If you’ve ever seen Tony Allain in action or seen his work, you’ll know why I’m excited to have him as a guest blogger.

I first featured Tony’s work in my first-ever monthly round-up blog in September 2014 (when I wasn’t writing very much about each pastel!) and then more recently in April this year. I’ve admired the confidence and colour in his work, and also the way he utilizes his sketches to create his pastels. So you can imagine how happy I was to bring his words and art to you.

If you’ve never encountered Tony Allain’s work before, here’s a teaser:


Tony Allain, "Venice Mist," pastel, 13 x 13 in
Tony Allain, “Venice Mist,” pastel, 13 x 13 in


And before I hand you over to Tony Allain, here’s a wee bit about him.


Tony Allain Bio

Tony Allain has been a full-time painter, author, and international instructor for over 45 years. Being a member of the Pastel Society UK, a Signature member of the Pastel Society of America, a Master of the Pastel Artists of New Zealand and more recently honoured with the title of a member of the Master Circle of the International Association of the Pastel Society has allowed him to exhibit his work on a global stage from New York to London and as far as Auckland in New Zealand. You can learn more on his website.


And now, here’s Tony Allain!!


How To Pastel (Loosely)

I think an important quality in painting is that of individual interpretation. I think every artist should be able to say something different and have their own way of saying it.

Whenever I visit an exhibition or collection of paintings, I seem to always be attracted to the loose or impressionistic work on display. These qualities invite the viewer to respond emotionally to a time, place, and mood that they may relate to. I like the idea the artist has given me the opportunity to be part of the painting by mentally filling in the detail that may have been left out, and so I become a part of the painting process.


Tony Allain, "Rain," 2012, pastel on Pastel Premier paper, 14 x 10 in
Tony Allain, “Rain,” 2012, pastel on Pastel Premier paper, 10 x 14 in


My passion will always be the landscape; it is why I became a painter. I want to share my vision of the world I see. My aim is to capture the essence of a time and place with the freedom of mark making that has its roots in the work of the Impressionists by way of introducing broad passages of vigorous ‘brush strokes’ expressing the effect of colour and light on a particular subject. With that in mind my approach is to capture my first impression with the least amount of ‘brush strokes’ as possible and that requires confidence, freedom, and speed when placing each mark.


Tony Allain, "Racing," pastel on Colourfix paper, 14 x 10 in
Tony Allain, “Racing,” pastel on Colourfix paper, 10 x 14 in


I like to work quickly to ‘capture the moment’. The joy for me in using soft pastel is the sense of immediacy – no preparation of colour mixing on the palate, no waiting for certain passages to dry, no brush cleaning!

I always carry a sketch journal and a good selection of pens and pencils in the car. Sketching and drawing for me is the basic language of painting. Drawing is the tool that can help an artist see and understand his surroundings. Sketching forces you to analyse and decipher the subject for yourself.

When you get inspired by a particular subject, it is only when you start to draw you begin to fully understand its shapes, tones, and lines.


Tony Allain, sketchbook
Tony Allain, sketchbook


The accomplished painter who cannot draw well is as rare as hen’s teeth. It can be dangerous for the inexperienced artist to simply draw from photographs, because this encourages you to copy two-dimensional shapes of light and dark. In nature objects do not have a line around them; they have tone, depth, shape, and space.

When on location and in the studio I always work out any composition issues I may have with a good selection of sketches and drawing. Drawing and sketching forces you to look and fully understand the subject in front of you. I am still ‘feeding’ off sketches that I made 20 or more years ago. I have at least 30 sketch books filled with visual memories of my travels.


Tony Allain, sketch #17
Tony Allain, sketch #17


When you are faced with your subject it is important you let it reveal itself to you as you visually work out the shape, size, and position of the elements that first attracted you to the scene. You will find that in time you will become more proficient at analysing and rendering your chosen subject. It does take a lot of concentration, and you will with practise have the ability to have a good memory recall as you make your brain take the ‘photo’ and not rely on the camera which is far too easy and will not help with improving your work.


