Back in April, a pastel was posted by Don Gardi on the Pastel Society of America Facebook page. It was by an artist that was unknown to me – Frantisek Kupka. Once I started to dig a bit, I realized I had seen his work but it was his more abstract paintings that I was familiar with whereas what had been posted was a figure done in pastels. After commenting on the post, I received an email from artist Duane Wakeham who shared an extraordinary pastel by Kupka with me. And from these two beautiful pieces, this blog was born.
Initially I had a hard time finding pastel images online. I borrowed a book, Frantisek Kupka 1871-1957: A Retrospective published by The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1975 (which I later discovered online – click here to see it). Inside, I found a number of pastels but they were mostly black and white reproductions. With that information, however, I was then able to track down many of the images online and in colour as posted by the various museums where they reside. (The Musee National d’Art Modern – Centre Pompidou has a large collection of work by Frantisek Kupka primarily due to a gift by his wife Eugenie.)
Short Bio for Frantisek Kupka Prior to 1910
Frantisek Kupka is primarily known as one of the founders of pure abstract art (along with Wassily Kandinsky, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, and Piet Mondrian). Born in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in 1871, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts Prague where he received traditional training, then at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna where he was influenced by Symbolism. After moving to Paris by 1896, he studied briefly at the Academie Julian and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. To earn a living, he first created satirical caricatures for newspapers and magazines and then moved on to designing posters and book illustrations.
He would have been exposed to and influenced by the avant-garde movements of the day – fauvism and cubism – but still his work remained wholly his own. In 1906, he settled in Puteaux, a suburb of Paris (where he lived until he died in 1957). His works started off representational but after reading the Futurist Manifesto published in 1909 in Le Figaro (it’s quite something!), his work began to move more towards abstraction, reflecting the idea of showing movement and also his colour theory. You can read more about Frantisek Kupka’s life here.
The pastels I will share with you are from the period 1906-1911, i.e. after he moved to Puteaux up until the time he was being influenced by the Futurist writings and the notion of capturing movement in figures. You can also see how he utilizes colour expressively, beyond any ‘realistic’ associations.
These two pastels look quite different in style – one is more naturalistic with overtones of Kupka’s illustrations for Les Erinnyes (begun in 1906), the other more decorative revealing the Art Nouveau influence with its sinuous lines. The tiny insert reveals a more realistic rendition of what is seen while the larger image studies the effect of water on the figure in a more patterned way.
The beautiful oil painting that emerged from these studies can be seen here. This was the first time Kupka had shown forms immersed and transformed in water. The idea that the natural element of water dissolved the distinct and concrete boundaries of the body appealed to Kupka as seen in this quote from his 2013 manuscript discussing the phenomenon of reflection: “What adorable tricks on the absolute limit of things.” (as quoted in Retrospective, p.107)
This pastel, Girl with a Ball, precedes the fairly naturalistic oil painting of the same subject, namely Kupka’s stepdaughter Andree. A series of eight drawings exist that came out of Kupka’s frustrations with being unable to describe movement of the ball and the girl in the pastel (and the painting).
Here’s one drawing where Kukpa describes both the contours and forms of the body as well as the track of the moving ball as Andree plays with it.
In a note on the pencil drawing above, Kupka details his frustrations in the inscription on the side: “ici il n’y a que/ la dissection/ des surfaces/ la conception/ de la/ conpenetration [sic]/ atmospherique/ est a trouver/ tant qu’il y/ aura la difference/ des couleurs/ du fond et/ de la chair/ je retomberai/ dans le [sic] photo/ carte postal”. Loosely translated it means, “Here I am only dissecting surfaces. The atmospheric copenetration is yet to be found. As long as there is a distinction in colour between ground and flesh, I will fall back into the postcard photograph.” (Click here to see the translated quote and to see a much more abstracted pastel study for the painting, Amorpha.)
In the eight drawings of Andree lay the seeds for studies for the painting, Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colours, which, when it was exhibited at the 1912 Salon d’Automne in Paris, was one of the first abstract paintings ever shown publicly.
The Girl with a Ball drawings also led on a parallel track to the colourful and vibrant pastels of the Woman Cutting Flowers series. You can see in these how Kupka worked through the idea of dissecting a plane and of showing motion by using overlapping phases of movement. In these you can also see the influence of high speed photography pioneered in the 1880s.
Apparently there may have been about 15 in this series but the whereabouts of the others are unknown. (Note: the numbers applied to each in the series is from the Retrospective Catalogue rather than the Pompidou’s website where they are all called “Woman Cutting Flowers.” It is unclear in which order they were created.)
It’s fascinating to go through the series, noting the differences and the evolution of the theme. The fourth pastel seems the most abstracted with less focus on overlapping motion; the second loses the seated figure; the fifth one shows the figures most at one with the background.
From the Retrospective Catalogue (p61): “In the last version….although the grid structure is once more visible, the figure is shattered and integrated into the surroundings space. Here Kupka achieves a unified all-over pattern in which focal image, trace or memory imprints and ambient space are fragmented, flattened and enmeshed in a single plane. Kupka wrote in his notebook of approximately the same time (1910-11): ‘When we try to remember a dream…often we only retain a skeleton of the dream images…a vague grid through which fragmented forms emerge and disappear as quickly as they came.’”
Some of these pieces bring to mind Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending Staircase #1 and #2 but those weren’t finished until 1911 and 1912. Interestingly, one of Marcel Duchamp’s brothers, Jacques Villon, was Kupka’s neighbour in Puteaux while Marcel himself lived in Neuilly-sur-Seine, another suburb of Paris.
Kupka also began making studies for a piece called Planes By Colours (‘Plans par Couleurs’). Here’s one of those studies:
Amazing colours yes? Click here to see the final oil painting.
The last pastels below lead up to the painting, Planes of Colours, Large Nude. Kupka worked on this series of reclining nudes over a few years starting in about 1904. The first I’ve included is in a private collection and so I was unable to locate a colour version of it. Nevertheless, I’ve included a black and white reproduction of it taken from the Retrospective Catalogue (p. 128) as I feel it really shows his progression from realism to something more expressive. (Sorry about the curve in the page.)
