Sandra Burshell, "Rest," 2016, Pastel on UArt 500 grade sanded pastel paper toned orange and mounted to acid-free foam core, 25x23 in

Sandra Burshell – The Beauty Of Colour, Light, And Atmosphere In Her Roomscapes

It’s my great pleasure to have Sandra Burshell as guest blogger. I’ve featured Burshell’s work twice in my monthly round-ups – the first time was a figure (click here to see it), and this past June, I included her interior, “What Could Have Been.”

I’ve always been intrigued by the way Sandra Burshell applies pastel, with her marks coalescing into a readable form, one filled with light and colour and atmosphere. You’re in for a treat as she shares many images, and also takes us through the progression of “Rest,” a painting that just received the President’s Award at the current Pastel Society of America’s annual exhibition.


In case you don’t know her work, here’s a taste:


Sandra Burshell, "Pension in Chianti," 2006, pastel on green Art Spectrum paper, 24x11 in, Sold Location: Pensionne Bencista, Florence, Italy
Sandra Burshell, “Pension in Chianti,” 2006, pastel on green Art Spectrum paper, 24×11 in, Sold
Location: Pensionne Bencista, Florence, Italy


And here’s a wee bit about Sandra.


Bio – Sandra Burshell


Sandra Burshell is a Master Pastellist in the Pastel Society of America (PSA) and achieved Master Circle Status from the International Association of Pastel Societies (IAPS). Her award-winning work have been exhibited internationally and featured in many leading art magazines. Sandra gives pastel workshops nationally.

Sandra had been the IAPS Vice-President from its inception in 1994 through 2006. She is Founder of the New Orleans Drawing Group, established in 2006, and a Degas Pastel Society Signature Member and officer.

Her next solo exhibition will be at the Carol Robinson Gallery, New Orleans in October 2018. See more on her website.


And now, here’s Sandra!


Sandra Burshell – Roomscape Interiors


The most important thing is to have something to say.”

~ Charles Hawthorne, Hawthorne on Painting, p89


For me, that is my sheer excitement when I come upon an awe-inspiring scene – one that brings to me another level of awareness…. when I am struck by a magical moment in time, an ephemeral atmosphere, a palpable moodiness, a spiritual light-filled room…where my eyes are the sense by which I almost feel other senses – a thick atmosphere I could almost touch, a cool, chilly room, rays of the sun warming a room, a quiet stillness….


Sandra Burshell, "Bathed in Light," 2012, pastel on sanded pastel paper, 11x9 in.
Sandra Burshell, “Bathed in Light,” 2012, pastel on sanded pastel paper, 11×9 in.


I am so lucky when these magical moments happen, and I am so lucky to be able to translate them visually. These times happen at some “expected times” – being out in nature – such as a sunrise on a beach, dappled light on a garden, a thick fog, a pouring rain at night in the city. At other times, they can happen inside – such as in a place of worship, an old, venerated university, a long, narrow hallway…….


Sandra Burshell, Transcendent Light, 2010, pastel on Wallis sanded pastel paper toned mauve dry-mounted on museum mounted board, 31x22 in, Sold Location: Church in Orvieto, Italy
Sandra Burshell, “Transcendent Light,” 2010, pastel on Wallis sanded pastel paper toned mauve dry-mounted on museum mounted board, 31×22 in, Sold
Location: Church in Orvieto, Italy


“An artist may begin his career more interested in the subject matter than in how he presents it. But as he grows in awareness the subject becomes less important to him than the beauty of color, light, atmosphere, and composition. With these elements, he composes the more mysterious phases of painting…The art form has ennobled the subject matter”

~ Henry Hensche, The Art of Seeing and Painting, p73


My original oil portrait/figure concentration slowly morphed into pastel interiors. I painted at home with young children, often sketching their rooms while they played there, often easy-to-find non-tidied up areas – unmade beds, sink filled with dirty dishes, morphing into similar subjects in friends’ homes, to stays at bed and breakfasts, on…. I have been doing my ROOMSCAPE INTERIORS for over 30 years! This was certainly not a conscious progression. Recently, I have slowly integrated the figure back, but aiming only to have the figure as part of the painting, not the ultimate object, raison d’etre.


Sandra Burshell, "Filtered Light," 2011, pastel on Wallis sanded pastel paper toned orange, 23x13 in, Sold
Sandra Burshell, “Filtered Light,” 2011, pastel on Wallis sanded pastel paper toned orange, 23×13 in, Sold
Location:Venice, Italy


When possible, I try to draw on location, to get the gist, the spirit. When unable to do this, I take several photographs of different exposures and make notes to myself about what attracted me to this scene (so the idea is not lost along the way).

