Plein Air to Pastel Painting

As a pastel artist who loves to paint landscapes, sketching in my local nature reserve in North London is at the heart of my practice. Plein air drawing enriches my paintings with an authenticity and vitality, motivating me to keep exploring new techniques that represent the beauty of nature. Normally I sketch with a pencil, but this year I decided to shake things up a bit. My tools? An A4 sketchbook, biro and a small portable stool to sit on.

Dawn sketches in woodland.
Dawn Limbert sketching in her local nature reserve, 17/04/21

Processing the sights and sounds of nature on paper leads to an unconscious description through line and mark making. A calligraphy of branches informed by birdsong and the wind in the trees. I return home with a feeling of calmness, refreshed and renewed. The Japanese call this forest bathing (Shinrin-Yo) and the wide range of reputed health benefits led to its use as a form of art therapy from the 1980’s onward.

Dawn's sketches in pen.
Dawn Limbert, Plein air sketch. Pen on paper, A4 sketch book, 02/04/21

As the weeks have progressed this year I have noticed that my biro sketches have changed and become more detailed. I have gained confidence with the pen and I now find myself sketching quite complex scenes in a short space of time. The landscape has gotten under my skin in a different way to before, and emerged in my pastel painting where I have noticed that I am now using bolder and more intuitive marks and colour. My plan over the summer is to utilise this further by applying colour to my sketches and using a larger sketch book.

When the British weather makes it difficult to sketch outdoors, I use my archive of plein air sketches, photos and videos, to paint using soft pastels in my studio. Currently I’m building a body of work for my next solo exhibition in September which will be called ‘Portrait of a Tree’.

My process from sketching plein air to final painting in the studio has various stages. This is particularly important when it is a complex landscape with vines creeping round the trees and lots of texture in the foreground.

Dawn's photo of the area she'll be painting showing a wooded scene.
Photograph of the landscape to be sketched
Dawn's pen sketching continues.
Sketch in progress. Mapping out the terrain. 17/04/21

Whether I am sketching outside or painting in my studio I always spend time just ‘looking’ at a scene and the shapes in front of me. I find the biggest shapes first and map them out on the page before adding smaller shapes. My pastels of choice are Unison Colour Pastels after my husband bought me their Landscape set as a Christmas present a couple of years ago. I find their buttery texture and wide range of colours amazing. Since then I have added to them constantly and like other pastel artists, I’m sure I have way too many.

In the studio I start a painting by lightly sketching the scene on Claire Fontaine Pastelmat paper. This is my favourite, but I also like to experiment with other papers as some take wet under paintings and some don’t. In this painting I have worked straight onto anthracite Pastelmat paper but I will sometimes use a lighter toned one and will do an under painting using nupastels and isopropyl alcohol.

Recently, I have used Golden Flow acrylics and Art Spectrum Colour Fix Primer as an underpainting for a commission I’m working on. And I’ve used neon coloured spray paint as an underpainting for my Graffiti bird series which I am currently exhibiting as part of a group show.

The first pastel marks.
Putting pastel to paper

I then start adding colour using hard and soft pastels. I try not to blend using my fingers especially on sanded papers. At this stage it’s very experimental and I will often change things and even remove areas of colour using a hard bristle brush. I describe this as the ‘ugly phase’ as it often doesn’t look anything like what I am hoping to achieve, but I tell myself to keep going even when things don’t look to be going that well. I have learnt over the years to not be too precious about this stage and just enjoy the process of creating art.

Adding colour to the pastel painting.
Adding colour using Nupastels and Unison soft pastels

I continue to add layers of colour and apply different marks in order to add texture to the composition until a painting that I am happy with starts to emerge.

Adding even more colour.
Adding more colour and mark making

I often stop and walk away from the painting to get a fresh set of eyes and sometimes leave it for a couple of days before working on it again. The last stage normally involves me adding some ‘spice’ or ‘shouty’ marks to make the painting pop. This is where the pastel is laid down thicker and often with bolder colours. For artists new to pastels you should always start applying pastel thinly and finish with the thicker marks at the end of the process (thick on thin), as while pastel paper can take many layers it is all too easy to fill the tooth of the paper when first starting out with this medium.

