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On the beach with pastels by Mark Randall

Posted on Thu 14 Mar 2019

On the beach with pastels

Mark Randall describes his procedure with a pastel painting, which he illustrates with seven stages of a recent beach scene.

Nowadays I wouldn’t dream of spending a holiday just playing or lazing about on a sun-soaked beach, but years ago, when our family was very young, it seems we had little or no choice. Holidays in those far off days revolved around any stretch of sand that could provide the safety and comparative seclusion needed to keep the kids occupied while Mum and Dad relaxed. I recall that my time was largely taken up by transporting all the inevitable beach paraphernalia from car to selected spot (always the far end of the beach), the battle with awkward deck chairs, fetching ice cream (yes, you guessed – the other end of the beach again!) and an almost continuous search for lost buckets, spades and, needless to say, lost kids. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to relax, and still less the opportunity for art.

Things changed for the better though, when we instigated the rota day idea, when by mutual consent, one partner did their own thing while the other supervised, fetched, carried and searched etc. For me, of course, doing my own thing meant wandering the beach with sketchbook and pen.

When the sand is soft and warm underfoot, and the sun high overhead it is almost as if a primeval urge takes over. Adults shed their years and inhibitions, and everyone becomes young again. For the artist observer, the subjects and situations are too good to be ignored.

Colour and atmosphere

Stage 1

The page from one of my ‘beach’ sketchbooks from which the figures were developed. For sketching purposes, I like to work on an A4 size ring-bound sketchbook and generally make use of a Pentel Stylo pen. It has the advantage of being waterproof and the fibre-tip is both fine and flexible. Colour and tonal suggestions are sometimes introduced with the aid of Stabilayout, or Letraset Pantone permanent markers.

So it was a fortuitous request from Llewellyn Alexander (Fine Paintings) Ltd., for a painting of a beach scene that started me searching through my old holiday sketchbooks and eventually triggered off a thematic series of beach pictures. It was a good choice of subject for me, since most beaches abound with colour and atmosphere, while lots of human and interesting stories are unfolding, and I prefer my paintings to convey either a story or a mood. Those holiday sketches suddenly offered me both, and complete dedication to the theme produced 19 paintings. For the pastel demonstration picture Beach Rescue I decided to work on a tan/grey coloured Daler mounting board. This may seem a strange base for pastels but since I also introduce ink into my work, I find that the surface is smooth enough for pen treatment, but has just enough abrasion to accept pastels lightly yet sympathetically.

Stage 2

Prior to starting on the painting, I usually make three or four ‘thumbnail’ sketches (about 3” x 2”) of various possible ‘beach’ situations in order to set the scenario and composition for the ultimate painting. Then I start with charcoal on a medium tan/grey smooth mounting card, lightly placing the elements of the picture, following the particular ‘thumbnail’ composition that I have selected.  Detail is not called for at this stage.

As in most things connected with art, it is a matter of experimenting until you find what suits you best. Before starting the pastel, I like to spend some time just kicking ideas around in the form of thumb-nail scribbles, in order to juggle the relevant elements into the most interesting composition. An hour or two scribbling on scrap paper with a Biro, can save a lot of the needless frustration experienced if you plunge straight into the deep end on your virgin board without setting up the scenario first.

Charcoal and pastel are compatible, so I usually start the painting by lightly indicating the main composition lines with charcoal. Note the importance of the line of the headland where it dips down to lead the eye to the head of the boy who has obligingly rescued the toddler’s boat. Also the sea horizon line is continued right across the picture at the foot of the headland, but it is placed well above the halfway point. The other important composition construction line is the generalised area where waves and sand meet. This takes the eye from the left-hand lower side into the picture and links the main elements. The toddler’s pointing finger and arm echoes this line.

Loose lines

Stage 3

Once I am happy with the general arrangement of the figures, I work over the charcoal, drawing in with ‘Pelikan’ Sepia ink and pen; and developing the picture with a loose, free-flowing line – but still without too much emphasis on detail.  With the ink dry, the charcoal is removed with a tissue, and the first pastel introduced.

This first charcoal indication is no more than the scaffolding by which the picture is subsequently to be built, but like all scaffolding the important thing is placing. At this stage, no detail is necessary; that creeps in when ink is worked over the charcoal. I generally use Pelikan or Higgins sepia ink in preference to Indian ink, with a Gillott’s Number 290 litho nib (I always seem to be experimenting with different nibs, but the 290 is the current favourite). With the pen a free treatment is again developed, the loose ink lines flowing over the background without too much definition, just strengthened here and there – the distant beach huts on the left for instance – in order to add overall tonal variation.

The figures are then drawn in with slightly more strength and definition and more attention to drawing accuracy. It is a bit like photography, getting the main figures in focus and letting the background take care of itself. All too often I come across pictures where the artist has given the same intensity of focus to every item at whatever distance.

Once the ink is dry, and before using any pastel, I usually wipe off, or subdue the charcoal with the aid of a soft tissue to help line definition.

Stage 4

Using the side of the pastel sticks, I now work over various areas of the picture to bring in generalised local colour, concentrated on the sky, headland, beach and sea, but not on the figures.

I use Rowney’s Soft Pastels, and because I almost always work with the side of the stick, I usually break new sticks into roughly three equal pieces so that they are of a more manageable size.  I always try to establish distance early on in the development of landscapes, and you will notice that a streak of yellow ochre along the headland is the first introduction of colour. The whole of the picture is then worked upon with large areas of generalised colour – coeruleum (tint Number 2) across the sky, the stronger blue green (tint  Number 5) for the sea area, a cool grey for the headland, and a warm suggestion creeping into the beach. One thing about using pastel is that it is not essential to cover the support completely.  Let the colour of the paper work for you. This is the reason for the decision to use a warmish colour since it implies a sand feeling, especially where the shallow sea washes onto the beach. Hopefully then, the picture begins to come to life, but you will notice that I left the figures almost until the last. Again it comes back to this business of focal intensity:  the picture evolves from the toddler being reunited with his rescued boat, so it is necessary to draw him confidently and at full strength.

Stage 5

Still ignoring the figures, the clouds and foreground waves are suggested to add movement to the picture. More strength of colour and definition helps the horizon and middle distance beach building.

Colour perspective came into use at this point, in that the toddler’s bathing trunks and arm bands and the hull of the rescued boat were all rendered with a series of reds. This not only helped the important items to stand out, but also linked them together. I decided slightly to deepen the tone of the adult’s shirt.This was done by painting in with a dark blue ink, then working a little pastel back over it. This helped to reinforce the secondary figure.

Stage 6

Further work on the sky, with the clouds softened, and a lot of time spent on wave movement. The figures at last receive attention. The most important figure – the toddler who lost his boat – is treated first, with more intensity than the secondary figures.

Finally, a few touches to add more movement and interest to the foreground waves, and I felt it was at the right point to stop. The picture told the story without going into too much detail.

Stage 7

Beach Rescue.  Pastel 10” x 14”.  

When to stop? The figures are now completed with just enough detail to tell the story of the picture. The rescued boat is picked out since it is an important item to the story.


This article was originally published in the July 1989 issue of Leisure Painter

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On the beach with pastels by Mark Randall

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