Pastel to Paper: Gail Sibley, Still Untitled, Unison Colour pastels on UART 400 paper, 9 1/2 x 9 in

Pastel To Paper – That’s What’s Important!

I was on Salt Spring last weekend for art group meetings and friendship connections. I had also planned to go out painting en plein air with my Mum and Dad. But the weather was against us – the skies opened and we were stuck inside. So then what to do? We dithered about and in the end, decided to do other things. But there was a niggling inside. You know that feeling? The one that says, If you put pastel to paper you’ll feel a whole lot better at the end of the day than if you don’t.

I also didn’t have a whole heap of time. Still, I knew I could do something in an hour and a half. So argh, stop delaying and get a move on.

And so I acknowledged the niggle and surrendered to the voice (although I can tell you, I sure didn’t feel like painting!). And you know what? That voice that said put pastel to paper was absolutely correct. In this case, the painting turned out fine but even if it hadn’t, even if it was a mess (and I was prepared for this), I would have felt great because…..putting pastel to paper always wins over not!


Getting Started

First, I needed to decide what to paint. There were so many possibilities – and that alone can stop you in your tracks so beware. I had been admiring the small bouquet of flowers Mum had arranged on the dining table. I was familiar with it; I saw it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I liked the way the small daisies scattered away from the main bouquet. So I decided that was my subject. I grabbed the vase and headed to the basement where Mum and Dad work when not out sketching.

Now let me take you through the progression of the painting. First, here’s a photo of the setup. Remember though, I was working from life (always my preference).


Pastel to Paper: The set up
The setup

The Thumbnail and Initial Drawing

I set the time for an hour and a half, and off I went!

First the thumbnail:

Pastel to Paper: Thumbnail deciding three main values and format.
Thumbnail deciding three main values and format.

You can see that the dominant value is middle-value. Darks are found only in the vase, cast shadow, and nasturtium top right. The light value takes up a small part of the painting. Although the colours of the flowers are very bright and saturated, many of them actually lean more toward a middle value and so that’s the choice I made. Also, I decided to make the red nasturtium at the top a dark value to balance out the darks at the bottom of the piece.


I made a quick sketch in vine charcoal onto the UART paper.

Pastel to Paper: Vine charcoal on UART 400

Vine charcoal on UART 400


Pastel To Paper!

Then I chose three colours to cover the three value areas.

Pastel to Paper: My first three values quickly applied
My first three values quickly applied

What looks like black is actually a dark green (you’ll see the pastels I used below). Often I leave the pastel as is but I felt I wanted a really solid underpainting so rubbed the whole thing with pipe insulation, starting with the lightest areas and moving to dark.


Pastel to Paper: First layer of three values rubbed into the UART paper for a solid underpainting.
The first layer of three values rubbed into the UART paper for a solid underpainting.

You can see how the values (and colours) now stand out clearly. I now have a solid underpainting of three colours in three values to work over.


Let’s look at it in black and white.

Pastel to Paper: First layer of three values down. You can see the values are distinct when you look at them in black and white.
The first layer of three values down. You can see how distinct the values are when you look at them in black and white.


And then I started adding the second layer….

Pastel to Paper: Adding the second layer.
Adding the second layer.


…and on I went.

Soon I was in the ugly stage! But…my mantra….put pastel to paper – don’t stop!

Pastel to Paper: More layers added.
More layers added.

Checking in on how it looks so far value-wise…

Pastel to Paper: More layers as seen in black and white.
More layers as seen in black and white.


Nearing the End

Next stage was to get into the details. I carved out the tiny daisies by filling in the negative space rather than painting the daisies themselves. Then I went in and added details on the flowers afterwards.

Pastel to Paper: Details added.
Details added.


Some final adjustments. I decided that the nasturtium at the top was just too dark, pulling the eye not only up but off the page, so I lightened it. I worked on the cast shadow, adding a transition area between light and dark. I made adjustments to areas of the background – lightning, warming, darkening.