Tony Allain, "Coffee time," pastel on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 10 x 12 in
Tony Allain, “Coffee time,” pastel on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 10 x 12 in


Most of my work is taken from life or sketches. I very rarely use photographs and if I do, I choose to have my images transformed to grayscale. If you want to paint in a loose manner you may have to abandon the comforts of your studio for a while and work outside!

The choice of colour of my support is also a contributing factor. For example if I were to paint a bright sunny summer landscape without a cloud in the sky, I would favour a warm rich raw sienna type of paper. A grey day would see me choose a dark umber ground colour.


Tony Allain, "Sparkes Lake," pastel on Pastel Premier paper, 16 x 16 in
Tony Allain, “Sparkes Lake,” pastel on Pastel Premier paper, 16 x 16 in


My choice of pastel is also important to my work. I only use the best quality soft pastels. I roughly follow the same procedure for all of my subject matter. I start with using the side of my pastel to lay in my initial darks. My mid-tones will be added using broken colour with light delicate passages of glazing one colour over another. My lightest and final detail will be left and added last so as not to contaminate the very soft pastels used in adding highlights etc.


Tony Allain, "Dusk, Guernsey Harbour," 2017, pastel on Pastel Premier paper, 18 x 26 in
Tony Allain, “Dusk, Guernsey Harbour,” 2017, pastel on Pastel Premier paper, 18 x 26 in


I work on the whole painting all the time; that is to say I do not start at the top and complete each row as I descend. If I put down a ‘bad’ mark I tend not to erase it but simply put a better one next to it. For me painting this way helps me keep the work fresh, clean, and balanced without the unnecessary detail clogging up my very first impression. I like to take an everyday scene and through a subtle approach focusing on colour and light, I try to take my work to an elevated level.


Tony Allain, "Private View," 2016, pastel on Colourfix paper, 9 x 12 in
Tony Allain, “Private View,” 2016, pastel on Colourfix paper, 9 x 12 in


My own studio space has separate painting stations, one for pastel and another for oils. All of my tables and benches have wheels or castors for ease of movement and storage. I have a selection of plein air easels, pastel boxes all primed and ready to go, as is my travelling oil box and French easel. I use one of those two wheeled shopping carts to transport my plein air equipment all held with a load of bungee clips.

My painting process for pastel is very similar to my approach with oils, that is, I paint from dark to light and fat over lean. It worked for me and I have continued in that manner, rightly or wrongly ever since.


Tony Allain, "Rain, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon," pastel on Pastel Premier paper, 10 x 14 in
Tony Allain, “Rain, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon,” pastel on Pastel Premier paper, 10 x 14 in


I was not influenced by any pastel artist at the time, but just stumbled my way through, as I do with all the mediums I use.

Soft pastels are very portable and are ideal for plein air work. There is so much more now in the marketplace to cater for the outdoor painter. I do keep to a small size for my plein air work, no bigger than 10 x 14 in. I generally prepare a number of supports before I hit the road. Using quarter or half sheets of Art Spectrum Colourfix, Pastel Premier or UART sanded paper.

For studio work I work on prepared MDF board which I apply several coats of gesso followed by a watered-down paste of pastel primer which is a fine grit suspended in a binder. A coat of my chosen colour with acrylic paint and the panel is now ready to receive pastel. Modern pastel papers are now coated with this type of grit.


Tony Allain, "Marina Reflections," 2014, pastel on Pastel Premier paper, 10 x 14 in
Tony Allain, “Marina Reflections,” 2014, pastel on Pastel Premier paper, 10 x 14 in


As Degas once said, “Drawing or painting is not about what one sees. It’s about what one makes others see”.



  • Always use the best quality artist’s pastels. Try not to buy your pastels in sets as you end up with a lot of colours you may never use. If you use inferior materials you will end up with inferior work.
  • Always do thumbnail sketches first. This helps to solve problems like – composition, perspective and the general balance of the finished work. Carry a small sketch journal everywhere. I keep one in the glove compartment of my car for emergencies.
  • Always stand at your easel if possible. This will give you freedom of movement and allow you to step back periodically and view your work in progress. Use a piece of plastic guttering on the ledge of your easel to catch the pastel dust in.
  • Lay in the underpainting with broad, direct light strokes with the side of the pastel. Build up the layers again with delicate but positive strokes. If you paint a bad mark, leave it and camouflage it by painting a better one next to it.
  • Squint as much as possible. This allows you to see shapes rather than detail.
  • Paint what you see. Not what you know is there.
  • Paint fat over lean, as you would in oils.
  • Don’t fiddle. Keep it simple. Know when to stop. Less is more.
  • Keep the highlights clean and bright by painting them last.
  • Reading all the books, watching all the DVDs, taking workshops will give you all the knowledge to get started – but without a heap of practice this will mean nothing.