You can see how Kupka used colours (and values) to create the figure rather than volumetric shading. You can see the final oil painting by clicking here.
One more, just one more I promise. Although I was going to stick with figurative pieces, I wanted to include this abstract pastel as it seems to grow naturally out of the Woman Cutting Flowers series. It felt like the completion of Kupka’s process towards abstraction. I think the colour is exquisite! Here it is:
So what do you think? Has this inspired you to work out your ideas in many iterations? I’d love to know if you have any perceptions about this work. Had you seen Frantisek Kupka’s pastels before? Were you even aware of him as an artist? Do let me know in a comment below.
One more blog post coming before I head off to IAPS 2nd of June!!
Until next time,
PS. Because I can’t help myself….
PPS. And here’s the book I referenced:
I have done a few pastel demo videos now, all of them on toned Wallis paper. A question I’ve been asked is, Why don’t you use white paper? and What would the pastel painting look like on white paper?
I have taken these questions to heart and decided to do a demo on white paper even though it’s not my usual surface colour. In the demo, I use, for the first time, Terry Ludwig’s set of 14 Best Loved Basics – the company’s uber starter kit. When I first looked at these, I was surprised and a little bit anxious, if I’m truthful, because there wasn’t the usual saturated colour selection I’m used to, for instance, no bright yellow, orange, or green. But I was up for a challenge! Here’s the result.
So let’s have a closer look. First the set-up:
Next the thumbnail.
So let’s look at a few progression pieces:
The combination of the softness of the Terry Ludwig pastels and the sanded texture of the Wallis paper allowed layers to be built up thus eliminating most of the white specks of paper showing through. Where you can see them, I rather like the sparkle that the white paper brings, for instance in the shadow side of the bowl.
Here are the photos of the Terry Ludwig set:
I love the name of this set of pastels – Best Loved. It doesn’t have the name “starter box/kit” or anything like that. Instead, it appeals to our emotions. And this is typical of the way Terry works. For instance, while at IAPS conferences, I have received free samples. (You can see a whole piece I did from this selection of IAPS samples by clicking here.) Terry (and team) also posts artwork by others created with his pastels on the company’s Facebook Page. It’s through this generosity that we not only come to love his pastels but also the man himself.
I was curious as to how this selection of pastels came about – how were the colours chosen? I put the question to Marie Ludwig, President of the Terry Ludwig Pastels. Here’s what she had to say: “The Maggie Price Best Loved Basics, a set of 60 pastels, is the set we most often suggest to new pastel artists just getting started with the medium. We became aware this set would be a price stretch for those new artists and decided to create a small set geared toward them. Terry selected the 14 pastel colors and values he believed would be most useful for the new pastelist.” So there you have it! A fabulous beginner set for sure.
Limitations, counter-intuitively perhaps, enable you to grow as an artist. A limited colour selection, working with colours not usually in your palette, these things will lead to creativity and progress. I leave you with this quote (substitute the word ‘artist’ for ‘writer’):
That’s it folks! Tell me, do you use white paper? If so, why? I’d love to know how you use the white paper. Let’s get a discussion going!
Until next time,
PS. I recently did a pastel self-portrait using the same set of 14 Best Loved Basics. Watch for that coming soon!!
Oh. My. Gosh. It’s the end of yet another month and once again I’ve faced the terrible and delectable task of picking my pastel favourites from the many I encountered over the month. This time I started with 60 to choose from and once I had whittled it down to 18, my, what a time I had making my final selection. But 10 is the self-imposed limit and by golly I’m going to stick to it! And so I struggled and pondered and finally made my decisions. I hated eliminating those that I had chosen throughout the month – they were all wonderful!
Let’s have a look at this month’s choices.
There was something about Gary’s pastel that kept bringing me back again and again, a mystical and quiet quality to it in both colour and content. Where does this path lead? Am I inclined to explore and follow where it goes or am I fearful about what I might find? With questions like that, the pastel becomes a metaphor for the process of art-making itself! There’s something about the overall blue and the darkness that makes me ambivalent about whether I should be calm or anxious. I love this tension between disquiet and ease. To see more of Gary’s work, have a look at his website.
The exact same size as Gary’s pastel, this one is older (all of eight years) but when I saw it, I knew I would have to include it as one of my pastel favourites for this month. Here mark-making is of the utmost importance. You can feel the energy of the artist as he applied the pastel. He reacts vigorously to what is in front of him. How daring that purple line outlining the hills in the distance. And look, did you notice the buildings in the distance? Scrub and bush, you can feel the chaos of it in the foreground. I also love the way Raoul incorporated the colour of the paper into the whole. Go see more of his work here. (Thanks to Jimmy Wright for posting Raoul’s work on the PSA Facebook group page and bringing this artist to my attention.)
It’s deceiving seeing this pastel, here on the blog, as the same size as the two above when in fact, in real life, it’s much larger. I love the predominant combination of yellows and purples in this piece – the feeling of warm light and cool shade. There is much to explore and enjoy in this piece from the various trees trunks to the refections in the water to the way Mike has indicated the foliage and rocks. A delight. See more of Mike’s work here.
From the darkness of Mike’s pastel, we come to this high key painting by Lorenzo Chavez. The first three pieces had much to say about trees. Here trees are thin on the ground but add a useful vertical. There’s something about the lightness of feeling that comes through in this piece. Winter doesn’t seem so bad as the cool shadowed snow is balanced here by the warmth of the sun illuminating the scrub and parts of the snow. The colour of the water area is that greeny colour that comes from a thin ice layer that’s almost not there. Do you know what I mean? See more of Lorenzo’s work at his website. (As an aside, this painting was on my January shortlist. For some reason, it popped up again in my April viewings and I’m delighted to include it in this month’s pastel favourites!)
We go from a high key pastel to a great example of a low key painting. In a nighttime painting, most of the values are dark and it’s by creating just enough contrast in those dark values that allows us to read the shapes of the painting. Judy does this so well in this piece. Here’s another mysterious painting that invites questions. Is this merely a quiet street or is there something more going on? An ominous feeling surfaces as we notice the car approaching – it heads directly towards where we stand. Incredibly, this is Judy’s first night painting. I look forward to seeing more! It appears that Judy doesn’t have a website but I’m linking here to her Facebook page.