Pastel to Paper: Almost finished!
Almost finished! Unison pastels on UART 400 paper

Here is the painting as it stands. I see a few things I want to tweak. For instance, I see where I forgot to cut the background in closer to the vase lip near the daisies. I also want to soften and further change the value of the background on either side of the vase. And of course, I still have to sign the pastel.

I’ll post the finished version in a few days. [see end of post]

In the meantime, here it is in black and white:

Pastel to Paper: Almost finished - in black and white.
Almost finished – in black and white.


And the Unison Colour pastels used:

Pastel to Paper: Unison Colour pastels used
Unison Colour pastels used


Pastels on paper. That’s the thing that will move you along your artistic journey. Practice, experiment, paint!!  Even when you think you don’t have the time, you can find it. It’s definitely easier when your materials are at the ready – paper and pastels open so you can get working.

That little voice that calls you to the easel even when you don’t feel like painting, the voice that says, You’ll feel good putting pastel to paper, listen to it. At the same time, ignore the inner critic that might pop up just then and say, It’ll end up looking like ____ (fill in the blank with as negative an expression as you want – you know your own critic!). Instead, put pastel to paper. You won’t regret it!


Hope you enjoyed this week’s blog. As always, do leave a comment. Tell us about a time you felt great when you did put pastel to paper even when you didn’t feel like it or when you felt you had no time. I’d LOVE to hear from you! Also, was this post helpful?

Look forward to hearing from you 🙂


Until next time,

~ Gail


PS. Mum decided she too would work on a project and not let the day slip by without art-ing. Here she is, hard at work 🙂

Pastel to Paper: Mum at work.
Mum at work drawing up an oil painting

PPS. Some inspiring words can be found here.

PPPS. [Edited 17 Sept 18] Here is the tweaked painting. It is taken under a brighter cooler light hence the colour difference with the ones above.

Pastel to Paper: Gail Sibley, Still Untitled, Unison Colour pastels on UART 400 paper, 9 1/2 x 9 in
Gail Sibley, Still Untitled, Unison Colour pastels on UART 400 paper, 9 1/2 x 9 in
Pastel to Paper: Gail Sibley, Still Untitled, Unison Colour pastels on UART 400 paper, 9 1/2 x 9 in - annotated
Gail Sibley, Still Untitled, Unison Colour pastels on UART 400 paper, 9 1/2 x 9 in – annotated
  1. I cut in with background colour to create leaves and the curve of the vase. I also highlighted the lip of the container.
  2. I increased saturation of the yellow to show light coming through from the back of the nasturtium.
  3. The edge of the vase is now clearer.
  4. I blended in the colours of the background to get away from the outlined feel that came about after I lightened the background by the edge of the vase.


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48 thoughts on “Pastel To Paper – That’s What’s Important!”

  1. Thank you Gail for pinpointing how to deal with this ever tormenting procrastination ghost. That letter between the artists is soo funny and wonderful.
    You make it look so easy to get on with the painting, and I know it is. You know what: the past weeks I have had a nagging pain in my right leg to the extent that I can hardly walk – the thought came to me: “now it is not about excuses not to paint; it is now I paint because my body puts up this message :-)”
    Your example is great, the only thing is, could you comment on your choice of colour, I see they are mostly warm ones, like the “funny” mustard one as the middle value shadow.

    1. Love the message your body gave you about getting to your painting! Thanks for sharing that. And hope you do get to your easel (and say NO to that procrastination ghost!). Also happy you enjoyed that great letter!

      Okay, to my colour choices. The still life is lit with a warm light. But the cloth beneath it is a cool blue. So I decided to put a warm colour under the blue. The colour also works for below the nasturtiums and the areas of greenery that are middle value. The yellow in the light area was chosen because the daisies are quite a cool white so again, I wanted to warm them up a bit by having a warm colour underneath. This yellow also works beneath the remaining areas of light. I chose the dark green because the vase has green tones and I wanted to warm up the shadow area on the blue cloth. So yes, all three value areas are warm rather than cool. Although some of the objects are cool, they are lit by a warm source.

