Painting with Pastels: applying colour

The last part of the pastels exercise was to paint a simple picture.  My subject was the view of the field outside which recently contained wheat but which has now been harvested and ploughed ready for the next crop.

I began with an A4 drawing in a journal that I have begun to document my local area.  The paper is 200 gsm but without much surface texture, so not ideal for pastel. It was difficult to apply layers because the pastel sat quite densely on the surface.


Next, I re-drew the subject using the same colours on A3 watercolour paper. The paper’s texture made it much easier to layer colour and achieve more depth in the image.  I liked the colour of the wheat field which by this time only contained the stalks but retained the golden colour.  It was the golden yellows of the corn that had attracted me to the subject in the first place, so I intensified this in the foreground. The tall building in the middle is a brick chimney.  It is too central in the first drawing so I moved it slightly to the left but am not happy with its location behind a tree.


The foliage in this image has volume but seems too dense even though I have tried to enliven it with touches of yellows and oranges.  I like the two trees just in front of and to the right of the chimney which have an airiness that differentiates them from the foreground trees on the right of the picture. However, overall and having just completed a colour mixing exercise, I felt that I had not really applied too much of my newly acquired knowledge about colour and the whole thing seems a bit prosaic.

I wonders what it might look like if the colours were “turned on their head” and the complementaries were used.  I did a fast sketch-painting using Ecoline fluid watercolours and then overlaid it with a little pastel just to get the gist of what this might look like.


The whole view has become more vibrant while remaining recognisable, despite the negative colour image.  It felt very strange and required concentration even though it was very rough. In particular, it was difficult to judge tonal contrasts.  For example, in the foliage, it would be necessary to use a much paler tint and then build up the structure of the foliage using progressively darker reds, adding touches of blue and violet to achieve depth. The red I used for the underpainting was much too dark to achieve this. I like the idea, if not the image itself. 

Finally, I tried to combine these paintings / drawings, using a much paler version of the complementaries in an underpainting, which I planned to allow to show through to see if this could lift the image by enlivening the foliage, in particular.  This was the underpainting (below); I tried to introduce a little tonal contrast in the foliage at this stage.  I lifted off some of the paint at the back of the field to prevent too much dark colour coming through the pastel, which would reduce the depth of field. I should have used a stronger orange for the upper sky but this was the part that I painted first and I was afraid that too strong an orange would neutralise the blue, producing a dull sky.  I could have referred to my own notes on combining pastels – rather than using a ready-made orange, I could try making orange from a cool yellow and a warm red (reflecting on this now, I am not sure why this combination does not produce a more neutral orange but it didn’t in my test). 


The pastels that were used in the first drawings were then applied over the underpainting.  I had difficulty in reaching the point of leaving it alone.  I blended areas with a fingertip and then added other colours in gentle-ish layers. Jaxell pastels seem quite heavy but this may be the way in which I am using them. 


I am very pleased with the foliage on the right.  It has an underlying warmth and lightness yet also some depth – much better than the first attempts. The importance of adding tone to the underpainting shows up in this foliage; the areas of stronger tone in the finished drawing correspond to the deeper red areas in the underpainting.  Therefore, it would pay to plan the underpainting more carefully and to include tonal contrasts at this stage. 

There are areas in this picture that seem a little too wishy-washy, which shows that the underpainting was insufficient and could be stronger / more vibrant in some areas.  However, there are also areas where the colour in the underpainting was too strong – the lower sky close to the horizon had to be toned down considerably with white pastel to convey a sense of distance.  The hill on the far left should be lighter or perhaps requires better blending.

The violet paint beneath the field has toned down the brightness of the field but not eliminated it but the colour balance could be improved. This might be achieved by using a warmer violet colour beneath the field to brighten the yellow / gold / orange and I should have allowed more of the underpainting to show through, especially on the right. This exercise also shows how the wrong colour in the underpainting can dull rather than enliven the colours that are laid over it.

As a composition, the chimney has been moved slightly so that it was no longer behind the centre of the tree.  However, it is still too close to the centre of the drawing / painting, although it serves to draw the eye in.  The strong triangular shape of the field has been lost and a cleaner line would restore this. On the other hand, there is a sense of the field receding here into something beyond and better connection between middle and background. The “fringe” of corn stalks in the foreground is far too stilted – these work better in the first A3 painting. There needs to be some foreground interest other than the foliage.  



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