I can hardly believe this is a pastel. What incredible detail and observation! Who knew what you could see in a few pieces of cutlery? I love the complimentary colours of orange and blue and how they both colour what essentially is monochromatic silverware. How amusing that the vases of the title are nowhere to be seen….or are they? Go here to see more of Lisa’s meticulously rendered paintings.
From Lisa’s realism we go to the expressionistic abstraction of this work by Halla. I am mesmorized by this piece – by both the colour and the application of pastel. Line informs both the plant shapes and the negative spaces. I keep looking and seeing more all the time. The title invites interpretation beyond what we see. Within the shape of what I take for a vase, I see a landscape full of life. What do you see? I was surprised not to find a website for Halla but you can see her work on her Facebook profile.
I was totally charmed by this portrait by Jeanne Rosier Smith. Jeanne doesn’t delineate every little detail but gives us enough information to capture this young girl glancing off to the side, her attention caught by something beyond the frame. I have a need to ask her what she’s looking at. The delicacy of the partially opened mouth, the eyes that stare into an unknown distance, the soft shadows on her face, all these fill me with a quiet pleasure. To see more of Jeanne’s work click here (she does some amazing seascapes!).
Another face fully in thoughts of her own, the solid simplicity of this pastel totally captured me. I love the way the linear marks suggest the bare minimum of a three-dimensional form. For some reason, this pastel brings to mind the graphic work of Aristide Maillol and the paintings of Paul Gauguin. Michael says, “I drew this of a friend when I lived in Rhodes, Greece. It’s a study for a concept of the Last Supper.” Wouldn’t you like to see the finished work? I sure would! Click here to see more of Michael’s work.
There’s something about figures depicted against the light that get me every time. In this piece, I am enchanted by the various colourings of white – the blouse, the walls, the crockery. This pastel has a strong composition of abstract shapes that leads the eye around the piece. Working on toned gator board, Ronnie brushed on pumice gel to create texture. After her initial sketch, she “scribbled” in areas with Nupastel and then applied alcohol, “brushed on section by section to avoid mixing values.” She then “went crazy with layers of soft pastel.” The light and colours are reminiscent of the work of Sally Strand. See more of Ronnie’s work and her process here.
And that’s it folks. Another month of pastel favourites. Which one is your favourite? I’d love to hear from you!!
Until next time,
Lesson Learnt at Opus Demo
Last month, I was invited to do a pastel demo and chat at Opus Downtown Vancouver on Sunday afternoon. I went over to the mainland and spent the weekend with my brother and his family. On Saturday, I went out and bought a selection of vegetables. I thought it might be a good idea to try a set up and then make a small thumbnail so I could have some sort of plan the next day. Good idea yes? I thought so. So I excused myself from family fun and went to work. Here’s the thumbnail sketch I did:
I was all set. Or so I thought. The next afternoon, I set up the vegetables at Opus, turned on my flood light, and…..all the values were different. For instance, where the shadows had been the darkest value, now they were a middle value. It didn’t matter that the set up was the same including the same temperature bulb shining from the same direction. The ambient light was different and that seemed to make all the difference.
Conundrum – should I stick with the old plan even though I don’t see that, or take the time and effort to create a new one? I decided I couldn’t just make it up and so created a new one:
Subtle difference in the thumbnails but a big difference when it came to pastelling. Just goes to show, even though you prepare, you need to be flexible and be able to change at a moment’s notice! The plans of mice and men….. Still, I’m glad I did do the veg set up and selection beforehand.
Here’s the pastel that emerged from the demo. I didn’t get nearly as far as I had planned (it always takes way longer to answer all the questions before getting going and also along the way) and I added things like highlights long before I normally would but I wanted to show how I would finish. All in all, it gave a good taste of layering and how you can make do with a limited palette.
As you probably know by now, I’ll be on my way to the International Association of Pastel Societies (IAPS) Convention at the beginning of June. As I did last time and the time before, I’ll be helping out at the Holbein booth. This year for the first time, I’ll also be demoing…at the Schminke booth. I’ll be there Friday 5 June 9am-12pm and Saturday 2-5pm. In between, I hope to shoot a LOT of short videos like I did two years ago.
What I want to know is, if I asked one question to a number of the artists, what would it be?
I’m looking for input, what do you want to know? If it’s a question for a specific artist, let me know. Please leave your questions as a comment so we can all see them.
To get an idea of who is teaching, go to the IAPS website here. Remember too that there will be a lot of amazing artists attending and I hope to ask them questions as well!
To give you inspiration, here’s a few of the videos I shot last time. Click on the image to watch. To see all the interviews, go to my Channel and check under “Interviews”.
So, what’s your burning question?! Tell me so I can ask it when I go to IAPS!!!
Next time, I’ll have my pastel choices for April. Wait for it!!!
Thanks for being here,
PS. Your burning question is???
PPS. If you are coming to IAPS, please come find me at either Holbein or Schminke booths!
I’ve been following the work of Arlene Richman for sometime now. I remember when I first came across her work – it was a pastel of abstracted chair patterns.
Recently she’s been doing abstracts full of colour and varied lines. I sigh with joy at the appearance of each new piece. Like this one:
I was curious about how her subject matter evolved from chairs to become mostly non-objective. I was also interested to learn about her abstract painting process. And so I asked Arlene if she’d consider guest blogging to talk about these things and to my delight, she said yes!!
And so it is with GREAT pleasure that I introduce Arlene Richman.
Arlene Richman- Bio
Widely represented in exhibitions national and international, Arlene has won numerous awards including 1st Place in the Abstract category in The Pastel Journal’s Pastel 100 competition. She is a Signature Member of the Pastel Society of America (PSA), as well as a member of the executive committee of the Board of Governors of the PSA. Arlene also serves on the Signature Committee of the Pastel Painters Society of Cape Cod, and is a member of the Salmagundi Club of New York City, the Connecticut Pastel Society, and the Concord Art Association in Massachusetts. From June to November this year, she’ll be part of a group residency at Fruitlands Museum. You can see more of Arlene’s work on her website.
