Robin S. Nyikos, "Veni Creator Spiritus," 2014, pastel on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 19 x 25 in

Robin S. Nyikos – Her World In Figure Pastels

Robin S. Nyikos first came to my attention when I saw her piece “ Veni Creator Spiritus,” which I featured in one of my round-ups (click here to read what I wrote ). Recently, she was the juror of the Pastel Artists Canada (PAC) exhibition in Aurora, Ontario, Canada, and it occurred to me that it would be great if she would guest post about her figurative work in pastels here on HowToPastel. And yes!! She agreed 😀

Here’s a wee bio before I hand the blog over to Robin.


Robin S. Nyikos Bio

Robin Nyikos graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) followed by further studies at the college’s off-campus site in Florence, Italy. After leaving Florence, she spent the next seven years painting landscapes and portraits in oils and pastels in France, Spain, England, and The Canary Islands before returning to Canada. She is a signature member and a Master Pastelist of Pastel Artists Canada. You can see more of her work on her website.

And now, here’s Robin 🙂


Robin S. Nyikos – Her Figurative Pastels

I love reading Gail’s blog and am honoured to have been asked to write about my figurative pastels. Thank you Gail!

Figurative paintings whether in the landscape or interiors, in pastel or oils, are the result of my desire to go beyond rendering, to present a story for the viewer. I want my images to evoke a shared experience, perhaps something timeless, to make an emotional connection with the viewer. Often, even though I am not figuratively in the paintings, they are autobiographical.

I try to paint or sketch every day, varying my location, subject, and medium. Once a week, I go to a figure drawing session and work from the model in charcoal, pastel, or oils. I go plein air landscape painting and also work on ideas in my studio at home. Sketching and thinking about ideas every day helps me to keep seeing things. Every day when I’m dog walking, I take a camera and small sketch book noting down colours and ideas ‘just in case‘… I paint because I’ve always drawn and painted, both familiar and new subjects, and I love it.

It’s what I do.

I first started to paint with pastels in the final months of my last year at Art College. After graduating, I travelled to Florence, Italy to further my studies at the Ontario College of Art and Design’s program there. I took my small box of Rembrandt pastels and NuPastels with me.


Robin Nyikos, "Three Women of Florence," 1979, pastel on Ingres paper, 10 x 11 in.
Robin S. Nyikos, “Three Women of Florence,” 1979, pastel on Ingres paper, 10 x 11 in.

Uneven numbers and groups of three have always interested me. Perhaps it is because I am one of three children, or that there were three witches in Macbeth, or that while I was in Florence, the Three Graces seemed to be around every corner.

My vantage point for Three Women was the first floor balcony window of the studio that overlooked the Piazza Santa Croce. I loved spending time sketching the everyday life of the Piazza, but had to work fast! I didn’t have a camera, so never had any reference photos.



Robin Nyikos, "Princess, Puerto De Las Nieves, Gran Canary," 2003, pastels over a mineral spirit wash on watercolour paper, 14 x 20 in.
Robin S. Nyikos, “Princess, Puerto De Las Nieves, Gran Canary,” 2003, pastels over a mineral spirit wash on watercolour paper, 14 x 20 in.

This is another quick figure study of three women who were taking time out to rest on a bench during Carnival. I loved the image of the two older somberly dressed women and the young girl in her bright pink princess costume.

The initial block-in was done on a partial sheet of white watercolour paper using NuPastels followed by a wash with mineral spirits and finished with Rembrandt pastels. I used a few sketches and several reference photos. I work from my own photos and rarely paint from a single image, preferring to create my own composition, and invent and control the story.



Robin S. Nyikos, "The Balloon Seller," 2004, pastel over a mineral spirit wash on watercolour paper, 21 x 14 in.
Robin S. Nyikos, “The Balloon Seller,” 2004, pastel over a mineral spirit wash on watercolour paper, 21 x 14 in.

My Carnival Day experience sketching and taking photos at Puerto De Las Nieves in Gran Canary ended up in a number of small figurative paintings. I loved the little boy in his shark costume and his pink ballerina sister walking hand in hand. The balloon seller was added from a separate shot to give them a context and improve the story. I made a conscious effort to stop painting when I felt the story had been told!



Robin S. Nyikos, "The Judge’s Decision, "2008, pastel over a mineral spirit wash on watercolour paper, 14 x 20 in.
Robin S. Nyikos, “The Judge’s Decision, “2008, pastel over a mineral spirit wash on watercolour paper, 14 x 20 in.

