The Small Colored Sticks that Changed Me

For many years, I was caught up in other artistic pursuits — calligraphy, basketry on intricately painted gourds, drafting and design work. But, one day, in the way of all good mysteries and life-changing events, I came across a small box of pastel sticks, the lid held in place by an ancient piece of masking tape, dusty and hidden in the back of a studio closet since art school. That little box upended everything I knew about my art life.

Coastal pastel painting by Lyn Asselta.
Mid Coast, by Lyn Asselta

I had a history of creating art that I could obsess about as I made it, requiring tight work and skills that needed a certain amount of perfection. Calligraphic forms had to be controlled and exact. The basketry and intricate designs I crafted on the gourds were done with crow quill nibs and tiny brushes, and the long pine needles I used – were meticulously wound together into neat, careful coils, the stitching symmetrical and even.

The dozen or so pastel sticks from that old box, scratching merrily across the sanded surface of thick, heavy pastel paper, was nothing short of a sensory feast. Buttery color, thick marks, thin passages of pigment… these joyous explorations had me immediately transfixed. And the options that were available… papers made of different colors and textures, pastels that were hard, soft, velvety, gritty!  The visual delight of simply opening my studio box was a marvel all by itself!

Just A Bit Of Sun, pastel painting by Lyn Asselta.
Just A Bit Of Sun, by Lyn Asselta

My first pastel sets were the Unison Colour Landscape set and the Portrait set. I spent months trying them on Wallis paper, UART in various grits, foam core with gesso and pumice, La Carte, Clairefontaine PastelMat and as many colors of Art Spectrum paper as I could get my hands on. I mixed, blended, and experimented. I made underpaintings with water and alcohol (both isopropyl and the drinking variety… when in a pinch, those tiny bottles of vodka work well!), I used pastel over watercolor and gouache and oil paint and calligraphy ink.

For the first time, I found that I could make an actual mark that could express the emotions that described what I saw and felt in a place. Having always loved the landscape, the endless variety of marks I could make seemed to finally give me a vocabulary to use, and practically begged me to learn and explore more. A tight mark or a loose mark, made fast or slowly, pushed hard into the paper, or delicately placed in a thin layer over another color… these marks had the ability to do so many things! They could emphasize what I was feeling or could describe the textures of objects or the quality of light and air. The gorgeously pigmented colors, from neutrals to lights to darks, could be combined to freely express the mood and the atmosphere of the places I wanted to paint. I had found the means to be expressive in a way that had eluded me before.

Pastel allowed me to work with it, and the wonder of using just my fingers to manipulate that stick of pigment, to push or pull it over the surface of the painting, well, that was just magical.  The sculptural, tactile sense that is experienced in the application of pastel is truly unique.

For those of us fascinated by pastel, we share a common sense of discovery with every painting we create. We share the excitement of a medium that quite simply begs us to play as we work. As artists, what could be better than that? 

Artistic Talent – Nurture vs Nature?

Whether we are born with an innate artistic talent, or, whether it is learned, is an age-old multifaceted debate that is fascinating, complex and compelling. I am sure most artists have considered it at some point or have an opinion on this theory.

NEW Contrast 8 Soft Pastel Set

A handy set of 8 Unison Colour Soft pastels that enables you never to be without those key light and darks such as Grey 28 and CB1.

A Kitchen Tool and Pastels?

Over the years, I have learned that there are infinite ways in which pastels can be manipulated as a drawing and painting medium.  Examples range

Natural Earths

I liked the idea of the natural earth pigments because they are made of earth. I imagine that humans have been using these same colours for thousands of years.

Robert Dutton Soft Pastel and Book Giveaway

Following the recent launch of Associate Artist Robert Dutton’s book, Drawing Dramatic Landscapes, we’re giving away 3 of Robert’s Moorland 36 Soft Pastel Sets, and 5 copies of his book.