Tony Allain, "Sunset on the Fal," pastel on Colourfix paper, 18 x 26 in
Tony Allain, “Sunset on the Fal,” pastel on Colourfix paper, 18 x 26 in




Well WOW! Thanks so much to Tony!

Now we’d love to hear from you! Do you have any questions? Do any of Tony’s tips resonate with you? Please do leave a comment.


Until next time,

~ Gail


PS. Here’s a video I shot at IAPS in 2017 – Tony Allain explaining his process:


To see all the 2017 IAPS videos, click here.



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32 thoughts on “Tony Allain – How To Pastel (Loosely)”

    1. Glad you liked it Marsha. Okay, ‘fat over lean’ is a term used mainly in oil painting. It means using thinner, more transparent paint first and then applying thicker, more opaque paint later. The same can apply to pastel painting where your first layers are applied lightly and more thinly, and then you work towards a heavier, thicker application. Does that help?

  1. This is a great article! I’ve seen only a handful of Tony’s work in the past, and getting to hear from him makes me want to see more! I really love the loose quality of his work. One thing that stands out for me in this blog is the importance of thumbnail sketches. I have heard this over and over from seasoned artists, and I REALLY have to take the time to do it! A question I have is this– what size is appropriate for thumbnails (or is it all personal preference)? And, is it recommended to have a stack of papers cut to size specifically for this purpose? I’m just trying to get some ideas on how to make it easier to do….rather than jumping in right away on my “good” full sized paper. Thanks!

    1. Jackie, delighted that you enjoyed this blog of Tony’s work. My answer to your question about thumbnails is that they should be small (2 x 3 in size) so that you can get the info down quickly. If you are on site and only have time for a sketch, then work larger by all means. For me, thumbnails are a way of capturing the big picture of composition and values whereas a sketch can offer mark-making and colour notes. I’ll let Tony answer this one too!

        1. Jackie, the other thing is to have a small sketchbook on hand, solely for the purpose of thumbnails. Mine is a Robert Bateman sketchbook – it’s spiral so it’s easy to flip over the pages, it’s 3 1/2 x 5 in (the smallest size), and it’s 110lb paper so takes marker and even a bit of wet colour really well. I also carry one in my purse. Of course you can go larger (say 5 x 7 in) but small means it’s not overwhelming i.e. blank paper syndrome doesn’t kick in!

  2. The immediacy of Tony’s work just draws folk right in; I’ve seen a lot of his pictures online. I’ve always been “plagued” with the problem of seeing too much detail and almost packed up art completely several years ago when I finally realised that my attraction to detail was deeply ingrained and very hard to shift. I battle to simplify things; even though I can see the shapes and get them down, I have to fight a near irresistible urge to add in all the finicky bits. My former employment involved a lot of detail-itis and I guess it has just stuck in the psyche!

    1. Hi Chris, Thanks for your owning up to your struggle with not putting in every detail. A couple of ideas: first, make sketches then put the timer on and go for it (e.g. 30 mins, then 20 mins, then 10 mins) and then stop when the timer goes off. The other idea is you might try copying Tony’s work to see how he simplifies and then with that feeling in your mind and hand and heart, try a painting of your own. Also remember to squint to you can’t see all the details!

  3. Thank you for the Tony Allain guest blog . Tony’s style and mark making is masterful. He can accomplish so much with only so many marks an a limited amount of colors. Truly an amazing artist. I have never seen him paint in person or on video. I would truly love to watch him work.
    I once won a small box of Terry Ludwig Bronco colors and attempted two sailing paintings trying to emulate Tony’s style from my photos taken at a regatta. What freedom to try painting with few colors and measured marks. My very favorite artist.