Arlene, it’s all yours!
First, thank you Gail for inviting me to share my work and process with your audience. I’m very flattered and honored. I hope that what I have to say is of interest to a wide variety of artists—not just “abstract” artists.
The rules (if you want to call them that; I don’t think of rules as boundaries) I follow are pretty much the same as those coveted by landscapists, still lifers, and pet portraitists. That is—I respond to color, shape, line, value, emotional impact, dimensionality, and a host of elements most artists either keep in mind or do intuitively. Content is not often my motivator, although many of my latest works are resolving into landscapes, but I seem to have no control over that! More about them later.
When I started painting seriously, about 14 years ago, I painted what most pastelists paint. I started with still life (cuz they don’t move—although the light does if you paint, as I often did, in natural light).
Then I went on to landscapes, which I was totally abysmal at, so I tried for a couple of years to improve my landscape skills. After all, pastelists must paint landscapes, right? So I got a lot better at landscapes, but the genre never gripped my imagination.
Then came the chairs. They came about when I was in France. I took a couple of photos of the chairs in a small French church. The light was just so as it came through the stained glass in late afternoon and cast colored patterns on the floor around the chairs. I couldn’t resist painting it. I then went on to paint several images of the church chairs before I cast off and painted other chair types that intrigued me, including chairs in restaurants, and garden chairs. The chairs are surrogates for people, maybe lonely, emotional, strangely and vividly colored, with their own personalities.
I still look for chairs to paint, but haven’t really found any that pack the visual/emotional wallop (for me) of the early ones.
Moving to Abstraction
But my ambition always was to paint abstract, non-objective paintings, the kind of museum art that has always resonated with me most. I’ve had revelatory experiences in a roomful of Mark Rothkos, got crazy excited by Robert Motherwell, swooned at de Kooning’s women. So there—Abstract Expressionism is of major importance in my pantheon of favored art movements. Richard Diebenkorn in his manifestations as abstract and figurative painter also ranks high. There are so many more, but let’s talk about me……
I came to abstract painting through the back door, one might say. At first, the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak, and I floundered around the issue of how to start an abstract. I know others have the same trouble—people have asked me how I go about my process.
I started by finding bits and pieces of photos I’d taken, extremely close up, to paint. When you get as close as I got, the image becomes unidentifiable and you’re free to play with it in terms of the bare elements of painting. After doing that for a bit, not very long, as it got old fast, I kind of got the hang of what I wanted to do. It happened in starts and stops. I think there’s a ramping-up period during which you just do what you have to do to learn something (if you really want to), without regard to judgment. You’re doing it for yourself; this is not for prime time.
I’m a big believer in the unconscious. I’ve found that my paintings often reveal my feelings or my wishes more than my words do. I was depressed last year and found myself using blacks and neutrals far more than usual. I painted three or four “black paintings” at that time, one of which won an award in the last Pastel 100.
Being a city girl at heart, having grown up in New York City, I found for a time that my paintings were in fact cityscapes—or they were to me anyway. I painted split screens, with what I saw as a wall between the viewer and the rest of the painting. More often than not I saw parts, elements, remembrances of the city on the far side of the wall, which showed its own patterns—graffiti? That was a journey of discovery….if you will.
This year, New England, where I now live, was pounded by snow. More than nine feet of snow fell and pretty much informed life hereabouts for two months. I’ve been painting regularly, and enjoying the hell out of it! And guess what…..most paintings were highly colored landscape-esque studies of things beneath the surface getting ready to poke through…..or at least that’s what I see!
The horizon dominates the structure, the sky above, the earth below with its hidden secrets and colorful compartments holding flowers, vegetables, roots of all sorts. By the end of the snow event, things were poking through, growing, erupting from below. I painted an inordinate number of them. They’re not big, and many are painted on top of older works that have been brushed and washed off.
Working in Series
I tend to work in series and on one painting at a time. I have to walk away from it after working for a while. Then I come back, make an assessment and continue. Because I don’t completely clean up after each painting (do you?), I use some of the pastels from previous paintings—so there’s often a color theme throughout a series. I work a series until I’m bored with it and realize I’m repeating color juxtapositions, placement of lines, etc. When I find myself overworking the painting to death I know I’m finished with that series. Then what? Aha, there’s the rub. After a series is finished….I usually go into a seriously deep funk, questioning everything, especially my imagination and my ability to paint anything ever in the future.
As for materials and process, I favor Rives BFK paper, which is a tough printmaking paper and therefore it can withstand washes of alcohol and water. I’ve tried LeCarte, UArt, Multimedia, Pastelmat, Richeson, whatever. I just don’t like a uniform surface. I prefer to start with paper and randomly brush on pastel ground. I use Golden’s acrylic ground for pastel, and brush it on with a 2” or 2 ½” cheap painter’s brush. I don’t tint the ground, although I sometimes do a color wash either under or over it.
I have an eclectic collection of pastels. My current favorites are Mt Vision and Great American, although I tend to also rely on Sennelier, Unison, Terry Ludwig, Diane Townsend,—oh, you name it……
This winter, I’ve cleaned out my flat file and discarded what I now deem failures. Discarding means washing them off and reusing the surfaces. So there’s a serendipitous underpainting there already. I often use the underpainting as a skeleton on which to hang a new painting—or not, as I’m moved. In some cases, especially when starting on a clean piece of paper, I like to use alcohol to wet pastel down and let it drip down the support to form evocative lines, sometimes turning the paper to get the lines going in different directions. I tape my paper to a board on all four sides, and work standing at an easel.
My process is intuitive. I do not plan my abstracts other than laying in a horizon line or a flat sky color (I’m specifically talking here about this year’s so-called landscapes—other series, other processes.). After that, the sky’s the limit—as it were. I choose colors rather than draw shapes. The colors might be harmonious or jarring, large or small in area, engulfed in line or not, dark or light. In the end, I look for balance—balanced color, balanced values, balanced volumes, line distribution—and variety of shape sizes, colors, apparent and disappearing lines, etc. No line or color is exempt from reconsideration.
