Plein Air with Soft Pastels


We as painters are always hoping for that next masterpiece. So, the question begs to be answered, “why paint plein air?”.  I know several professional painters that swear by plein air painting, but seldom do they produce the final painting while on location.  As with most things in life, you get out what you put in and you must have realistic expectations.

I have been seriously painting outdoors for about 5 years now and trust me, I have created some “hot messes” as my daughter would say.  Conversely, I have ended up with some decent paintings and several that I am really pleased with.  I have learned to never go out painting with great expectations as to what I will end up with which brings me to today’s reason to paint plein air.

Although I have tried wet media for plein air painting, I find that pastel gives an immediacy that I cannot obtain with wet media.  Selecting the proper set of pastels to use outdoors can make a big difference in your results.  A good general set for outdoor painting is either the Unison 18 Landscape or Unison 36 Landscape set.  For plein air, I lean toward “less is more”.  Having too many colour/value options can leave you with indecision in trying to get just the right colour.  By having less pastels to choose from while on site, you can develop your skills related to blending and other methods of colour/value determination.

Plein air gives you the chance to experiment.

Try different colours!

Colour Study of a Tree, pastel painting by Randy Hamburg
Colour Study of a Tree, by Randy Hamburg

Soft pastel gives you the opportunity to do quick colour studies.  The above study was done when I was beginning to plein air paint.  I tended to paint the scene exactly as I saw it and needed a way to open my mind to different possibilities.  The study on the right more accurately depicts the actual colours of the scene.  I made the conscious decision before beginning that I would paint two 4” x 6” studies with completely different colour palettes.  The Unison 18 Landscape set is a good starting point for these small colour studies.  Divide the set into two or three separate colour groups.  Select something simple, a tree, a flower etc. and paint it using each colour group.  Small colour studies like this free you up to just have fun, there’s no pressure to finish a painting (it’s just a study),  it’s a learning experience and you can get really wild with some of your colour combinations.  You will learn something different from each study and will begin to incorporate those ideas you like into your paintings 

As you can see from the above example, the two paintings depict completely different moods even though painted from the same location at the same time of day.  

Try new texture!

One of the things I personally like from wet media is the texture that can be achieved.  I have taken the opportunity to try out different ways to use soft pastels to add more texture to my paintings.  Why not add another dimension to pastel paintings.

Stream Textural Study 2018, pastel painting by Randy Hamburg
Stream Textural Study 2018, by Randy Hamburg

Granted this takes a bit more preparation than my normal plein air paintings.  When I decided to give this a try, I took a photo of the above location prior to the painting.  Using the photo as a reference, I applied a coat of light modelling paste to a small left-over piece of gatorboard.  After the modelling paste had dried, I coated the surface with pastel ground. You can note the different texture particularly in the trees as opposed to the ground and sky.  Working from back to front I gradually built up more texture to areas closer and areas I wanted to highlight.  Returning to location, I began layering Unison darks “rubbed” into the low spots using pieces of pipe foam, then working to the lighter colours for the highlights.  This is best shown on the left side of the painting in the trees.  Only your imagination would limit you on the type of texture depending on what you use (sponge, comb, brush, palette knives, rollers, etc.). 

Another quicker method of adding texture on site is using workable fixative.  After completing your block in, generously spray a coat (or coats) of fixative on the painting and use some of the same items mentioned above to create texture.  I particularly like to use hog bristle brushes for this method to get some unusual effects.  As you brush through the fixative, not only are you achieving the texture, but also darkening and “mixing” your base layers.

Practice Values!

When we are starting out and even after years of painting, we sometimes have a bit of trouble determining values in our paintings.  A good way to increase your skill at determining the proper values is to paint monochromatically.  I tend to work on value studies using a range of greys.  I will select a black, white, and no more than three to four greys that fall in a range of values between.  The study below was created while on site in Utah. Instead of grey, try doing value studies in browns, blues, yellows, or any other colour family.  After completing several of these studies, you see that your value “perception” is increasing, and you will see the results in your other paintings.

Value Study, pastel painting by Randy Hamburg
Value Study (2016), by Randy Hamburg

Put it all together

The painting below is one I completed using all the skills mentioned above.  Try the practice ideas and see for yourself if they help in your progress.

Gentle Blaze, pastel painting by Randy Hamburg.
Gentle Blaze, by Randy Hamburg. 12 x 12

One comment I have heard several times from my wife is “your paintings are all starting to look alike”. I believe we all fall into this rut.  We get comfortable with what we are doing and repeat it over and over which keeps us from progressing as artists. The best way I know to get past this is by trying new things, methods, colours, texture, etc.   Just remember when you are plein air painting, HAVE FUN AND LEARN SOMETHING NEW!

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12 Responses

  1. (Translated)Plein air painting is such an unexplored phenomenon, as well as much more, because I am an aspiring artist. But I like to learn, I like to learn new techniques of drawing, new tips, as the lack of basic education affects. Thank you to the internet and you for very valuable advice. Be sure to try to apply them on the next plein air, we plan to draw our river Amur while it is in the ice.

    (Original)Пленэрная живопись это настолько не изученное явление, как впрочем и многое другое, ведь я начинающий художник. Но я люблю учиться, мне нравится осваивать новые техники рисования, новые советы, так как сказывается отсутствие базового образования. Спасибо интернету и вам за очень ценные советы. Обязательно попробую их применить на следующем пленэре, планируем рисовать нашу реку Амур, пока он во льду.

  2. Hi Randy:

    What is the equipment you use when outdoors painting with pastels? I am looking for something lightweight and easy to haul around.


    1. Hi Nancy,
      I have several set-ups depending on where I’m painting and how much hiking is involved. My Primary boxes are the Heilman “Backpack” (along with the Heilman Easel) or the All-In-One “Gypsy”. I use one of these probably 80% of the time. If there is a lot of walking/hiking involved I have a Heilman “Double Sketchbox”. There’s only a pound or so difference in the weight of the two Heilman boxes, but the amount of pastels each will hold adds up significantly for a final total weight.

      As far as tripods, I use a Manfrotto 055 Carbon Fiber and it’s really been a workhorse. When I’m traveling by plane to a location, I carry a Veo 265AB. It’s much lighter and folds to about 15 inches which is perfect for packing in carry-on luggage.

      I’ll try to do another Unison post later that gives photos and a list of what I carry with me when I’m plein air painting but feel free to contact me if you have any questions. And thanks for reading my article.

  3. (Translated)Hello
    I really liked your studies.
    These spaces give us the opportunity to learn new techniques every day.
    A greeting for you from Santiago de Chile.

    Me gustaron mucho sus estudios.
    Estos espacios nos dan la oportunidad de aprender nuevas técnicas cada día.
    Un saludo para usted desde Santiago de Chile.

  4. Love your comments and explanations which will help me tremendously because I want to paint outside.

    Thank you very much

  5. Yes, I would love to see your actual plein air set up..I have a nightmare of all the pastels falling out of the box.. I am interested in the possibility of doing value studies and using just a few pastels during plein air painting. It would be nice if Unison provided a set of pastels for this purpose, small enough box to be taken into the field, perhaps in grays, greens and blues..????

    1. Hi Flynn, we do have the values sets in boxes of 18. As you can see from Randy’s link to our Grey’s. Kind regards Helen. Unison Colour Ltd

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