From pastel to impasto

For David Napp the vibrant colours of pastels are perfect for producing on-the-spot reference material for his colourful oil paintings

I work mainly in chalk pastels when outside because their tremendous vibrancy of colour inspires me to paint with a much richer palette. On a practical level they are easier to transport and generally less messy than oils as they do not need to dry. With oils and pastels the general rule of thumb is to work from dark to light, blocking in the darker tones first and building up to the lighter tones. Although I do work with both oils and pastels outside. I much prefer oil painting as a studio activity, working from pastel drawings produced on the spot and photographic reference. This method allows me to work on a bigger scale and with much more control. The other exciting aspect of working with oil is texture and the variety of marks that are achievable with palette knives, different shaped brushes, colour shapers and even my fingers.



The initial pastel drawing for this oil painting was done in situ on the Canal du Midi. I was attracted to the unusual colouring of the building and the decorative brickwork and lintels, but on closer inspection I was even more excited by the dappled light on the shutters and the contrast between the rich
reds of the roses and the blue rendering on the walls. I wanted make an oil painting but, as I hate to intrude on people’s privacy I could not set up my easel a stone’s throw from someone’s front window. I was running out of time and the only solution was to photograph the house. I was also able to use some
of the elements from the pastel sketch (stages one to four) in the final oil painting.

Blue house


I prefer to work on board rather than canvas and never work on a white surface as I find it too glaring. Usually I prepare the board with a pale, warm, pinky orange background in acrylic and gesso. I don’t have a particular preference for oils as long as they are artist’s quality. When starting a composition it is important to get it right. The general rule in pastel and oil is to work from dark to light tones, so I start off by blocking in the darker areas and then block in broad areas of tone as under colours.

Blue house - stage two







Under colours are very important in my work. The rendering on the wall of the house was a kind of lavender blue, so to enhance it I put down an under colour of deep magenta that not only warmed up the blue but also acted as a first under layer for the roses. The white decorative lintel above the window is half in shadow. I indicated the areas where the light was hitting it with a pale lemon yellow; the shaded areas are indicated in a mid-tone ultramarine blue. If I had painted the lintel in white it would not have worked because it would have leapt off the page. Below the window an under colour of lemon yellow gives the effect of the sun hitting it.

Blue house - stage three

I began to add the highlights, which always creates a sense of direction for the picture and enables you to tell whether or not it is going to be success. The areas where the light was hitting the white surfaces have warmth from the yellow under colour; if they had been painted in white they would appear cold and neutral.

Blue house - stage four


Once I have established the general direction of the picture it is purely a question of patience and hard work, adding more and more detail, texture and layers of colour, to achieve an end result that hopefully scintillates.

finished painting

The Blue House, oil, 251⁄2 193⁄4in (65 50cm), based on the pastel sketch.

This short extract was taken from an article by David Napp, The Artist December 2008 issue.