I use a bristle brush to delete whatever I want to change. I sometimes use Spectrafix fixative make room for more pastel. I scumble, scratch out, crosshatch. I work all over the surface; I don’t concentrate on any one area more than the others. I lay color down and make sure there’s a color balance overall at each moment. Then I look at details and wonder what could change or be added/subtracted to make a unified and strong statement.
Right now, I feel that I’m winding down my landscape series. I might have a couple more in me. I notice the colors are changing. They’re going more neutral. Interesting, as spring is trying to insert itself into our world here in the Northeast. So you’d think I’d be using brighter colors……go figure. I’ll be thinking about that.
Wow, love hearing about your process Arlene. Thanks so much for sharing this information with us!
I love the colours and exuberance of mark-making in Arlene’s work. I hope you agree! If you’re itching to purchase any of these or other works by Arlene, click here to contact her. The prices for the paintings seen here range from $450 to $3,000.
As always, I’d love to hear what you think. Which of Arlene’s pastels is your favourite? Did you find reading about her process helpful? Please leave a comment on the blog.
Until next time,
PS. Click here to see Arlene’s pastel that I chose for October’s Pastel Gems
It’s been awhile since I really got into pastel work and rather than jump into a serious piece, I thought, Hmmmm, good idea to PLAY first. Since I’ve been itching to try out Canson Touch and since I now had a sheet of it – colour ‘Sand’ – I thought I’d play on that. I decided to go BIG and left it uncut.
This particular sheet was used by participants at my Opus demo (29th March) to test soft pastels. You’ll see their marks in the corner. I figured if the paper worked well that would be terrific as it’s available pretty much worldwide unlike much of the other sanded paper out there (e.g. like the Wallis Paper I primarily use).
Okay, I had the paper, now what?
I’d been listening to the radio about how musicians will take a piece of music by someone else and write ‘variations’ on it e.g. Brahms’ – Variations on a Theme of Paganini. Ahhhhhhh. An idea arose. I had been perusing a book of Richard Diebenkorn’s work and among the many pieces I admired, there was one abstract, Untitled ‘M’, that I was particularly drawn to. I decided to use it (instead of a blank canvas!) as the inspiration for my playing, a Variation on a Theme by Diebenkorn!
So let’s have a look at the original painting:
Using Diebenkorn’s painting as inspiration meant I wasn’t going to copy it exactly. To begin with, you’ll notice that the proportions of my paper are certainly not the same as the painting. Also, I’m working in pastel, he worked in paint.
I was mainly intrigued by the seemingly random black shapes, many of which are at the edge of the canvas. Also, Diebenkorn’s painting is pretty monochromatic except for some colour seen beneath the white/grey paint and the colour along the bottom edge. In the last year or so, I’ve strangely found myself pulled towards doing more work in subdued and greyed colours rather than the bright, saturated and pure chroma I’m known for.
The thing I realized once I was well into the piece was, where do I go from here? The master’s painting is done and I have essentially made my own variation of it but how in the world can I take it another step? Diebenkorn’s painting is finished and who am I to tinker with it?? I’d painted myself into a corner!
I was curious to compare my pastel with Diebenkorn’s oil painting as seen in black and white. Obviously the light areas on his work are way lighter than mine! And this lightness keeps you coming back to the centre of the picture. So I went back to mine, found a white pastel (Great American) softer than the one I had been using (Sennelier) and added more lights. And I think I can still add more. The trick will be to retain some of the marks and colouring below.
Here are a couple of close-ups so you can see the colour layering:
And here are the pastels used:
So, what did I learn? First, about the Canson Touch paper:
I wouldn’t call Canson Touch the ‘ultimate’ sanded paper as they say on their website but it’s certainly fine. It’s a smooth sanded surface that won’t eat up your fingers or paper towel. I would say I put on about 3-4 layers in some areas (the first layer being a harder pastel) and it held up pretty well. I think if I was going to add more layers I would need to consider spraying it lightly with fixative (something I rarely do). In another blog post I’ll do a more comprehensive review. (Please let me know if this is something that would be helpful for you.)
And what did I learn about using Diebenkorn’s painting as inspiration?
I’ve always loved seeing the hand of the artist, much of which can be seen by visible pentimenti. Diebenkorn was adamant about leaving changes visible, he never covered up everything so as you go closer to the painting, you can see the changes he made. I don’t know what the original layers looked like but I can get a sense of them from what’s visible beneath the final paint surface (in person, I’m sure much more would be visible) and so I tried to include them in my version. Still, so much is unknown and I was just guessing.
I went from thinking solely about a main figure/subject with its background (even in a non-objective painting like this) to really thinking about the expanse of the whole canvas, thinking about all parts of it, back and forth, negative/positive negative/positive. In Diebenkorn’s ‘M’, there’s much focus on the forms near and on the edge. And so I learnt how useful and relevant these shapes can be. I was surprised by their importance. I became more conscious of what was going on over the whole piece.
Also I learnt to love working with subtle monochromatics – using colour underneath to enliven it. I could do more work like this. I love the way the slash of red makes a statement yet doesn’t dominate. The whole is balanced. How does that work? Much to study!
The thing about copying is that you’re following someone else’s process and art experience rather than having your own. It’s a bit like the way I remember colouring books – it was fun while it lasted but the end feeling was one more of emptiness than the exhilaration that comes from creating your own response to inner or outer impressions. While creating this pastel, I could respond to the formal elements of Diebenkorn’s painting but because I was following a prescription, a template, rather than letting the work itself lead the way as it evolved, it began to feel lifeless with no emotional history of ups and downs that go with art making. That was an unexpected outcome.
Mind you, this piece was done with much less fear than doing my own work – fear of what to do next i.e. what colour to choose, what mark to make, where to make the mark etc – yet there was still some fear around ‘getting it right’.
As I mentioned above, another thing I didn’t realize would happen was the dilemma of how to move on from the original. What else could I add? subtract? What other marks could I make? Sure mine is different from Diebenkorn’s ‘M’ – different medium, different format – but still, it’s an impression of the original and I have a hard time trusting myself to take it elsewhere.