  2. «Helpful?» YES! Thank you!
    I often feel overwhelmed by possibilities and end up reading about – and looking at – other peoples art, instead of making my own – . (A no-online day can help 😉)
    I have yet to start working with pastels, still I found your step-by-step presentation very instructive & clarifying.

    1. Yay!!
      And believe me I know exactly what you mean by the endless possibilities and the tendency to go see what others are painting. And an off-line day is a GRAND idea!
      Glad you found the presentation helpful even though you aren’t using pastels. The whole idea of values and colour layering does cross-over to other mediums. What are you working with currently? And hope you make your way to pastels 🙂

  3. Hi Gail, I just had to write to say how gorgeous your pastel painting is! The light you’ve captured on the nasturtiums is so on point. l just happened to photograph one in my garden today with the late afternoon sun shining through it, making it even more vibrant. I think they’re a difficult flower to portray because they’re so bright. I am always fascinated watching your painting process and grateful that you stop to take the photos. As always -thank you so much for your care and sharing your talent.

    1. Aww thanks so much Christine! I find nasturtiums difficult not only because of their brightness (and that’s definitely a challenge) but also because of their very structure – the way the petals sit and the way light can come in from the centre. Argh. Somehow, focusing on values helped enormously! I hope you will be brave and paint that photo. Another thing is to take a small piece of pastel paper on board and do a quick impression of one flower, looking deeply so you can really see and understand what’s going on both to capture form and also values and colour. Then go and paint your photographed version.

  4. It makes me so happy to see that you can share painting with your family. I am the lone painter in my family and they think I am an oddity! 😀 Thanks for sharing your process, it is always good to see how other pastel artists works. I am amazed that people can start in one corner and proceed carefully to the other side. I feel the need to work the whole surface to keep values in front of me. That way, I can keep them in the correct relationship. Thanks for sharing, for those of us in the ” wild out yonder” where no one uses pastel, your blog is a lifeline. 😀

    1. Marie, it’s such a pleasure to share painting time with my parents! And I feel blessed to be able to do so. I feel for anyone, like yourself, who is the only painter/artist in a family – waaaaay harder going.
      Like you, I am in awe of those who can paint from one corner and end in the other. I need to see the whole picture emerging as I paint, so I can see what needs to be adjusted here and there. Nothing is ever that formed in my mind that I could just lay it down in one go. I think you need to be super organized and have a strong visual image in your mind to do so.
      Glad my blog is so helpful and “a lifeline”! 😀

  5. Hi Gail

    I love this painting and I often paint vases of flowers so the step-by-step description is really helpful. Thank you. My next personal challenge is to lay down some strong underpainting in pastel. I have underlaid with watercolour but that gives a different effect, of course. I did draw my first thumbnails last week (at a Tony Allain workshop) and they really helped me to decide on an interesting composition. You know the saying, you can lead a horse to water … Ha! My next workshop is on life drawing, so maybe that would be a good topic for a blog? All the best, Paula

    1. So glad you found this helpful Paula! You mentioned your challenge of putting in a strong underpainting. As you can see, my underpainting is in pastel in the three value areas. This is like a large colour version of my thumbnail. So I’m hoping to make that horse drink! One thing you can do is either copy through the stages of my piece or, even better, set up your own version and follow the steps.
      You mention life drawing – here are a couple on the blog: one by me and one by Duane Wakeham of male nudes in pastel (awesome!!). There’s also a guest blog by Carol Peebles. And because you mention Tony Allain, you might want to have a peek at his guest post 🙂
      And maybe it’s time for another life drawing post…..

