Emma is known for her pet portraits particularly of dogs. As many members of the HowToPastel Facebook group have asked the best way to paint fur, I immediately thought of Emma Colbert and approached her to write something on the topic for you.
Don’t know her work? Here’s a teaser:
Before handing the blog over to Emma, first a wee bit about her.
Emma Colbert Bio
Emma Colbert was born in Northern Ireland and is currently travelling in Europe, painting in pastel while on the move. (Check the bottom of this post for photos of the motorhome!) She specialises in animal portraits but enjoys painting a wide variety of subject matter. Emma was recently featured on the cover of Artists & Illustrators Magazine. She was also awarded the ‘Reader’s Choice’ award from Artists & Illustrators Artist of the Year exhibition 2016. Check her website for more information.
And now, here’s Emma Colbert!
Thank you so much to Gail for the honour of writing a guest blog. Gail has asked me to share my tips and techniques for painting fur in soft pastel.
I have always enjoyed painting living subjects, both animals and people. My older sister who was studying art in school introduced me to her cheap student grade pastels and I have loved the medium ever since.
I have worked hard to improve my landscapes, interiors and still life so I can produce more interesting paintings and challenge myself more. But I must admit that when I finish a background and start work on my main subject, I can slip into a sea of curls or brindle quite happily! I find the whole method of building up the illusion of fur meditative!
Born in Northern Ireland, for the past two years I’ve been travelling around Europe in a motorhome with my partner, and dog. I took my business on the road and as it turns out, pastel is the perfect medium to travel with! I managed to work in a studio set up in the rear lounge of the motorhome.
I use a mixture of soft pastel, mainly Unison Colour, with some Terry Ludwigs and Faber Castell too. I also use Faber Castell pastel pencils for the finest details. Depending on the type of fur, I like to keep that to a minimum as I prefer the looser more vibrant quality of the soft pastel. But with certain coats, like on that of a smooth-coated dog, the pencils are very useful for moving the soft pastel around and creating those fine wispy ends.
The more animals I paint the more I realise it’s not necessary to paint every single hair to create the illusion. Although I love realism, it’s actually the Impressionists who inspire me most in how they used loose, sometimes abstract marks, to represent something and let the viewer’s eye do the rest. I believe it leads to an even more realistic result as the subject is less static. I have seen few paintings more alive than those of the Impressionists from across a gallery room. I’m still working on my Impressionistic abilities but their use of colour definitely has inspired me, as it was when I was looking at a Seurat up close that colour theory really clicked. His obvious use of opposite and complementary colours literally spelled it out to me.
I work on velour pastel paper as I love the soft quality of the finished piece. There are a few tricks to working on this paper in particular. But to create realistic fur, it’s necessary to have a pastel paper that allows many layers, and most importantly, the ability to add light on top of dark. Velour allows many layers and creates an incredibly soft appearance, but it also has a few quirks to deal with. Like all papers, it has its pros and cons. The best thing to do is to experiment. In my experience, the smoother toothed papers make it easier to create detail in animals.
Step by Step of Dog “Yaya”
Don’t be too fussy with your first layer. Starting with the darkest values, mark these in following the general flow of the fur. When black is my darkest value I use a black Faber Castell stick. It’s great for the first layer as it doesn’t fill the paper and it’s a lovely jet black.
Working down the face, building up the layers of brindle takes time. After the black layer, I bring in the warm red earths and oranges working up to highlight tones of peaches and yellow. Once I have a few layers down I can use the pastel pencils to tweak the ends of the hairs and refine. On their own, the pastel pencils are quite weak in pigment on velour. But by putting down the soft pastel first and then using a similarly toned pencil you can flick the ends of hairs out from your larger pastel marks.
I use every size of pastel from the full stick right down to tiny shards. The full sticks provide me with thick marks that cover the paper quickly and allow me to start blending. On velour, I rub all the marks on each layer well into the paper. If you don’t, the pastel will sit on top of the paper and you will find it difficult to create the detail as the tooth will fill too quickly. The key is to use thin layers and many of them. Imagine how thick an animal’s coat is, I may cover an area 10 times in different marks before I feel it looks dense enough.