My paintings are colourful and energetic with bold mark making. I love colour and will turn the dullest scene into a colourful piece of art. Whenever I start a painting, I always start by studying the colours in the landscape. Some colours jump out straight away and others retreat into the background. When working from a photograph, a good tool is to edit the image to enhance the colours that are there or alter the contrast. I then pick out the pastels I think I am likely to use, rather than scrabbling around for a particular pastel later and getting annoyed when I can’t find it.

In all of my landscape paintings, I try to harmonise the colours I use or utilise contrasting underpainting colours to avoid too much green in a painting. I am now quite instinctive in my use of colour, having been very productive over the last couple of years. For new artists I recommend learning about colour theory as this really helped me when I was first starting out.

I also like to listen to different types of music depending on my mood. Listening to upbeat music allows me to play with my mark making more. If I produce a mark I don’t like, I just lift it off using a bristle brush or alternatively, if I produce a mark I particularly like, I will often use it again somewhere else in the painting. I also do this when applying colour, making sure to use that same colour somewhere else, so that there is harmony within the painting.

Over the years, I have found plein air sketching a very enjoyable experience which continues to enrich me as an artist. Sketching outside this winter has been a fun and challenging experience. I trudged through mud almost up to the top of my wellies in January (trying desperately not to fall over laughing) and even stuffed a mini hot water bottle in my coat as it was so cold! Roll on April and the ground was so dry it was cracking and I was wearing trainers and a thinner coat. Now we are in May and I haven’t been out sketching for two weeks as it has been so wet. Yes the British weather really is that challenging!

In conclusion, I would love to see more people getting outside sketching, either on their own or with friends. Just remember to be safe and let people know where you are going and take extra clothing during the winter months. Lastly, remember that it is just a sketch! It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, I often dislike the sketches I do at the time of drawing them and will come back to them a few days later and think ‘oh I love that!

The completed piece.
Dawn Limbert, Distant Trees. Soft Pastel on Pastelmat, 35 x 50cm

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48 Responses

  1. Picking out the colours before starting is such a great idea, thanks! I loved seeing the full process and the painting coming to life.

  2. I love those tangle wood scenes. They are so abstract and yet full of life. You have handled this subject well. I like your colour harmony, composition, balance and especially rhythm throughout your pastel. I like to start with watercolour and then build up with pastel.

    1. Thank you for your lovely feedback. I haven’t tried doing a water colour under painting yet but it’s definitely on my list of things to try

  3. (Translated)The beautiful landscape of Limbert! There is a high professionalism and skill, a very delicate approach to work and an excellent result! Incredible range of color! And on paper dawn! ingeniously! I am increasingly thinking about buying pastels Unison, a very diverse range is necessary on the sketches. Thank you for getting to know the new talented artist!

    (Original)Прекрасный пейзаж Лимберт! Чувствуется высокий профессионализм и мастерство, очень тонкий подход к работе и превосходный результат! Невероятная гамма цвета! И на бумаге рассвет! Гениально! Я все чаще задумываюсь о приобретении пастели Юнисон, очень разнообразная гамма необходима на этюдах. Спасибо за знакомство с новым талантливым художником!

    1. Thank you for your lovely feedback. I’m really glad you are thinking of buying some pastels. I can’t think of a better medium to use.

  4. Very interesting! Always nice to get an insight into an artist’s creative process and inspiration. Lovely work.

  5. I am suffering from the lack of outdoor “hands-on” drawing, it really does make a difference; we have all been shut up indoors or restricted for far too long. I was very interested in the final making of the picture, suggesting much detail but achieved with a variety of carefully placed marks. Also the use of bright colours to break up those browns and greens that normally dominate tree-scenes; it really does work!

    1. Thanks Christine. I have found that getting outside and painting from life has really changed how I work. One thing remains the same though, my use of Unison Pastels.

  6. This is a process I have started and your story encourages me to keep going and do more sketching outside. I have recently bought a set of the landscape pastels and using them has been a real joy. Love your finished picture.

    1. Thank you Cheryl. I’m really pleased to hear that you bought a set. That’s how I started although I got my husband to buy them !

  7. Dawn your art continues to provide a bright moment when needed. I love the colours, the detail, it really is a joy to see what you come up with next.