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18 Responses

  1. Lyn – As usual, your paintings and your narrative are exquisite. Welcome to Unison as an Associate Artist!

    1. Thank you so much, Tracy! I’ve actually been associated with Unison for quite some time but I am always so happy to be a part of their group…their pastels have been my workhorses for years and I would be lost without them!
      ~Lyn

    1. Imagine spending an afternoon painting en plein air while chatting with Mary Oliver in some beautiful landscape?!!

  2. Lyn, I so enjoyed reading about your discovery of pastels and the joy you felt in using them. To think you were a gourd painter and a basket maker! Denise

    1. Hi Denise! It does seem like lifetimes ago that I did those things! But I’m always so glad I found pastels… and all the wonderful pastel painters who are part of the pastel community!

  3. Hello Lyn,
    You create amazingly beautiful pastel paintings…. I’m glad you found that box of pastels😀😀 your portrayal of locations is beautiful..I am working with pastels for a year now…. And have yet to get any finesse… .i started with hardware sandpaper since we can’t get sanded paper very easily in India……….. I’m also learning watercolour…. from YouTube… The ever dependable you tube… But I’ll get there… Thanks for sharing your experience

    1. Hello! There is that saying, “where there’s a will, there’s a way!” Thank goodness for YouTube and the lessons it can bring! I’m very impressed that you haven’t been discouraged…I hope you keep painting on whatever you can find and trying all sorts of things, making all sorts of discoveries. You will definitely get there!!!

  4. Thank you Lynn, for sharing your wonderful paintings and your thoughts on what many of us feel upon discovering soft pastels.
    After also dabbling at so many other artistic endeavors before soft pastels, this really hit home for me.
    Your beautiful artwork and your way at turning a phrase, are inspiring.

    1. Thank you so much for your note, Sandra!
      I hope you continue to enjoy pastel…it is always such a joy to step into the studio and see that box of colors waiting…what lucky artists we are!!

  5. Lyn, your work is lovely! Is it Maine? I painted there with a friend and it looks like where we spent some time, love those granite rocks!!

    1. Yes, much of it is Maine. I now live in the mid-coast area and travel up and down the coast for inspiration. I grew up here, as well, so those rocks really speak to me. I’m glad to hear you had a chance to paint here and I hope you’ll have an opportunity to return someday! Maine is special….

  6. Hi just wanted to say from someone who has tried pastel how amazed I am at how you have managed to convey the edges of the rocks and the differing depths and steps within those rocks. You can almost feel the sharp edges just by looking at the picture and the shading is amazing … you are truly talented.

    1. Thank you so much, Sue!
      Every painting is an exploration and every mark is a challenge to make it “speak” somehow!

  7. Your wonder at the excitement of working with pastel give me hope. I’m a tight artist working in pastel envying my abstract acrylic and collage friends their expressiveness and versatility. What I see in your work is that pastel is so much more than applying pastel to paper for endless landscapes. I need to PLAY with my pastels and let the joy come in.

    1. Yes!! Play and experiment!! There is so much that those sticks can do!!!
      Wishing you bunches of inspiration and lots of happy hours of discoveries at the easel!

  8. I resonate so very much with your story here. After doing nearly 300 commissioned pieces, primarily architectural (tight work, highly skilled), I have very recently discovered the love of pastels. There is an intensity, vibrancy, blendability, fluidity, and freedom to pastel work that I have not found in the other color mediums I have worked with (oil, acrylic, watercolor, pencil). Of course, not just any pastels will avail themselves to those attributes, which is probably why I didn’t discover it before now. I had tried cheap pastels in the past, but there is just nothing like the finer quality pastels. I will still do the architectural pieces, but in between commissions it’s going to be buttery soft pastels and high color for me! Thank you for sharing your story and your gorgeous works with us!!

  9. I love your style Lyn! You have such a huge talent – the lines and colours, form, light – just beautiful. Just had to comment as your paintings really got to me 🙂 I love pastels but haven’t done much recently, been busy renovating our old cottage on Hadrian’s Wall. Your work is truly inspiring and makes me itch to get back to using them. Thank you for sharing your work and your story.

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Latest Blog Posts

Artistic Talent – Nurture vs Nature?

Whether we are born with an innate artistic talent, or, whether it is learned, is an age-old multifaceted debate that is fascinating, complex and compelling. I am sure most artists have considered it at some point or have an opinion on this theory.

A Kitchen Tool and Pastels?

Over the years, I have learned that there are infinite ways in which pastels can be manipulated as a drawing and painting medium.  Examples range

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