at school, but I was never that good – ‘not a natural’ so I focussed on other subjects. However, I was always curious and admired people that were ‘artistic’
I have always considered myself a lifelong learner and continued to learn in my spare time, digital film production, screenwriting, photography, adobe creative cloud and a load of business courses.
Finally, I bought myself a set of pencils, found an online course and gave it a go with no expectations of myself and I absolutely loved it! Of course, I then also found myself an evening course. We stuck to pencil which meant it was all pretty much monochrome until we had a class and played around with soft pastels, this was a revelation to me – finally some colour!
I loved the immediacy of the colour of soft pastels, so I found some resources on YouTube and I experimented, learned about different papers and different pastels. Then I discovered the Unison Colour 5 day pastel challenges…
What are the Unison 5 day pastel challenges?
For those of you who are yet to experience one I’ll describe what they are and how they work.
Unison Colour and one of their lovely associate artists get together and organise these. I usually hear about it on social media, and make sure I sign-up straight away. Essentially, they are a 5-day instructor lead workshop. Materials lists, guidance and reference photos are provided prior to the challenge and pre-recorded videos are released every morning for you to follow. On top of that, technology permitting, there is a live Q&A session with the instructor each evening, the ones I have managed to join have been really helpful in getting answers to specific questions on the work you have done that day. However, one of the best things about these is the sense of community, everyone, with different abilities and interpretations, post their progress and many more provide comments of useful tips.
Earlier this year in February I took part in my first Unison 5-day challenge, and no there were not two associate artists! Old Harry, which is a beautiful set of chalk rock stacks off the Devon Coasts, were to be our subject, with Nina Squire being our lovely host artist for the 5 days.
So, I had done my homework, got all my paper set-up, selected my best matching pastels (at this stage I didn’t have Unison’s but pulled together what I had) and of course my vodka! That was not just in case I had to drown my sorrows; it was for the wash on the underpainting – who knew!
I followed Nina’s instructions to the word, as best I could with my ability and the pastels I had, over 5 days. Once we had the underpainting completed and started on main painting Old Harry began to emerge and what amazed me it actually looked like the photo reference we were drawing. Nina’s did look better as you would expect but I was very pleased with the results and my family were quite impressed too.
The key takeaway for me from this challenge was paying attention to how the colour and value changes in the light and shadow that really gives the sense of the sunlight hitting the rocks.
Lynn Howarth and Arnie
The next thing that really piqued my interest was the 5-day challenge hosted by Lynn, this was a portraiture 5-day challenge, while I had tried some pencil portraits I had never tried it in pastel. This time too I had my Unison starter set, which my wife had bought me for my birthday, but I managed to persuade her to give it to me a month early, which felt like it put me at a significant advantage.
Again, I was prepared, I had my reference photo, picked out the recommended pastels and the best match for the ones I didn’t have and prepared my paper. I think it is worth noting here that even if you don’t have the pastels to match exactly you can still get amazing results with slightly different colours, I would say just try to match the ‘value’ of the pastel.
The difference I found with portraits vs. landscapes is that you don’t really need to know how to draw a landscape very accurately, however it helps if you can for portraiture. Having said that Lynn’s instruction was very helpful for this stage, and you could relatively easily follow the contours and outline that she had put together to get the likeness from the start. I mostly managed this, my painting looks like a person and perhaps the brother of the model rather than the model himself, however again I was really pleased with the result and learned a lot on blending pastels for skin tones.
I was so inspired by this experience I signed-up for the follow-on Moody Blue workshop which was figurative, again with a different set of challenges but very pleasing results. For those of you who have attended a 5-day challenge you will have seen Unison and the Associate Artist promote follow-on paid workshops with a discounted set of Unison Colour pastels picked specifically for that workshop.
The takeaways for me here were a) I can actually do a level of portraiture and figurative painting and b) use a combination of soft pastels and pastel pencils for blending skin tones.
The most recent 5-day challenge I took part in (as did 1000+ others!) was Rebecca’s Moorland Landscape. For me this was almost going back to where I started my pastel journey – to landscapes. We had an amazing reference photo of the quite unique landscape of Dartmoor with its rocky outcrops and rolling hills.
Rebecca’s style is quite different to mine, but yet again a different artist and a different approach and many things to learn. I have Rebecca’s book ‘Pastels for Absolute Beginners’ which I have dipped in and out of, but nothing beats the step-by-step instruction of a 5-day challenge. We worked from top to bottom, or back to front if you think about the layers on the landscape – sky, background, middle ground and foreground. As before, following the instruction, the landscape slowly emerged throughout the week to really pleasing results.
One of the key takeaways for me was to really consolidate my learning about aerial perspective i.e., how the atmosphere affects what you see in the distance. Reflecting this in the painting really gives the landscape a sense of depth. The further in the distance the greyer and less vibrant the colours and as you come forward the stronger, brighter and more vibrant they become.
What these 5-day challenges have done is really help build a community. I love to see and appreciate other participants’ work, comment and invite comments on mine. You get a real sense that everyone is on a personal journey, at different stages, with their art.
Across all of these experiences I love to see the different techniques different artists apply and having the ability to apply them and actually see half-decent results. You learn something new from each artist and take away elements that eventually become your own.
For some time I have been painting daily (getting up very early before the rabble) alternating between lessons and my own work. My belief is that there is always something to learn no matter the level you are at, after all even professional sports people have coaches.
While I wait for the next 5-day challenge (I am looking forward to see what you have planned for next year Unison Colour) I have been trying out some of the lessons on Pastel Academy, the skys of Sandra Orme and the seas of Tricia Taylor, I also use Patreon and YouTube. My biggest challenge is fitting it all in around my family and a full-time job!
Art is for everyone; I hope I will see you (or your work at least) on the next 5-day challenge!
Read another challenge participant blog here…
Learn more about what goes on behind the scenes of a 5 Day Pastel Challenge, with a blog from Helen Bullock…