In the end, I found through doing this work that I now want to explore shape and mark making even more. It was a learning experience and I appreciate and like the outcome.
Try copying a piece you like by a master – it’ll open your eyes to new possibilities! Let me know how it goes.
Whew, this was a long one. Are you still here? Well THANK YOU for being such a committed reader and participant. Let me know your thoughts by commenting on the blog or simply reply to this email and I’ll post your comment for you.
~ Until next time,
PS. Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) was born in Portland, Oregon, went to Stanford (the family had relocated to San Francisco) and then completed military service 1943-1945. After the war, he studied at the California School of Fine Arts and soon became a faculty member. In 1950 Diebenkorn enrolled at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. This new environment affected him and resulted in paintings from the Albuquerque Period, his first mature statement.
During the Albuquerque years, Diebenkorn saw the retrospective exhibition of Arshile Gorky at the San Francisco Museum of Art. The impact of this show on him along with his experience viewing the landscape from the perspective of a low-flying plane seems evident in his painting, Untitled ‘M’, which makes me think of an aerial view of a strange landscape.
PPS. Here’s the book I looked through on Richard Diebenkorn (borrowed from the library but just purchased):
For Canadian buyers
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Yes, I get a small commission if you purchase through my link, maybe enough for a cup of coffee. Maybe
Once again it’s the end of the month and so it’s time for my personal and totally subjective selection of 10 pastel marvels for March. I’ve chosen these 10 from the many I have come across over the last 31 days. As always, I’ve had a difficult time choosing my self-imposed 10 choices. I started with 53 pastels, made a fairly easy whittle down to 27, and then the work began! Once I got it down to 13, I flipped through the images over and over, took a break, and did the same thing again. I had to make the cuts though and now have 10. There’s so much fabulous work out there and that makes it ever so difficult to choose!
The pieces here are ones that made me look again and again. They may not be by well-known artists but I believe they deserve to be here. That’s my own personal take of course!
I have to say that I have sort of, um, cheated (is that the correct word?) and not included in my long list, pastels posted in the last couple of days as accepted entries into the IAPS show. I already had a stack of wonderful pastels and adding those to the mix would have done me in! Those pastel marvels will just have to wait until April.
Okay, let’s look at the pastel marvels line-up for this month:
I love the directness of the gaze in this self-portrait. Having just worked on one recently, I know that intense look – it’s the look of deep self-scrutiny in the mirror! There is the sense of the softness of the pastel but it’s also combined with the linear quality of pastel often seen in Degas’ pastels. The simplicity of colour in shirt and background focus all our attention on the face and the character of this person. There is muted light – I feel this was painted in an interior room with a single light source. Who is this man? What is on his mind? Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a website or anything for Bun Hui Ang except his Facebook profile. I suggest you go there to see more work.
Lyn is most well-known for her incredible portraits of flowers and I actually had one of these paintings on my short list but I just fell for her self-portrait. (Click here to see more of Lyn’s pastels including her dazzling florals.) Unlike the self-portrait by Bun Hui Ang (which is almost exactly the same size), in this one we see the face lit by the sunlight and surrounded by an amazing array of fabrics and textures of various clothing. You might think it would all get a bit distracting but inevitably, we are drawn back to her luminous eyes as they look away from us, perhaps viewing the passing landscape. It brings up questions – where is this woman going? why is she dressed so warmly if she’s inside a travelling compartment? The story becomes an integral part of the pastel.
If you know me, you know that I was drawn to this piece not only because it’s a figure but because of its colour and the vigorous and direct mark-making. There’s not a lot of fussing in this pastel, the stroke is applied and left as is. This piece is a great example for showing the concept that if you know values, you can play with colour! I like the way the paper (Wallis Belgian Mist perhaps?) has been left bare. Go see more of Orit’s work here.
Another woman dressed in purple, this pastel gives us a different style of mark-making. Whereas the previous pastel was all about using the side of the pastel in various directions, this one is much about vertical marks made with the tip of the pastel. The skin, sofa, and pillow edging, all get the same basic colour treatment yet are readable for what they are. In some of my own work, I have been working with blurring the edges between subject and background and you can see this is also going on here successfully. I have to say I was very taken with the limpid eyes and the beautifully executed hand on the right of the painting. To see more of September’s work, click here.
Speaking of taken, I fell in love with this abstract piece. I am mesmorized by the warm glowing colours, by the pattern, and by the movement through the piece from light to dark. I love the play between geometric and organic shapes. And then there are those surprising ribbon-like blue bands that move from top to bottom. The pastel wouldn’t be the same without them. You can bring your own interpretation to the piece as I feel the title gives nothing away. Are you looking at reflections or are you looking through plant leaves to an indistinct view of buildings beyond? I keep looking and I keep seeing. Go see more of Ann’s work on her website.
This evocative pastel feels the total opposite to Ann’s piece above. Here my eye is soothed by the calm and the light. Yet all is not peaceful. Thunder may be heard in the distance as the trees are illuminated against a dark and potentially rainy sky. The piece is almost abstracted with minimal indication of details – we see sky, water, trees and possibly a few houses of light sparking along a line that cuts through the picture about a third from the bottom. I had many more landscapes in my March possibilities but this is the one that spoke most to me emotionally. See more of Pascale’s dreamy work on his website. The text is in french but the language of his art is universal.
I have been wanting to include one of Jen’s pastels for a while now and happily, this pastel made it onto my list. Jen is a master of colour and of the use of negative painting. You can see she thinks about shape rather than objects. All shapes intersect each other whether subject or background – all are equally important. This pastel basically uses two complimentary colours with the addition of a warm white and a warm dark. The paper beneath creates a third warming colour. I also love the energetic marks that are applied every which way – bam bam and they are on! This piece exudes vitality. See more of Jen’s work here.