      1. A belated thank you for all the helpful advice and links, Gail! By the way, I’m so jealous of the fact that you live in the most beautiful place in the world! We stayed on the island a few years’ ago and were smitten.

    1. Thanks Ruth. I LOVE using negative space to help create the object I’m painting. I love working back and forth between positive (the subject) and negative (the background). And yes, it was so rewarding to paint on a day inside.
      You’re right, my Mum IS cute!!!

  6. Thank you very much Gail, for this beautiful painting, the encouraging words, and the great photo of your mum! I know this feeling all too well when I just want to be too lazy to paint and then being dissatisfied. Even if it’s just a little sketch in my sketchbook – better than nothing.
    I also loved to read your blog on the ugly stage. It often happens to me that I think I messed it up anyway, then I stop being careful and fearful – and the painting turns out all the better. 😏
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience!
    Regards, Gabriela

    1. Gabriela, thanks so much for your appreciative words!!
      And yes, even a sketch makes us feel good as artists. Glad you enjoyed the post on The Ugly Stage. And I like your reaction to that stage – well it’s a mess anyway so just let loose! As you say, when we let go of perfectionism, expectation, and fear, it’s amazing what can happen!!!

  7. Great painting and advice on ‘just doing it!’
    I really enjoyed reading ( and listening to ) Sol LeWitt’s letter to Eva Hesse as well.
    Time to go and ,”DO!”

  8. I LOVE this! The colors are so fresh and vibrant. Thanks, as always, for providing so many details about your process. It is hard for me to motivate myself to do art, but I always feel better after I at least try — doesn’t even matter if it doesn’t look right — I learn something from every attempt. Thanks for your blog, Gail. It is fantastic every time. I love your particular style of painting (colorful and lively), and your teaching style makes the process so accessible and fun (even if I’m not doing it as often as I might).

    1. Thank you Ruth!!!
      It’s so true isn’t it – some days it’s just plain hard to get to work but then YES, when we do, it feels soooooo good!
      So go do something today. Doesn’t have to be big. Doesn’t have to be finished. Doesn’t have to be complicated. All it needs to be is pastel to paper….

  9. 👏 Thank you!
    That is quite a dynamic story Gail and a very educative step by step démo.
    As for me, it happens often that very late at night (ashamed to tell which time) and this was yesterday I found an idea to complete and redo an unsatisfactory part of my painting done some time ago. After removing the mess I had to give some quick going strokes of my sudden idea with white Conté chalk because I was so tired, as a draft, on La Carte 30×40 upper left corner; it resulted good I think and now my painting stands at a place where I can always see it to think about and continue to work on.

    1. And thank you Genevieve for sharing your experience. Sometimes, when the muse strikes, it’s late (as with you) or we are tired, or we are busy, or we just don’t feel like doing anything with the idea. And that’s our loss. “Strike while the iron is hot!” So good for you doing just that!!

  10. Actually happy to see you also come to an ‘ugly’ stage. I had to learn to recognize that, and keep going. Push thru it. It usually works out just fine if I don’t give up at that point and just take it in stride as part of the process. Thanks for your sharing — Nancy

    1. You got it Nancy! I think I just about always come to the ugly stage when I feel like saying, it’s rubbish and I should just give up now. But as you say, once you realise it’s part of the process, you can push through and often the results are just fine. Thanks for your thoughts on this part of the painting process 🙂

  11. I don’t remember when I made peace with the UGLY STAGE. It just happens, and like you and Nancy say, you push through. Newbies need to know this, or they may throw away works with great potential. I accidentally offended someone in a workshop once by commenting that she was through the ugly stage. She thought I was insulting her work and thought she should throw it away, and I said no, all of my stuff goes through an ugly stage. Maybe part of learning is that it can be part of the process?

    1. Mari yes!! When we recognize that there will inevitably be an ugly stage (the stage our inner critic seems to be loudest!), we can move through it when it arrives. Before I discovered this, my negative self-judgment in the moment had me trashing pieces mid-stream. The thing is, IT’S ONLY IN THE MIDDLE of being created!! Push through and see what happens on the other side!
      Thanks for telling your own story about your comment to a workshop participant about being past the ugly stage.

