Category Archives: Quick tips

Quick tips either from myself or other artists in the pursuit of painting a better pastel

Choosing Your First Soft Pastels

Choosing Your First Soft Pastels

Probably the question I get asked the most is: “What pastels would you suggest I start with? And by the way, I have a limited budget.” Choosing your first soft pastels should be easy but with all the choices we have, the decisions become more difficult. This week I answer the question!

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Creating colour studies: three colour studies with first layer

How Creating Colour Studies Can Improve Your Paintings

I know how tempting it is to get right in there and paint when you’re excited about a subject. But hold on, did you do a thumbnail?! And what about creating colour studies, have you drawn up a couple of those?

I know I know, I hear you – it all takes so much time!! But you know what? A bit of time spent in preparation can save you frustration and disappointment in the long run, and also help you produce an exceptional painting!

So what are colour studies?

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To Blend Or Not To Blend Pastels, OR Why I Don’t!

Is it really December already? (Someone tell me no, it ain’t true!) Look out for my monthly picks next week. In the meantime, this week I made a video about why I don’t blend pastels.

I frequently get asked the question – Gail do you blend your pastels? OR Gail why don’t you blend pastels? In the video below, I set out to show, with sample swatches, why it is that I prefer to layer rather than blend pastels.

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Using a viewfinder: viewfinder mad from mat board that I've had for ages

Using A Viewfinder Can Help You Create A Better Painting

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: viewfinder mad from mat board that I've had for ages

Here’s a viewfinder made from matboard that I’ve had for ages. Note the heavy weight of board means it has kept its shape but you can also see the corners are a bit battered.


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.

Using a viewfinder: uncropped photo taken in France

Uncropped photo taken on a trip to France

First let’s try out two square crops:

Using a viewfinder: Square crop of original photo

Square crop of original photo. You can see there is more attention on the water in the canal


Square crop of original photo

This is the second square crop where you can see the focus is on the background and sky


Next let’s look at the same areas but in a vertical rectangular crop:

Using a viewfinder: Vertical crop focusing on the water in the canal

Vertical crop focusing on the water in the canal. The bridge is now a prominent feature.

using a viewfinder: vertical crop focusing on the background

Vertical crop with attention on the background hills and sky

Now let’s try horizontal crops:

Using a viewfinder: horizontal crop

This horizontal crop tells the whole story of what’s there without the distraction of the background.

using a viewfinder: horizontal crop 2

In this horizontal crop, there is a tension between the waterwheel and the bridge – both fight for attention.

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 will also help you with your drawing

The marks made are the ones you can transpose to your paper. This will help you with your drawing of the subject.


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: ViewCatcher showing the holes used for value checking

ViewCatcher showing the holes used for value checking


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


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!


~ Gail


Cleaning Soft Pastels – Check Out My Easy Method


I don’t know about you but my pastels get miiiiighty dirty when I use them. Whether you wear gloves or not, every time you pick up a pastel, you transfer particles from the pastel you previously held to the new one. And so the pastels get dirtier and dirtier. Ugh I say. So, cleaning soft pastels – what’s the best way?

When I was starting out in pastels, the recommended way of cleaning soft pastels was to put all the dirty pastels into a container that held some kind of gritty substance such as cornmeal (the most commonly suggested), rice flour (softer than cornmeal), rice (cleaner than either cornmeal or flour), semolina (I never tried that one) or fine sand (didn’t try that either).

Doug Dawson’s nifty idea of creating a wire sieve that fits inside the container certainly made it easier to remove the pastels from the container. I made one that was similar and carried it on location with a plastic gold panning dish (bought in Sacramento years ago when I took a workshop with Doug) into which I would pour the cleaned pastels. (See photos below.) Well, I just found all of that too tedious, time-consuming, messy and generally a pain in the derriere!


Container with wire sieve and rice flour and pastels. This shows my version of Doug Dawson's method for cleaning soft pastels.

Container with wire sieve and rice flour. This shows my version of Doug Dawson’s method for cleaning soft pastels.

Sieve out of the container and in the gold panning dish

Sieve out of the container and in the gold panning dish

The cleaned pastels 'poured' into the gold panning dish, ready to use. But you can see, there is still the dust of the rice flour to deal with.

The cleaned pastels ‘poured’ into the gold panning dish, ready to use. But you can see, there is still the dust of the rice flour to deal with.