I have worked from life for years, from large 4’x4’ figurative oil paintings from a group I started in California, to my ongoing New Orleans Drawing Group, which I formed in 2006 shortly after Hurricane Katrina, where we draw from the nude and clothed figure. Nothing will ever substitute for the continued act of observation and drawing. Nothing can substitute for walking up close to the model or going around the side to see another view. I try to bring a sketchbook with me, going to a coffeehouse, waiting in a long line…. especially when people are unaware of being the subject! Working from life is critical to keep up one’s observation skills, no matter the subject – landscape, still life, figure, whatever!


Sandra Burshell, "Spiritual Light," 2006, pastel on Wallis sanded pastel paper toned green and dry-mounted to museum mounting board, 34x16 in. Sold
Sandra Burshell, “Spiritual Light,” 2006, pastel on Wallis sanded pastel paper toned green and dry-mounted to museum mounting board, 34×16 in. Sold
Location: Cathedral in Piazza de Popolo, Orvieto


So, my ROOMSCAPE INTERIORS are my choice in genre, but the most important thing is to draw what you love, to identify with what is in front of you. The message comes first.


Techniques are thus created as a need.”

~ Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p92


I still apply the major tenets of good art to develop my works, however mundane the subject matter might have been – composition, tone, color, focus, movement, texture, repetition.

I will go through my thinking in this blog….


A. Inspiration

Going to a local old-style hippie coffeehouse/music bar Neutral Ground one night with friends, I “happened” upon this woman asleep on an old sofa in one of the small back rooms. What attracted me was not her, but the one incandescent light washing over this dark room, with dark furniture and dark paintings. She seemed so peaceful, the darkness enveloping and protecting her. I happened to have my cellphone, took a few shots, hoping they would be decent to “ bring me back to that time and place and spirit.” Often, I am not “looking” for inspiration.

Sandra Burshell: Photo source for "Rest"
Sandra Burshell: Photo source for “Rest”


B. Tonal Sketches

Back at my studio, I tried to remember what attracted me in the first place to this scene. Sometimes, I use Photoshop to modify the color, remove objects, recompose. I decided to turn the drawing, to make it more frontal, not at an angle, as in the photo; and I removed the glass table because it added nothing to my overall purpose. I drew a few different tonal sketches using gray markers. The sketch had to be strong both in composition and value at this point before it is even translated into color, because if it is not here, it is doubtful I could save it later.

Sandra Burshell, Tonal study for "Rest"
Sandra Burshell, Tonal study for “Rest”


C. Toning Pastel Paper

Planning on the work to be in cool, dark olives/blues/purples, I chose to tone a UART 500 sanded pastel paper in a bright orange. If the overall scene is to be warm, I might tone the paper a cool color, often the opposite on the color wheel – the complementary tonal color often will make the final colors “pop” if it shows through.

If the work is small, I often tape it down to foam core in the corners; if larger, I either use Grafix acid-free double stick paper and mount the pastel paper onto acid-free foam core; if very large, I have it archivally mounted on acid-free foam core.

I mixed a primary red and yellow Golden Transparent Airbrush Colors (now discontinued, but other pure pigment colors can be used) and apply with an old hardware store painting brush (the surface of the paper will eat up the bristles). Keeping the paper flat, I apply it one layer in one direction, let it dry, then add a layer in the other direction.

Sandra Burshell: Toning materials for "Rest"
Toning materials for “Rest”
Sandra Burshell: Taping the paper from behind
Taping the paper from behind


D. Linear Sketch

I sketched my drawing onto the mounted board using a neutral pastel pencil and then see if the composition is still strong. I usually leave additional paper all around because drawings do not always translate on a larger scale. I do not do a tonal sketch at this point.


E. Apply complementary colour to the local colour

It took me a while to think this method out – totally an “opposites” approach learned from a workshop Urania Christy Tarbet gave many years ago. If the sofa is dark green, I would start using a complementary dark red/orange; I used bluish skin tones on the figure and complementary color on her shirt. I do not do this as a boring exercise and do not keep it to an exact science, nor do I use it in each spot, but when I later apply the local color, when the complement shows through, it often makes the color “sing”, or makes it more vibrant.

I usually start with hard pastels (Cretacolor, CarbOthello, Conte a Paris, Derwent, Bruynzeel) and usually with loose cross-hatching, so as to leave some of the orange toned background color.