  12. I really enjoy watching your step by step progress….and love the colors used. In this case, the compliments really ‘pop’…including the red underpainting showing through the deep blue. Your looseness is remarkable….I just can’t get that.
    I mostly like that you put your hour and a half of time to good use…..and got through the ‘ugly’ stage.
    Very inspirational….I needed that — Curt

    1. Thanks so much Curt!! I think we all work in our own way. I tend to work more loosely especially when I work with a time constraint. I think that really works to stop me from getting too picky and fussy. You might try that….
      Lovely to know you were inspired!

  13. Thank you Gail. Once again your post was to the point. I love that you show the progression of your paintings. I learn so much from it. And I enjoy so much the pictures of your mom painting. She’s an example to be followed!

    1. Thanks Miriam. It’s good to hear that the progression sequence is helpful. I am quite amazed sometimes to see how the painting started and where it ended!
      And yes, my Mum is a great role model!!

    1. Hi Nicole, I’m not exactly sure what you mean in your first question. Please feel free to ask it again with more detail. To answer your second question, the pastels I used for this piece were all Unison Colour soft pastels. The first layer was rubbed so as to create a solid (and painterly) underpainting. Then I worked over it using some of the same pastels plus more added to the mix. Hope that helps!

  14. Gail,
    Thank you so much for sharing the steps with visuals of the actual stages, and descriptions which include some of your thought processes… this is so very helpful for me. This painting is beautiful to me as it is, can’t wait to see your finishing touches. Thank you!

    1. Dee Dee I’m so glad to know this has been helpful for you! And thanks for the compliment 🙂
      I have now attached the tweaked version at the end of the post with an annotation about a few of the things I did.

  15. What a stunning interpretation of the subject, and a reminder of the power of complementary colours to give a real punch to a picture. That vibrant blue background also gives the flowers a real punch, they’re almost leaping off the page! Thanks for reminding us how important it is to do an underpainting to reflect the main tonal values, and this is where I often end up scratching my head; which colours to use as an underpainting? How to match colour to tone? (I never have problems if working in monochrome). I’m encouraged to have a go, though, with your main points in mind. I find I do so much reading about the THEORY of pastels and painting that I end up in a state of paralysis and don’t dare put pastel to paper for fear of ‘failing’, so I think it’s time to loosen up, have a go, have another go, and keep going, seeing every work as a learning process … and to enjoy the journey rather than beat myself up about the result! Thanks.

    1. Awesome comment Kylia and sooooo happy that you have decided to just do, just put pastel to paper, and enjoy the journey. One way to help you move in this direction is to do small colour studies of two layers. If you like the way one looks, you can then recreate it on a larger piece of paper and go from there. Here’s a link to a post I wrote about doing colour studies.

  16. Hi Gail,
    I appreciate your skill as well as your ability to talk about what you do. I was at ECCAD for two years, and I don’t think anyone mentioned underpainting—maybe once. I didn’t know so much layering was possible and so enriching.

    I hope one day I will be able to try these techniques.

    1. Thank you Louise! I hope you will take time to try these techniques. I so love the various colours that sparkle through the last layer!
      Maybe I’ll see you in one of my workshops 🙂

  17. Truly an inspirational post – and the comments, with your responses, just made it better. I have been working with pastels two years now, and I can do decent landscapes. What I want to do are more lovely flower arrangements like this and, dare I say it, representational people and captured moments. Gail, you are at the top of my list as online guide. Thank you so much for sharing so generously with us.

    1. I’m so very glad to hear it Cheryl. It warms me no end to know that what I’ve said and/or shown is helpful. Thank you for your very kind words 🙂

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Gail Sibley

Artist. Blogger. Teacher.

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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