I often take breaks from subject matter. In this pastel, inspired by several visits to The Great Northern Exhibition (Collingwood’s Fall Fair), I returned to painting one of my early loves – horses. I love the pride that the horse’s handlers take in presenting them to the judge and the care that the judges take in assessing them. This depicts the Weanling Belgium Horse Class. I love the shapes of draft horses!


Summers at the cottage have long been an inspiration for my art. My paintings of the Georgian Bay, done either in oils or in pastels, aren’t only about the colours of the rocky Canadian Shield, pines bent by the west wind or sun on water. They often depict what I consider to be timeless experiences of family, pets and cottage life as well.


Robin S. Nyikos, "The Loon’s Call," 2012, pastel over a mineral spirit wash on watercolour paper, 18 x 25 in.
Robin S. Nyikos, “The Loon’s Call,” 2012, pastel over a mineral spirit wash on watercolour paper, 18 x 25 in.

In ‘The Loon’s Call’, my daughter stands on the cliff behind our cottage overlooking Go Home Bay on a warm evening in July. The colours are softly fading into mauves, while she listens, looking for the loon calling in the distance. I’ve done several versions of this, both in pastel and oils, with and without a model, earlier and later in the day. It’s a familiar landscape that I never tire of.


Robin S. Nyikos, "Campfire Marshmallows," 2011, pastel on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 25 x 19 in
Robin S. Nyikos, “Campfire Marshmallows,” 2011, pastel on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 25 x 19 in

The idea for ‘Campfire Marshmallows’ was a paddle with my two kids in the old green cedar strip canoe to a nearby island for an evening swim and dinner cooked over a campfire. I was drawn to the yellows and oranges of the fire, which are echoed in the sky and the yellow of the girl’s bathing suit, against the purples and blues of the granite rock.


Robin Nyikos, "Summer Reading," 2013, pastel on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 19 x 25 in
Robin S. Nyikos, “Summer Reading,” 2013, pastel on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 19 x 25 in

Every summer I am there, I am drawn to painting beloved family cats, dogs or people on the veranda’s blue striped couch. I love the way the afternoon summer sun turns the bay to sparkles, shines on the varnished veranda floor and bounces around off the walls. The colours are warm washed out in the lights, intense in the shadows.

All were done from direct observation, sketches and my own reference photos.

I enjoy working on the smooth side of Canson Mi-Teintes paper; I like its solid feel and texture. Starting with hard pastels, I work carefully from hard to softer pastels until I reach a point where the surface reaches a soft buttery feel. I may use fixative between layers but never on my final one. Also, if in the final stages my surface seems filled (greasy) and stops taking pastel, I sprinkle a bit of marble dust on the offending area, fix it and continue working with soft pastels.



Robin S. Nyikos, "Chinese Jacket, American Gadget, Canadian Girl," 2012, pastel on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 43 x 29 in
Robin S. Nyikos, “Chinese Jacket, American Gadget, Canadian Girl,” 2012, pastel on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 43 x 29 in

I was intrigued by the contrast between the young model (my teenage daughter, who was interrupted while posing for me by her cell phone), her blue jeans, and the intricately embroidered silk jacket against the yellow colour of the heavy silk in the background. The jacket was a favourite of my great-grandmother who collected it as well as other textiles when she visited in Shanghai in the 1930’s.



Robin S. Nyikos, "Veni Creator Spiritus," 2014, pastel on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 19 x 25 in
Robin S. Nyikos, “Veni Creator Spiritus,” 2014, pastel on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 19 x 25 in

The model is my daughter once again, wearing the same Chinese silk jacket, however, I left off most of the embroidery so as not to compete with the background. I’ve visited Venice a number of times and fell in love with mosaics in San Marks Basilica. The angel in the mosaic background is from a photo I took while there. The mosaic border is invented as a compositional device.

I struggled to find a title for this. In the end I called it ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’. My daughter (the subject), calls it ‘Listen to Your Mother!’


‘Meeting The Past’

On a trip to London a few years ago, my husband and I made a visit to The British Museum.  I specifically wanted to see the Roman collection as for some time, I had been thinking about doing a painting of some marble portrait busts. While we were there, I took a number of photos and got my husband to photograph me next to various Roman marbles.


Robin S. Nyikos, three of my reference photos. You can also see a bit of the colourful French-Canadian Ceinture fléchée, (arrow scarf) used in the painting.
Robin S. Nyikos, three of my reference photos. You can also see a bit of the colourful French-Canadian Ceinture fléchée, (arrow scarf) used in the painting.


