I work in various media:  pastel, oil, watercolour and occasionally mixed media. I use pastel either as a stand-alone medium or in conjunction with watercolour, gouache or acrylic underpainting.  It is also my preferred medium to use for preliminary sketches in preparation for paintings in oils.  Its immediacy is extremely appealing – the pastel sticks feel like a very natural extension of the finger. As a dry medium it also allows for continuity of work whilst the creative energy is still fresh.


Subject matter

Whichever medium I use I consider my subject matter both in terms of composition and tonal pattern.  The choice of subject and how best to convey it are also the first priorities to be considered.  

I love painting an image that can easily be walked past or ignored.  Stunning subjects can be found among everyday mundane surroundings if you learn to look and ‘see’ them. Seeing, rather than looking, is one of the most important elements of painting and something I am constantly trying to build on.  If you don’t ‘see’ a subject you can’t paint it. Subjects for paintings can reveal themselves at any time.

Hungarian Dancers, pastel on blue/grey pastel paper with an acrylic underpainting, 15 x 11in (38 x 28cm)

This year some Hungarian musicians visited my home town and whilst enjoying their music I spotted the subject reproduced above. I was reminded of Degas and felt that he would not have wasted an opportunity to record the event.  A lightning sketch with a pencil and diary page borrowed from my wife, and a swift return to the studio, enabled me to work on the piece whilst everything was fresh in my mind.

I decided to keep the sketch loose to convey movement and atmosphere.  I used a fluid acrylic underpainting of ultramarine and red oxide on grey pastel paper which I ‘beefed’ up for the dark areas, and opted to resolve the main players only, leaving other areas as a loosely sketched impression.  Elsewhere I let the wash run down the paper.

I produced the still life, below, whilst teaching a weekend course at Missenden Abbey.  The evening session arrived and with the students exhausted from a day’s painting I offered to do a demonstration.  Looking down the table I isolated an area where parts of several of their still lifes came together, thus providing a ‘found’ subject.  Although it was tempting to make one or two compositional adjustments, I decided not to as my demonstration was primarily to do with underpainting and pastel application.  The obvious view is not always the only option.

Discovering naturally positioned objects like these gives a convincing and uncontrived feel.

Still Life, pastel on watercolour paper with a gouache underpainting, 11½ x 12½in (29.2 x 31.8cm)


Composition

Finding subjects in a natural environment means that you have to walk around and find the best vantage point for the composition to work.  This can be time consuming but also it can bring immense rewards.

I prefer to paint standing up but sometimes I might decide that a lower vantage point will give a more striking perspective, and therefore sitting down to work may be the most suitable option.

If you start work standing up, keeping standing throughout the painting to ensure a constant perspective.  Another option is to find an elevated position where you can partially look down on the scene.  This can play up the pattern of the image and make for an abstract or semi-abstract underpainting.

Boats – Weymouth, pastel on blue/grey watercolour paper with an acrylic underpainting, 12 x 12in (30.5 x 30.5cm)
This painting was completed in one session on site.  It was my intention to rework or modify some area back in the studio but I decided to leave it alone as I considered it contained the spontaneity of plein air work, which I wanted to retain.

Boats – Weymouth Harbour (above) was painted on the spot by standing on the split bridge that crosses the harbour.  As I knew I could be disturbed by the raising of the bridge to allow tall mast yachts through I opted to work on watercolour paper with an acrylic underpainting.  I wasn’t disturbed but the threat helped me to focus my approach to the subject.

Secret Garden (below) is another example of a semi-abstract composition, although this time I wanted a more harmonious quality rather than very strong tonal contrasts.  I used a light pink pastel paper and opted to play cool colours off against warm colours, creating a surface of interwoven pastel marks to give the impression of shimmering light.