This may be familiar as it is currently the banner for the Pastel Society of America Facebook group. The artist Jerry Boyd is the featured artist this month. And even though it has been seen by many, I just had to include it. I love its style, its colour, its format, its composition. And I’m a sucker for the work of John Singer Sargent! (Have a read of my blog about his fall from grace!) As a museum and art gallery goer, I am often entertained by the viewers themselves and find much there to capture. Jerry has done this masterfully here, giving us both a narrative and a beautiful painting. Don’t you just love all the colour in the plain old walls and the wood floor?! Jerry had quite the career in billboard painting but you will find little of that info as I was unable to locate a website of his work. Visit him on Facebook.
And now for something completely different! This abstract pastel gives us much to chew on. Obviously the iconic shape of house/home is front and centre but what is happening? The house is often seen as a feminine symbol and a place of sanctuary. This house is without a roof which can mean something less than happy in a literal sense but often the roof represents the head and our controlling aspect so in this case perhaps we have a spiritually open heart. There also is a feeling of roots and I could read this as nature taking over manmade objects. Just a few thoughts tossed out at you. Needless to say, I was intrigued by this piece and delighted that it was created in pastels over an ink suggestion. You can see more of Pirkko’s work here.
And finally, because this post has a preponderance of portraits I thought I’d add one more to give them 50% of the weight. I am continually drawn back to this face that stares back at me. Like the piece above, although it has a literal subject – here, the face – there seems to be so much more available for us to interpret. The colour split between blue and yellow, cool and warm, helps us along in this direction, as does the expressive mark-making. You can feel the hand of the artist moving, gesturing over the paper. This is a face that asks us to look, and look again more deeply. See more Anna’s work here.
And that’s all she wrote!
I’d love to hear your thoughts about these pastel marvels. Did any of them stand out for you? Were you surprised by any of my inclusions? Feel free to let me know! Go on, leave a comment
Here’s to pastels!!
PS. To read more about how this monthly blog came about, click here.
One of the most common questions I receive about plein air painting is, “How do you decide what to paint when there is so much to choose from?” My answer? Using a viewfinder can help enormously! The landscape can be so overwhelming and using a viewfinder will help you isolate the part that appeals to you the most.
I recently made a video about using a viewfinder. Have a look at it below.
When using a viewfinder, you will need to close one eye otherwise you’ll see crazy double vision! If you can’t close one eye, then squinting will help but it’s definitely not as useful or satisfying as the one-eyed look.
Using a viewfinder to help you design your thumbnails
The viewfinder I show in the video is one called ViewCatcher. It’s the one I use myself. You can try out all sorts of formats with this viewfinder – just remember to use the same proportions on your paper. For example if you decide on a square opening, make sure your paper is square. If the format of your paper is pretty much decided, for example you have a piece of 9 x 12 in Wallis paper mounted on foamcore, then create a 9 x 12 in window in your viewfinder. The ability to change from one format to another is one of the main reasons I like ViewCatcher!
Create your own viewfinder
You can of course create your own viewfinder by cutting out a rectangular hole in cardboard. If you regularly work on a 9 x 12 in paper which is a 3:4 ratio, then go ahead and cut out a hole measuring 3 x 4 in or if smaller, then 1.5 x 2 in – anything that retains that 3:4 ratio. If you always work square, then cut out a square opening.
Make sure you leave enough cardboard around the hole (like that shown below) to block out the rest of the view. That way you can concentrate on what’s happening in the opening as you move it slowly over your subject. A large surround also helps the viewfinder retain its shape while traveling in your art bag.
Having said all that, I think that the ability to switch easily between formats in the Viewcatcher makes it worth the money. Also, it won’t get bent in your art bag like a piece of cardboard might.
Using a viewfinder to crop a landscape
Let’s have a look at what I mean by using a viewfinder to help you compose your painting. I’ll take an uncropped photo and then crop it in various ways to show you what can happen.
First let’s try out two square crops:
Next let’s look at the same areas but in a vertical rectangular crop:
Now let’s try horizontal crops:
Although I’m cropping a photo, I’m sure you can imagine how this would work on location. Which crop of those above is your favourite? What other ways would you crop the original?
Remember that using a viewfinder will help you not only with choosing what to paint in a landscape. It can help with any subject be it figure, still life, portrait, urban view. Anything!!
Using a viewfinder to help with your drawing
Not only does a viewfinder help you compose your painting, it also helps with the creation of your drawing. Find where lines intersect the edges of the viewfinder and note their position related to the whole ie. a third from the bottom, a quarter from the top. You can also relate the angle a line makes as it moves across the space to the vertical and horizontal lines of the viewfinder itself, for example the line and angle of the rose’s stem.
Here’s the image of the rose with the marks I mention in the video.
Using a viewfinder to help with values
The other thing the ViewCatcher has going for it that I didn’t mention in the video are the two small holes. The colour of the ViewCatcher is 50% grey on the value scale of 1-10. This makes it ever so easy to check the value of a colour against the grey. Look at a spot through one of the holes – is what you are looking at darker or lighter than the grey of the ViewCatcher?
You can then move the ViewCatcher hole over your painting and check how the value there relates to the value of the viewfinder itself. You can also check how accurately you have captured the value of the colour you saw ‘out there’.
Check the image below – look at the top hole and see how light the background is especially when you compare it with the other hole that shows the colour of my hair.
Using a viewfinder to help with colour
These small holes in ViewCatcher can also help you determine the saturation of a colour – how much colour do you see compared to the grey of the viewfinder – is it greyer or more saturated with colour than you think? And what about temperature? Is it warmer or cooler than you think? Run the viewfinder over different areas to compare them one to the other. This is hugely helpful when you are unsure of colour saturation or temperature.
Viewfinder as gift
The other thing is, a viewfinder is a wonderful gift to give to non-artists as it will help them ‘see’ the world in a way they don’t now. I love hearing the ahhs and oohs as they move a viewfinder over whatever is in front of them.
This blog has turned out to be a review of the ViewCatcher as I like it so much!! You can pick one up in many art stores or order it from Amazon here:
Viewcatcher from Amazon.com
I’d love to hear if you use a viewfinder. How helpful is one to your work? Do you use a handmade viewfinder or something like the ViewCatcher? Do you use one all the time or rarely? Let me know by posting a comment on the blog.
I look forward to hearing from you!