When we got home, I asked my daughter to pose for me and did a number of small sketches. Her pose was influenced by Vermeer’s painting, ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring.’ However the lighting and setting in my pastel are of course very different. I wanted to convey the striking contrast between the monochromatic rendering of the busts of the long silent women of the distant past and the vivid colours of this young contemporary woman. She turns back to look directly at the viewer, inviting them in to ‘meet history’ with her. The composition took form.


Robin S. Nyikos, "Meeting the Past - Sketch #1," pencil on paper, 5 ½ x 8in.
Robin S. Nyikos, “Meeting the Past – Sketch #1,” pencil on paper, 5 ½ x 8in.


Robin S. Nyikos, "Meeting The Past - Sketch #2," pencil on paper, 5 ½ x 8in.
Robin S. Nyikos, “Meeting The Past – Sketch #2,” pencil on paper, 5 ½ x 8in.


I prepared a 30 x 40 in illustration board using Golden pastel ground and blocked in my image using Nupastels and some gouache washes. After the block-in, I used various pastels, from hard to soft to develop the image (NuPastels, Rembrandt, Unison Colour, Daler Rowney, Schmincke). When she had time to pose, I focused on working on my daughter from life. Other times, I worked on the background.

From the beginning, the large marble bust on the left bothered me as did parts of the needlessly segmented background. However, I ignored my nagging inner voice and carried on. That was the wrong thing to do since eventually, when the painting was virtually finished, I wasn’t happy with it.


Robin S. Nyikos, First version of "Meeting the Past" (on an easel in my studio), pastel on sanded illustration board, 30 x 40 in.
Robin S. Nyikos, First version of “Meeting the Past” (on an easel in my studio), pastel on sanded illustration board, 30 x 40 in.


I turned it against the wall and didn’t look at it for a while. When I finally turned it around again, I was still so troubled by those elements that I either needed to change them, or start again. So, referring to my reference photos again, I changed the bust on the left completely, choosing another more refined portrait instead. Then I simplified and darkened the background and cut three inches off of the top.

I needed to apply some marble dust to restore the tooth of the surface in order to be able to add more pastel to the left of the figure. In the end I was much happier with the result.

Lesson learned?

Putting things away for a while is a good idea!

Might as well go for it!

Listen to that persistent inner voice!


Robin S. Nyikos, "Meeting the Past" (the definitive version!), 2016, pastel on sanded illustration board, 27 x 30 in. SOLD
Robin S. Nyikos, “Meeting the Past” (the definitive version!), 2016, pastel on sanded illustration board, 27 x 30 in. SOLD



Wow! Thank you Robin for sharing your paintings, inspiration, and process. I particularly loved seeing the sketches for “Meeting the Past” and reading how Robin resolved the image to end up with the final version.

Now we’d LOVE to hear from you! Do you have any questions or thoughts for guest Robin S. Nyikos? Please leave them as a comment.


Until next time!

~ Gail




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39 thoughts on “Robin S. Nyikos – Her World In Figure Pastels”

  1. Very inspiring pastels….so rich without being heavy. I would like to know why on some of your work you state: ” pastel over a mineral spirit wash on watercolour paper” and what it’s purpose is.


      1. Thank you Robin for showing and explaining how you arrive at your wonderful pastels. Often I would think when I saw other painters totally fotographic pastels: why bother with the pastel, why not just take a picture? But you show a story and have helped me see more in figurative painting this way. AND you give me encouragement to sketch even more, it shows how much you have spent time doing that.

        1. Thanks for your thoughts Susana and I hear ya! Love that you have also gotten the encouragement to sketch and what it can do for you in your own art practice.

        2. Thank you so much for your very thoughtful comments Susana!
          Yes, sketching is great and I find really helps me to ‘see’ things.
          All the best, Robin

    1. Thank you Sheryl!
      I was using a fairly smooth white fairly heavy watercolour paper that does not have enough ‘tooth’ to take many layers of pastel.
      I did a light initial block-in using nupastels . I wanted to blend them a bit but if I had done a ‘dry blend ‘ using my fingers or some other tool, then that would have filled the tooth of the paper too much so, I blended them together with a light wash of mineral spirits. The mineral spirit wash does the job without causing the paper to buckle the way a water wash would . It is important to keep the wash very thin.
      When the surface was almost dry I continued on with Rembrandt pastels and in a few of those pieces , some Rowneys as well.
      Happy pastelling, Robin

      1. Hi Jane, I don’t use pumice, I use marble dust ( finely ground white marble) which has the consistency of flour.
        After laying my painting on a table, I take a spice jar with a lid that has very fine holes and use it to shake a small amount of marble dust over the area that will no longer take my pastel, or on an area that I feel needs more ‘tooth’. Since the dust is white, it can look alarming!
        Next, I lay some wax paper over any area of my painting that I do not want any fixative on, and I give the marble dust area a spray with fixative. I let it dry completely and then put it back on the easel and paint over the area with soft pastels, such as Schmincke.