    1. Thanks so much Sandi for your comment! Tony is fabulous to see in action. I had the pleasure at IAPS this year. He’s quite the entertainer for one and he does slash down those colours! Remember that he works so much from sketches (in which he gets down the relevant information) and every pastel mark counts. And yes, a limited palette can be very freeing – where you count on value and mark-making more that detail and the perfect colour!

  4. Thanks so much for this post. Tony’s work is gorgeous and I appreciate his tip to work fat over lean. I’d never heard this expression, but it resonates, as does his his caveat about the dangers of working from photographs only. As a portrait artist, I rely on photos but I prefer to shoot them myself. That way I have an idea of my subject’s personality as well as bone structure and coloring. Still, it’s easy to get hypnotized by small details rather than getting to the bigger idea.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post Tena! I can see as a portrait artist your need to work from photos but as you say, if you shoot them yourself, you are more familiar with your subject and can make notes about light and values etc. Perhaps you can try a portrait à la Allain!

  5. It takes a lot of confidence to put bold red marks here and there in a painting. That’s the mark of experience! I have seen his paintings before. What I admire is the way he says so much with such few bold strokes, something with which I have been “struggling”. As the saying goes, practice,practice and more practice! Thanks for sharing.

  6. Thank you, Gail and Tony! I really enjoyed Tony’s comments and wonderful pictures. He’s an inspiration for sure. I must try his sketchbook method…thumbnails just like Gail tells us to work out our values. Good info here!

    1. I love Tony’s sketchbooks too! He manages to capture the essence of a scene which he then translates so boldly into his paintings. And yes, there are those thumbnails…. 😀

  7. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing a lot of Tony’s work. After reading your blog and viewing the work here I have been truly deprived up until now.
    Regarding the thumbnail sketch, I now rely heavily on the practice. I rarely started with thumbnails in the past. I can’t imagine not using them now.

    1. Oh I’m so glad to have introduced you fully to Tony Allain’s work Heather! And LOVED hearing what you had to say about thumbnails and how committed you are on the practice!

    1. Silja, one of these days I’m sure the opportunity will arise when you are able to attend one of Tony’s workshops! In the meantime, enjoy exploring his work.

  8. This was an awesome guest blog by one of the artists I have admired for a very long time. I saw him at IAPS almost three years ago now and fell in love with his loose interpretation of a seascape. Painting loose and free is more difficult than it looks and I have tried it numerous times. The biggest tip for me is to carry a sketch book/pen/pencils with you on your travels and use it. I think working from a sketch just might be an asset in trying to break free from the details. Thank you Tony for such wonderful and useful information and thank you Gail for hosting his guest blog!

    1. Sharon I’m so glad you enjoyed Tony Allain’s guest blog! As you say, painting in a simple bold fashion is waaaaaayyyy more difficult than it appears!! Yes, a sketchbook with you at all times is a must. It’s such a great way to capture a scene especially when time is short. Look forward to hearing how that goes!

  9. Pingback: Ζωγραφικη με Παστελ – Pastel paintings | Yannis Parasiris

  10. Great interview. I have just recently been introduced to Tony Allain’s work and am looking for more information about his techniques. Do you know what brand of pens he uses to do the colors in his sketchbook?

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Fran! And to answer your question, hmmm, no I’m sorry I don’t know exactly. The sketchbooks in the blog look as if the colour comes from pastels (you can see the imprint/smudge) on the other side of the sketchbook. I know he uses markers and pencils and sometimes watercolour and gouache I believe.

  11. Hi Gail, glad I found this guest blog by Tony Allain. Folks new to soft pastels search around for good painting tips and here’s a bunch. I so much enjoy Tony’s broad strokes of color seemingly made with square pastels, do you happen to know which brand he uses? Thanks for hosting these guest postings.

    1. Hi Mark, I’m glad you found it too! (I’m curious how you ended up on it – search in Google? Search on HowToPastel? Cruising through the Featured Artist category?)

      I think Tony uses a variety of brands. I know he uses the side of the pastel so any pastel broken to a size acts like the end of a paintbrush and whoosh, makes the stroke! You can make this happen with pretty much any soft pastel. Hope that helps!

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Gail Sibley

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My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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