Sandra Burshell: Complementary Colour
Complementary Colour


F. Apply local colour

I start applying the local color, still often with hard pastels…. still often cross-hatching. I apply more of a green to the sofa, brown to the bench, skin tones to her skin, etc. I start using hard pastels – Faber-Castell, Cretacolor, Caran d’Ache – and then move to softer pastels – Rembrandt and Art Spectrum, and then even softer pastels, like Great American, Richeson, Unison, Sennelier, Girault, Holbein, Schmincke, Diane Townsend, Henri Roche, and then on to my softest and most luscious – Terry Ludwig. I utilize the “fat over lean” theory as in oil painting.

Sandra Burshell: Local colour
Local colour


G. Fine tune color/tone

I continue the process, using a mirror to constantly see the drawing in the opposite. I leave the room, take a break, hold my drawing upside down, use a reducing glass – all ways to try to see my pastel drawing/painting with fresh eyes.

At any point, I might not think the composition is as strong, so I use newsprint strips to recompose for the strongest effect. The work is very abstract in its composition. The repeating shapes of the rectangular vertical paintings and the bench on the left drew the eye to the middle and the curvilinear nature of the back of the sofa repeated the model’s form.

I cropped some of the right side because I thought the shape of the vertical paintings repeated too much and I also did not feel the right side of the sofa needed to be included. I maintained cross-hatching texture in some parts, while I dragged my pastel over the paintings and the floor for some simplifications and unity.

The overall warm, inviting feeling of this scene and the comfort of the figure was what I was trying to express, so I did not bring a lot of detail to her, just enough to put her as a gentle focal point.

Sandra Burshell: Darker darks/ lighter lights
Darker darks/ lighter lights
Sandra Burshell: Even more subtlety
Even more subtlety


H. The Final Image


Sandra Burshell, "Rest," 2016, Pastel on UArt 500 grade sanded pastel paper toned orange and mounted to acid-free foam core, 25x23 in
Sandra Burshell, “Rest,” 2016, Pastel on UArt 500 grade sanded pastel paper toned orange and mounted to acid-free foam core, 25×23 in


I have a few more images and thoughts to share with you.


1. Another roomscape that happens to have a figure in it

This is another example of the figure being just a small part of the painting, being integrated into the environment, not reading as a “figure painting” with a background arbitrarily added.

Sandra Burshell, "Comfort at Home," 2016, Pastel on sanded pastel paper toned green and dry-mounted to museum mounting board, 10x7 in. Sold
Sandra Burshell, “Comfort at Home,” 2016, Pastel on sanded pastel paper toned green and dry-mounted to museum mounting board, 10×7 in. Sold


2. About centre of interest

As long as the composition is well balanced, there are no “rules” for the center of interest. In ‘Early Evening, Café Degas’ below, the bright vertical shape of the window almost silhouettes the vase of flowers, which sits in the center of the picture plane, although very low. I did that to accentuate the reflected light on the right wall behind the flowers – I was trying more for a “feel” of this interior, not for a drawing of a vase of flowers.

Sandra Burshell, "Early Evening, Café Degas," 2006, Pastel on Wallis sanded pastel paper, 24x11 in. Sold
Sandra Burshell, “Early Evening, Café Degas,” 2006, Pastel on Wallis sanded pastel paper, 24×11 in. Sold


3. More on complementary colour

The pastel “Warm Glow on Chartres,” is another example of my toning of my sanded pastel paper with the complement of the eventual work. I toned the background turquoise blue, having planned that the final work would be a warm red/orange; by letting the cool background color show through, the warms looked even warmer, the red/oranges more intense against the complement on the color wheel. I left enough of the background color to show through as well as the cool light coming in through the window to balance all the warms in this pastel.

Sandra Burshell, "Warm Glow on Chartres," 2012, Pastel on UArt sanded pastel paper toned turquoise and dry-mounted, 30x20 in. Sold
Sandra Burshell, “Warm Glow on Chartres,” 2012, Pastel on UArt sanded pastel paper toned turquoise and dry-mounted, 30×20 in. Sold


4. Color in interpreting your message

I don’t always work in the method of complementary color. Often, if I want a soothing, peaceful work in cool colors, I might tone the background in a cool blue, and not use complementary colors, but have the majority of the work cool, as in “Julia’s Studio.” Similarly, in “Monastery in Orvieto,” I was trying to capture the intangible quality of the almost touchable “air”, the atmosphere. I wanted to maintain the stillness and calm of the room, so the background tone is cool, as well as much of the work itself including the table cloth and the cool light on the floor, with small areas of warm to offset the cool.