Secret Garden, pastel on light pink pastel paper, 12 x 14in (30.5 x 35.5cm)
This painting was done predominantly on site, having first tried out how it might work in my sketchbook.  I was initially attracted to the geometric repeating shapes and how these formed a semi-abstract pattern.  My sketch placed the general shapes and positions of the lights and darks, which helped me visualise how the painting might develop. Finishing touches to the painting were carried out in the studio later.

Once I have settled on a subject and decided the vantage point, I then convert this to a painting in my mind by squinting my eyes to see how the pattern of lights and darks works.  This can often throw up problem areas that will need resolving, either by moving an element out of the scene altogether, making slight positional changes, or playing down a sharp colour or tonal contrast in an area that could prove too distracting.

At this point I try the image out in my sketchbook to see how the various shapes work together both in terms of pattern and tone.

Once resolved I then decide which pastel support would be most appropriate.


Supports

For pastel paper I generally choose a colour that I consider will unify the image as I like to allow the paper to show through and become a colour in its own right.  This may result in choosing a mid-toned ground where I can immediately register the light and dark tones.

For a hot sunny subject I tend to stay away from bright yellow supports as I find I am constantly battling with the paper colour.  For this type of subject I generally choose a dark background and literally paint the sunlight, making the paper colour do much of the work in the shadow areas, thus avoiding the need to build up layers of pastel to achieve density.  Also, working on a paper which is a complementary colour to the local colour can give striking results.

Garden Pots, pastel on mid-grey paper, 12 x 15in (30.5 x 38cm)

Glasspaper has a substantial tooth and allows more build up of pastel marks.  I find that this can tempt me to be more adventurous with my approach, allowing a build-up of subtle colour shifts.

When working on an underpainting I prefer to create an abstract collection of merged washes that generally relate to the area in which they occur.  I tend to keep the tone of these washes darker so that modifications with pastel are generally on the lighter side.  I use these washes as an anchoring point, particularly for the darks, in order to achieve density.  The underpainting washes are influential in the final effect of the painting.

When using watercolour paper or pastel paper I prefer to stretch this on to a board to avoid any cockling of the paper, which can be such a hindrance to work on.


Pastel technique

I find it useful to make notes about what turned me on to the subject and what to portray.  Pinning notes to the easel can be useful in focusing your thoughts.  Although the journey through the painting may have some exciting turns, getting distracted can lead to a confused and disjointed image.

Using sticks of various lengths, I start by using the side of the pastel to lightly block in the dark areas and lightest lights.  I keep these tones a few notches away from their actual value so that I still have room for the final ‘hit’ in the finishing stages.  It is helpful to work gently early on to preserve enough tooth in the paper to float on the subsequent colour.  As I progress, the painting is built up using both side strokes and the tip of the pastel to develop form.

I create a loose pattern of darks and lights, thus avoiding outlines which I may later wish to remove.  I work over the entire image, bringing it all along together so that I can evaluate progress as a whole.

Turning and working on the painting through 90, 180 to 360 degrees allows me to see the image afresh as a collection of shapes and tones and helps to vary the direction of pastel marks, making for a livelier surface.

I do very little blending with the fingers, preferring to float one colour over another until I achieve the colour and tone I want.  Too much rubbing can destroy the freshness of the pastel and lead to a ‘woolly’ image.

Generally, I lightly spray-fix my work once or twice during the painting process when I feel it would be an advantage for the subsequent marks to retain their shape and freshness with minimal transfer of colour.  However, I always restate highlights and certain accented areas afterwards and leave these unfixed to retain impact.

Working in various media I find I am constantly discovering new ways of expressing myself.  I have also found that returning to a medium after a break from it helps me to approach it in a fresh light.

Pastel is versatile, but I would advise those new to it to ‘play’ with the medium first before trying a painting.  Find out what the pastel can do, twist and turn it on the paper. Break the stick into various lengths to vary the size of marks.  Try interwoven marks and floating one colour over another with the side of the stick and so on.  It is better to gather knowledge first than to pitch headlong into your first pastel painting.