I needed an alternative!!!

Click the photo below to find out what it is 🙂


The pastels you see in the video were the ones I used in my pastelling glass bottles demo. Click here to see it.

So??? Did you figure it out before the video?? Do you use this method? It works so well for me for all the reasons I express in the video.

How are you cleaning soft pastels? I’d love to know what method you use. So drop me a reply and I’ll add the comment to the blog post. And feel free to comment below the video on YouTube. I LOVE getting feedback!!

Until next time,

~ Gail


New Pastel Painting Tip video – all about breaking pastels


I am finally getting back to a normal-ish life and schedule after the madness of two shows (‘Emergence’ and ‘Caught Red Handed’) back to back. They went well and it was wonderful to work towards them and produce so much new and exciting work but things like regular blogging kinda took a back seat! But I am getting back into the swing of things.

Today I made a new pastel painting tip video about how I break pastels when I acquire a new box. I have been asked by students how and why I do it. This video will answer that question! My main message? Be not afraid!!

Of course if you have a box of half sticks, there’s no need to do any breaking (although you might like to do so anyway). I should also say that usually, I’ll sort the box into values first, then do the breaking, but for this video, I wanted to start with the brand new box.



I usually don’t have a lot of patience when it comes to technical things so I do what produces the fastest result. You can, for instance, score the pastel with your finger prior to making the break.

Soft pastel scored prior to making the break

Soft pastel scored prior to making the break

Doing it this way, you may get a cleaner break. But not always and not with every brand of pastel. It also takes longer and since I’m usually in a hurry and I’m never sure of the result, I generally just get in there and make the break the way I show you on the video.

So, experiment. The main thing is to gulp, and break those pastels!


I’d love to know what you thought of the video and my pastel painting tip. Please reply to this email or alternatively, you can always leave a comment under the video on YouTube.


My next video will be a new demo so look out for that in the next month or so. I haven’t quite decided what to do yet so if you have any brilliant thoughts about that, be sure to let me know!!


I always love hearing from you so drop me a line sometime 🙂

Until next time,

~ Gail




How to sort a new box of soft pastels into values


It’s about time I published a new video with a pastel painting tip. So here it is! I talk about how to sort a new box of pastels (a small starter kit) into values. The main thing you need to do this is SQUINT!!

So without further ado, here’s the video:

Gail Sibley's video shows you how to quickly sort your new box of pastels into values, something that's sooooo worth doing!

Please give me some feedback. Was the video helpful? Was it clear? And what other videos would you like to see? My goal is to make a whole heap of short videos on all aspects of doing pastels.


Have a great weekend! I am off to Salt Spring Island for an overnight with my good friend Sandy. It’ll be dinner, some single malt whisky with dark chocolate, then a movie. Perfect!

Talk soon,



PS. Remember that since there is no comment button in your email, if you would like to share a comment (which I hope you do!), please reply to this email and I’ll attach it for you OR click on the title of the blog which will take you to the website. Once there, click on Leave a reply, and post your reply. Thanks!!


Bill Creevy offers advice on dealing with artist’s block

Bill Creevy’s Advice

Oh my gosh, I thought I’d already posted this blog and video but found it sitting in drafts. And it’s way too good to waste.

So here it is, a very short video I made at IAPS (International Association of Pastel Societies) Convention last June. I asked Bill Creevy, one of my pastel heroes, what to do if you have artist’s block. This is his great advice. (If the video doesn’t show up in the post when you are viewing it, click here.)



Here is some of Bill’s fabulous work. Look at that texture! Look at that light! Look at that composition!

Pastel by Bill Creevy

Pastel by Bill Creevy

Pastel by Bill Creevy

Pastel by Bill Creevy

Pastel by Bill Creevy

Pastel by Bill Creevy


Have you ever had artist’s block? What do you do to overcome it? I’d love to hear!


And if you don’t have Bill Creevy’s book, The Pastel Book, then get it! It’s packed full of interesting ideas. His was one of the first books I bought on pastels and boy was it an eye-opener! I’ll talk more about his book in a future blog.



Contest for Subscribing

I am still waiting to hear back from a couple of the winners so I’ll wait until my next post to announce the names. (You can read a bit more about the contest by clicking here and here.)


Hoping your year has begun really well. Mine sure has 🙂

Until next time,

~ Gail