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Pastel Painting Technique - A Lesson from Start to Finish

I recently started a YouTube channel with pastel painting demos and painting tips. Before YouTube, I would blog about a painting from start to finish. "Marsh Meadow Morning" is a 12x18 pastel inspired by the early spring wetlands of Marsh View Meadow Park near Saline, MI.

Here is a complete pastel painting lesson from start to finish. I chose to paint another marsh! I like to paint marshes (perhaps I should change my name to "Marshall"). This view is in Marsh Meadow View Park in Pittsfield Township, Michigan (off Textile and State Roads). This painting hangs in the home of my Wisconsin collector.

Here is the reference photo:

I then took the liberty to adjust the digital photo to bring out the extreme, saturated colors as well as build contrast. Notice that the sky is completely washed out; I will need to apply my artist's license to recreate the sky.

My next step was to work up a crazy acrylic underpainting, mostly using the complementary colors of the color-saturated version of the scene. That consisted of red paint under most of the green marsh plants, and orange/yellow for the purplish treeline at the horizon. I am using Uart sanded pastel paper, 400 Grade, as my base. It handles wonderfully the application of the acrylic paint and alcohol wash, in addition to multiple layers of pastel.

When the painting dries, I will tackle the darkest values first, and applying a second underpainting of a simple alcohol wash.

To start the second underpainting, I applied deep purple and blue as my darkest values, in their respective (dark value) locations, namely at the base of the marsh grasses and treeline.

My next step was to apply a wash of rubbing alcohol with a paint brush to blend in the deep colors:

Now its time to apply the "true" colors of the landscape (and doing away with the 4th of July color scheme)!

In selecting the colors of the palette, I chose a "triad" color harmony (click here for a good overview of color harmony). The color harmony I chose represents the dominant color, the blue-violet, and two hues of its triad, namely yellow-green and red-orange. You can see the triad in the color wheel below, as the tip of the large triangle points to blue-violet at the top of the wheel, and the other 2 points of the large triangle point to the yellow-green and red-orange, respectively. The pastels below represents the values of these colors that I will apply to the painting:

I started with the sky, deciding to alter the photo by creating the source of sunlight on the right half of the horizon (notice that the reference photo's sky is washed out and unclear as to where the source of light resides). My sky comprises cross-hatched strokes of pink, orange and blue, using more of the blue (and darker shade) as we move away from the source of light. My plan is to bring a path of sunlight from the top of the trees on the right down and across the marsh in order to add a variety of color and value to the scene.

Next steps, as you can see in the series of smaller images below, was to add additional color and values, then to wash them further with the alcohol and brush. I continues to add color (especially those deep blues) and began to vary the values (lights and darks) of the respective colors.

With the application of colors and values, the landscape begins to take shape. Careful attention is made to the composition, varying the water areas and lighting to establish a path for the viewer's eye to travel through the painting.

Here is a version, after blending the sky and adding pastel to the marsh. In the upper half of the reference photo you will notice luscious green foliage which I began to block in using my softest pastels (Schminke brand from Germany). Also, the trees and distant shrubs start to take shape, and more grass is added:

The next step involved a bout of some serious composition critique! I see a few flaws with the composition, which I will correct in the next version.

First, the pattern of blue water in the lower half of the painting, coupled with the green of the marsh, almost looks like a map of the earth! The pattern is also rather distracting as a jagged design of blue and green. The viewer's eye gets hung up in this section of the painting.

Secondly, there needs to be some balance in the larger trees/shrubs to counteract the flatness of the marsh and complement the distant tree line. I chose to place another tree in the middle part of the landscape. Finally, the water meanders aimlessly in the painting, and does not draw the viewer's attention toward a particular direction. You can feel your eyes going back and forth looking for a resting point!

Here is the updated version with corrections made to the composition:

Besides adding the tree and bush to the left, redirecting the water and bringing down the marsh grasses to the lower right of the canvas, I also darkened the right side as the sunlight is directed diagonally toward the mid/lower left of the scene. My "quick fix" darkening of the lower right values was accomplished by a light spray of fixative. As long as I plan to continue adding layers (especially lighter values) to the painting, I often do not refrain from adding a light spray of often value-darkening workable fixative to my paintings. In redirecting the water I begin to draw the viewer's eyes toward the upper center-right of the scene near the tall tree on the right.

Below are a few techniques I used to start adding detail to the painting. They include using a flat-edged pastel stick for the blades of grasses, and a tortillion to assist in establishing the faint branch streaks on the tree line horizon:

Here I am muting the strong blue color of the distant trees with its orange complement.

Blue pastels come in handy to create that distant foggy look. This semi-hard Rembrandt pastel helps both to build a fog impact as well as to mute the orange tree.

Using the blue pastel stick below, I push down the haze into the middle ground vibrant greens, softening the impact of this strong hue.

To help brighten an already-bright color, such as the strong white/yellow of the sun-immersed foliage below, I darken the background edge with a darker blue.

Likewise, here I enhance the dark value of an area by applying a lighter-value pastel above it.

In dark, shady areas, such as that at the base of the marsh grasses, I apply a mid-value blue to add variety of color to the mid-value brown area. I often tell my students to take advantage of the variety of pastel colors of similar value, and add them to an area of a particular value. In a poorly-lit (shady) area, for example, try dark blues, purples, browns and reds to spice up the scene. That's the beauty of the pure colors of pastel!

Don't underestimate the value of dull gray. Here I use a gray pastel pencil to mute the vibrant pinks and greens of the distant field. It is also helpful to blend pastels using a sharp pastel pencil, as opposed to using a tortillion. The pastel pencil will do the blending for you as well as add some color.

The foreground of the panting conveys crisp detail. Pastel pencils help achieve this effect. Here I am adding dark reflections of the grasses in the water, and (below) highlighting the sunlit blades of grass.

There you have it. Here is the completed pastel painting, "Marsh Meadow Morning."

Please visit my YouTube channel here to see live demos and presentation of completed paintings.

Speaking of marshes, "Marsh Madness" below is a 9x12 pastel. I like to revisit this painting each March when "March Madness" begins. Cheering on my favorite teams: the Michigan Wolverines and the Loyola Ramblers!

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