Sandra Burshell, "Julia’s Studio," 2014, Pastel on grey suede Colourfix, 15x15 in. Sold
Sandra Burshell, “Julia’s Studio,” 2014, Pastel on grey suede Colourfix, 15×15 in. Sold
Sandra Burshell, "Monastery at Orvieto," 2014, Pastel on UArt 500 grade sanded pastel paper toned turquoise and dry-mounted to museum mounting board, 21x16 in. Sold
Sandra Burshell, “Monastery at Orvieto,” 2014, Pastel on UArt 500 grade sanded pastel paper toned turquoise and dry-mounted to museum mounting board, 21×16 in. Sold


5. Get out of your comfort zone!

Take workshops – earnestly try what is being offered to see if it might fit into your own personal style, try new subject matter, new media, different sizes. “Toast. and” was awarded the IAPS Prix du Pastel (highest award) with the reason given that besides the qualities that made it a strong work of art, that the artist did get out of her comfort zone!

Sandra Burshell, "Toast, And…," 2010, pastel on Wallis sanded pastel paper toned turquoise, 14x11
Sandra Burshell, “Toast, And…,” 2010, pastel on Wallis sanded pastel paper toned turquoise, 14×11




Wow, lots to absorb!! Thank you sooooo much Sandra.

Now we’d love to hear from you. Have questions or comments for Sandra Burshell or me? Then please leave a comment. We’d love to know your thoughts!!


Until next time,



PS. Sandra Burshell made a short video with me at the 2015 IAPS convention about why she paints interiors. You can see it here:


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46 thoughts on “Sandra Burshell – The Beauty Of Colour, Light, And Atmosphere In Her Roomscapes”

  1. Thank you for sharing your technical tips on how you mount your paper to a board and tone the paper. Your ideas on composition were insightful as well. I like that you start out with cross hatching in complimentary colors to lay in your values. That is a technique that is totally foreign to me which I will have to experiment with. Your results are stunning and do create an atmosphere in all your work . Thank you for sharing!

    1. Deb,
      Thank you for your comments on some of my techniques! Hopefully, I passed them down in enough detail! And I so appreciate Gail for the great interview!

  2. Have had to speed-read this morning due to other duties today; but a few things pinged on my brain with respect to Sandra’s pictures. Firstly, yes I have seen her work before but was very much taken with those shown here of cathedral interiors….I am personally always entranced when inside churches or ancient buildings, by the light and atmosphere. I always take photos, but have never tried painting them…this blog has tweaked my thinking; maybe I should have a go. Sandra’s cross-hatching technique produces a lovely sparkling light…I’ve seen a few people use it but it seems to work great for these interiors, much nicer than solid colour slabs. Will be back later to finish reading!

    1. Chris love your speedy (yet amazingly full!) comment. I’m with you on the light and atmosphere in churches and old buildings. Like you, I’ve taken photos but never painted them. So one of these days….Let’s both do something about this! Look forward to hearing what else you learn when you are back to read the post more thoroughly 😉

    1. Marie,
      Thanks so much for your comments….Squinting helps a lot when I work and so does learning to stop before I try to “clean up” my energetic marks!

  3. Thanks so much for this post. I love the way Sandra uses color to get such richness & depth to her paintings. I’ve often wondered how she did it and I am so pleased to have this insight into her methods.

  4. Very insightful and enlightening, to say the least! The complimentary toned background concept, although not necessarily new to me, was used superbly by Sandra. “Rest” is an absolute favorite!! What an incredible artist!! I really enjoyed this post AND Sandra’s work….

    1. Thanks Curtis for chiming in. I know what you mean about the complementary set-up. We all ‘know’ about it but how terrific to see it in action in Sandra’s work! Glad you enjoyed this post so much!

  5. I look forward to your blog and as a fairly new pastel painter I find all the different styles of your guests and the selection of the painting you share very enlightening. I have promised myself that I will get out of my comfort zone and your blog certainly inspires me. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks so much Laurel. It’s worth all the effort when I know it has inspired! Moving out of your comfort zone can be difficult but the rewards can be huge!!

  6. Pingback: Bits and Clips for September 2017 | Polly Castor

  7. Thanks to both of you for sharing these beautiful paintings and telling us your techniques and approaches. This was a great gift, and I will be trying out some very different art in the days to come! What an inspiration.

  8. I really enjoyed Sandra’s art. First time hearing of her. I also loved that she shared some of her process and thoughts.
    Her room scapes are comforting and interesting
    I definitely have to try the complimentary underpainting. It radiates the cookies on her work.

    1. Michelle, thanks for commenting on Sandra’s guest blog. And you are right – her roomscapes are comforting.
      Hope you try out complementary underpainting – let us know how it works for you!

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