Oh my gosh, how did it become the end of the month so quickly? Perhaps having a couple less days has something to do with it
Right, here’s the line-up for February. I think you’ll agree there are some pastel wonders here.
Without further ado……
I love the simplicity of this piece. I feel as if I’m standing there among the rocks, looking out to sea, blown about by a fresh breeze. The horizon line is soft with the sea mist. I can smell the almost overpowering smell of the sea as it emanates from beached seaweed and the sand and rocks themselves. There’s so much said with a limited number of broad strokes and little fuss. Wonderful! Go see more of Jean-Yves’ work at his website.
I love the quality of light in this one. I also appreciate the simplicity of the evocative scene – a river (?) bank topped with shrubbery and an attractive clump of trees, with a backdrop of dreamy sky with the sun that’s trying to burn through the thin cloud. Haven’t you experienced just this time of day and the way the light is warm and cool all at once? You can see careful value study at work in the piece! See more of Linda’s work here.
Another painting about the quality of light. And here it’s exquisite as we move from the sun tipped-grasses back into the picture that’s mostly about snow untouched by the sun. Look at the beautiful display of grayed colours beyond the warmth of the sun. Go check out more of Kim’s beautiful descriptions of light on her website.
Like Jean-Yves above, Lorenzo uses broad strokes to achieve this sunlight wonder. Can’t you just sense that taking just a few steps more and the sun will be blazing in your eyes. This piece positively glows. And he does it so simply! Look closely at the few marks he makes to achieve this light wonder. Notice too the balance between the warm and cool sides of the painting. You can see more of Lorenzo’s work by clicking here.
Can’t you just reach out and stroke that fur? And those eyes, they’ll blink any minute. And can I hear purring or rather, is it a meow that’s about to be heard? I was completely taken by this painting. One of the things I appreciate is that although the cat looks real, Heather hasn’t gone into super-realism to do so – we can still see the hand of the artist in the pastel stroke. Heather is known for her cat portraits and I can see why! Go see more cats as well as dogs and more here.
I laughed when I saw Suzi’s charming portrait of a giraffe. I love that she has taken this quirky animal and captured the character of its munching head. it brings into focus what a giraffe head really looks like. The wall tempers the delight as this isn’t the wild but probably a zoo. The close proximity of the wall to the giraffe could be making a statement. The lines of bricks form a cage and yet, they also mimic, in a way, the spots of the giraffe. There is a play of the rigidity of man against the flexibility of nature. When I first saw this painting, I read none of this into it but the more I looked, the more I saw. Perhaps this is a case of a viewer bringing her own experience to the picture. Go see more of Suzi’s work at her website.
Canson paper? Really??? How does Robin create this kind of pastel on Canson and not on a sanded paper? I am rather in awe. I love how the line of mosaic echoes the embroidery on the young woman’s blouse. I also like the link between angelic girl and mosaic angel who seems about to whisper creative musings in the young woman’s ear. I was torn between this painting and the one on the front of Robin’s website but I think it was the juxtaposition of modern and Byzantine that captured my attention in this one.
I’ve been an admirer of Jody’s work ever since I saw it in Carole Katchen’s book, Creative Painting With Pastel many years ago. Things I appreciate: the thick impasto quality of the pastel – there’s a lusciousness to it; the balance between the narrative and the abstract design; the emphasis on shapes; the broadness of stroke – you can see the mark of the artist; the extreme value range; the way Jody leaves out so much, including instead, only what’s necessary to say what she has to say. Go see more of her work here.
From the abstracted design above to this one of a pile up of houses in the Ardeche. This is such a difficult subject, all the various perspectives, all identically constructed houses yet with different shapes. How to make the scene fascinating rather than a boring repetition of similar houses? Claude has done that beautifully and boldly. The warmth of colour, the pattern of light and shadow, Claude’s obvious love of the subject, lifts my spirit. See more of Claude’s work on his website.
How fun is this?? A tulip lover, I was drawn to this piece by the unexpected and unusual portrayal of this flower. There’s also a mystery – what is the red shape to the right that also hovers over the tulips? I am mesmorized by the combination of red and blue colours and the variation within. The pastel marks excite me. I also like the flow back and forth between positive and negative shapes and the dissolution in places between the two. Searching for a website, I came across a number of places to see Bernadette’s artwork but no personal website. Try this website to begin.
As always, it’s a pleasure to bring you this collection of pastels, some from artists more well known, others from artists I’d never come across before. Curiously, three of this month’s artists are from France!
Please let me know what you think about these pastel wonders. Did any surprise you? Delight you? Sadden you? Please leave a comment!
And if you like what you see, please share!
Until next time,
Well I’m home from Mexico where I had a glorious time, first with my sweetheart Cam for a couple of weeks then with my lovely niece Aly for a week. Have to say it’s taken me some time to get back to this reality.
I did this plein air pastel while in La Manzanilla. I was going to post a blog about it while I was there but I just wasn’t happy with the pastel. So today I worked on it in the studio. I like it better but I’m still not sure about it.
Let’s have a boo.
Back in Canada, I ponder the pastel. I think the bright purple spot in the centre captures too much of the viewer’s attention. I also feel the turquoise wall needs to be darker (darker than it is in reality – this is where artistic license comes into play!).
So what do you think? Did you notice anything about the plein air pastel as it relates to the thumbnail I chose??
One of the problems is that I didn’t follow my thumbnail!! Bad girl. You know how I go on about creating a thumbnail as a way to design your piece and then continue to use it as a guide as you go? Well, somehow, I did NOT accurately make the transfer from thumbnail to paper. I have no idea what happened. Distractions perhaps?? Anyway, I think this is part of the reason I am not totally happy with the piece.
Look at how little of the wall is shown in the thumbnail compared to the pastel. In the thumbnail, I’m focusing on the design made by the tree trunks. (You can also see the hint of a possible figure.) In my pastel, I include quite a bit of the wall. I think that’s because I was so taken by the turquoise colour. You can see below that the wall is a prime part of the second thumbnail I tried. I think there is a residue of this thumbnail in the pastel painting!
Anyway, wanted to share this lesson with you. Follow your thumbnail sketch!!
I’d love to hear from you!
Until next time,