A few of my best tips for creating fur
Pastel sticks are a thing of beauty when you buy them, but don’t be afraid to rip papers off and break them when you need sharp edges. My pastels wear down as I use all sides of them for different jobs. I also occasionally drop one which often turns into a happy accident with the revealing of new shards. Some of my favourite pieces of pastel are smaller than fingernails yet I’ve been using them for ages. Often the smaller pieces are only for the highlights, so they last a long time. When you look at my palette I have the most amount of smaller pieces for those commonly used highlight colours.
I think the fear is that once you break a pastel, it will fall away to nothing. It depends on the softness of the pastel of course, but I have not found this to be true of Unison. Breaking one pastel simply gives me several useful pastels in that colour.
I like to work my backgrounds first. As a general rule, I work from background to foreground, even on the animal’s face. For example, I’ll work the area behind a muzzle or chin, before adding the chin that’s sitting out in front. This way, you can achieve those fine hairs around the edges of the animal.
When painting white fur, notice where the light is hitting the subject directly. The very brightest highlights should be the only area you use pure white. Ideally, you need a range of light tones, both warm and cool to create white fur. Some examples I use from the Unison range are Grey 27, A19, A31 and Blue Violet7. These are all in the Animal set I created for Unison and they are so useful for those ‘off white’ tones in both warm and cool shadows. [Check below to see the colours Emma is referring to.]
I also use some darker colours like Grey8 and A27 in the darkest of shadows. You would be surprised how dark you need to go sometimes in those first layers to create enough depth. If you go too light too soon, you’ll lose all the definition in the hair.
There are some breeds of dog where the fur is slightly frizzy in places. Chow Chows especially require more of the individual hairs to be created and I use a slight shake in my hand when making those marks to create the wave. It’s tiring on a bigger piece, so I work smaller areas up, blocking in the darks and adding areas of detail. I work from the top left downwards as it always leaves me somewhere to rest my hand.
When creating a large area of curls it can seem very daunting and difficult to keep your place. I look for the larger areas, the darkest and most prominent curls. Get a few anchors in place and then work at filling the gaps with a darker value from the coat. Once you get a couple of rough layers in, you can start to worry about refining individual curls with highlight colours. Try to see the bigger picture and not get lost in the detail too soon.
Although I paint a lot of domestic animals, I also love to paint wildlife. I’ve spent a lot of time around nature parks and reserves and love to collect photo reference to work from. However, I’m not the best photographer and I rely on being able to piece together my photos to create the scene I imagine. This is where good use of colour theory can help in your painting. Look for colour substitutions in your palette to replace greys and browns. Try to use combinations of more vibrant colours to show how light dances off a subject. Bringing in colours from your background will help create harmony throughout the painting.
For my wildlife paintings, I also find I use more random mark making in their coats. Wild animals don’t always have the same groomed appearance as our domestic friends, so remember to not make your marks too uniform. This is a good trick for most types of fur though. A certain looseness to the marks will take away that static appearance.
One last tip is to spend time working on your edges. How an animal sits in front of its background will help the overall realism of the fur. Notice where the finest hairs are around the edges and use pastel pencil to lightly drag some pigment out. It also helps to have contrasting colours in the background.
You’ll notice in my stag painting that each edge of the deer is contrasted by its neighbouring background area. This is planned to make the animal pop out from the bokeh background. It was also an attempt to not use any green. Coming from Ireland I find that difficult! But I wanted to experiment with the blue/orange and yellow/purple opposites in this by exaggerating the colours.
I hope you find some of these tips helpful. The main key to painting fur is patience. Once you crack that layering technique I bet you’ll find it relaxing too!
[And for Gail, some cats!]
Fantastic info on painting fur in soft pastels don’t you think? Thanks so much Emma!!
Emma and I would love to hear from you. Was this helpful? Do you want to paint animals or already do so? Do you have any questions for Emma? Please leave us a comment 🙂
By the way, just below are two of her Unison Colour pastel sets. Click the link under each image and you’ll be taken to the Unison Colour website where you can purchase them. Or check your local retailer – they may have them or be able to order them.
Until next time!
And here is the paper Emma uses:
Photos inside and out of the motorhome in which Emma, her partner Andrew, and their miniature dachshund Brocci, are currently travelling. I guess it’s rather difficult to complain about lack of space in my studio when I see this!