  8. (Translated)Hello!
    Beautiful your work!
    There is nothing more inspiring than nature at its best!
    Congratulations indeed!
    Greetings from Santiago de Chile.

    Hermoso su trabajo!
    No hay nada más inspirador que la naturaleza en su grado máximo!
    Felicitaciones en verdad!
    Un saludo desde Santiago de Chile.

  9. Really insightful. Thank you Dawn.
    You have a fresh and contemporary approach to to using pastels which makes your work very bold and vibrant. A really enjoyable read. Thanks.

  10. Dawn you have a facinating process to create such amazing art works, very inspiring. Love your use of colours, they really pop!

    1. Thank you Celestine. I can’t help make my paintings colourful and using unison pastels helps me do that.

  11. Lovely insight into your practice Dawn, I enjoyed reading about it. I also love the characters you give your trees with detail and colour.

    1. Thanks Ayse. The trees where I go sketching are all characters in their own right which is why I love painting them.

  12. Great article, Dawn! Interesting to read about you process in detail. Will be helpful for others who want to try sketching outdoors and using pastels.

  13. An interesting comprehensive description of the process that results in your beautiful pastel paintings, Dawn. I like the concept of forest bathing – very appropriate!

    1. Thanks Helen. I love forest bathing! Unfortunately the British weather sometimes puts a stop to it especially on days like this.

  14. So interested to see the progress of your painting! I have been too nervous to try en plein air pastelling but you have inspired me! Thanks for your blog post!

  15. Fantastic use of light and colour. I love the way Dawn captures the beauty of, and brings order to, the chaos of a woodland scene. Wonderful blog. I look forward to the next one.

  16. I reall enjoyed reading about your process Dawn and how you achieved your stunning, vibrant pastel painting at the end.

  17. I’ve used chalk pastels, and oil pastels but didn’t know about the ones you are using, the Unison Colour Pastels, I also didn’t know you could get hard and soft ones, or remove colour with a bristle brush, interesting! I also love sketching outdoors and listening to the sounds of the woods, all the birds and small animals scurrying around. And like you, if I don’t think much of my sketch on the day i often like it better a few days later. It’s a constant thing to have to remind yourself to let go, you don’t have to create a masterpiece, and of course, by letting go you invariably create a much better piece of work anyway. I haven’t invested in a hot water bottle yet, but i do take a flask of coffee and a snack! 🙂

  18. I like the idea of a flask and a snack Jane. My friend and I have gone one step further and now ‘sometimes’ stop off for chips and a drink. We think of it as a reward for all our hard work 😂

  19. Lovely work, Dawn, and thanks for being so generous with your commentary. I tend to work too much from photographic references, and need to follow your example and get into serious sketching outdoors. Fascinating to see your composition and mark making build towards the finished painting. Thank you! Peter

  20. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog post Peter. Once you get into the habit of sketching outdoors you will love it!

  21. I love this. Thank you. I’m not clear on the first step and what under painting means? In this one you didn’t do that? Just grey pastel on grey paper?
    Hard pastels are oil pastels? You mix?
    So beautiful.

  22. Hi Paul thanks for your comments. I’m glad you liked it. In this blog post the first part involved me sketching plein air and taking photos. Back in the studio as outside I spent a fair bit of time just looking at the scene before sketching the biggest shapes first and then the smaller ones. I used a dark Nupastel on anthracite pastelmat paper.
    As far as an underpainting is concerned you can do a dry under painting where you put pastel directly down very lightly as I did or depending on the paper you can rub it in using pipe insulation so none of the paper is visible. You can even do a wet underpainting where you might use pastel with an alcohol wash, water colour, gouache, or even acrylic inks. I’m constantly experimenting and trying different things. I’ve even tried neon spray paint for a series of graffitti birds I exhibited recently. Have a play and see what works best for you.
    Lastly, your final question, are hard pastels oil pastels? No they are not. I tend to use Nupastels at the start as they don’t use up so much tooth of the paper. Hope that helps!

  23. thanks for sharing your approach to pastel painting, putting the focus on how you discover turning points in your artwork that change, challenge & help you as an artist. great read

    1. Apologies Estelle for not replying to your lovely feedback. I thought I had already replied. Your feedback is always greatly appreciated as it is thoughtful, constructive and generous and most importantly helps me reflect on my art practice.

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