        Thanks for your question, Robin.

  2. I love and am in awe with Robin’s work. I’m so glad you both have included the sketches and versions of “Meeting the Past”. Interesting that she uses a lot of Canson Mi-Teintes, I found that a difficult paper to use. The detail she puts in is mind-boggling, she must have the patience of Job to do the beautiful mosaic in “Veni Creator Spiritus”.

    1. Lol. I agree with you about your ‘patience of Job’ statement Mary-Anne! I too am rather awed by Robin’s use of Canson Mi-Teintes and what she is able to achieve with that paper.

  3. I also would like an explanation of mineral spirit over watercolor paper – what mineral spirit is referred to and does that process cause a “tooth” in the paper for the pastel to cling to? Why do you not use the toothed or standard pastel papers available from art supply shops?
    Your paintings are beautiful.

    1. Hi Margaret,
      At the time I had a lot of that nice white watercolour paper that wasn’t too large and enjoyed working on it in what was for me a much faster sketchier technique. I was saving my larger sheets of pastel paper, mostly Canson but some sanded paper as well for my much more sustained work.
      The type of mineral spirits that I used was probably Stevenson’s. The use of it doesn’t cause a ‘tooth’, but does help to wash the pastel colour over an area without ‘filling ‘ the tooth of the paper, so that I could continue to work on top of it with my Rembrandt pastels .
      All the best, Robin

  4. I really enjoyed the explanations. I use rubber cement thinner to give a wash effect as it seems to leave no residue on the paper, which is also used for color pencils to soften and blend colors to allow to add more color. Over all I really enjoyed.

    1. How interesting about your use of rubber cement thinner Darrell. I can’t help but feel that must be a bit toxic but as I have no experience with this medium, I haven’t a clue. Would you like to tell us more?
      Glad you enjoyed Robin’s post 🙂

  5. Yes, I too am in awe of Robin’s incredible detail with the mosaic wall and the oriental jacket. The figure drawings of her daughter are inspirational!! I can feel the warmth and love of the young woman coming through. Wondering also about the mineral spirits….does it work the same way as an alcohol wash? What’s the difference between the two? Do mineral spirits dry as quickly as alcohol? I have mineral spirits that I rarely use for anything, and this would be a good way to put it to use. Thanks Gail, another great artist’s work to enjoy.

    1. I know what you mean Ruth, about the love shining through in Robin’s pieces. It’s wonderful that Robin uses her daughter as a model for so many of her paintings. And bravo to Robin’s daughter for accepting (embracing?!) the role!
      More questions for Robin. Fantastic.
      And thanks. I LOVE having guest bloggers share their work and reveal their process!!

    2. Thank you very much Ruth! Yes, my daughter continues to be a wonderful and very co-operative model .
      Mineral spirits seem to have a slightly oily feel and need to be used thinly. They also take a little longer to dry than alcohol. I tend to use it when I want to work fairly thinly and let the ‘wash layer ‘show through my overpainting, or when I want to make a dark underpainting.
      I have used isopropyl alcohol on some of my charcoal drawings and like the effects that can be achieved. Yes , the alcohol does dry faster.
      😉 Robin

    1. That’s wonderful to hear Tena! I do try to be inclusive of all genre and styles on this blog. As a portraitist, you may be interested in these blogs: Ellen Eagle, Carol Peebles, Daggi Wallace, Lisa Ober, Emily Christoff, Therese Schwartze, Florence Rodway.

      For figurative work you will probably have seen Michelle Lucking‘s work and you may also enjoy this one by Duane Wakeham and the one I wrote on Frantisek Kupka. I have also done ‘close-ups’ of a portrait by these artists: Edouard Manet, Giovanni Boldini, and Mary Cassatt and Odilon Redon.

      I’ve written a couple of posts that include a self-portrait and figures. Time for me to write another one!!

  6. Thanks Gail for seeking out this exceptional artist. I found it helpful to read about her process in coming to terms with her dissatisfaction about where she was going with the painting. For someone who is relatively new to using pastels and painting, it’s motivating to read about how an accomplished artist, like Robin, problem solves toward creating something that “works”.

    1. that’s wonderful to hear Kathleen! And I agree. Hearing that ALL creatives run into the same problems whether they are seasoned professionals or new to the medium is reassuring. The only difference is that those with more experience generally have an idea of what to do when problems arise and also know that problems will arise.

  7. Thanks so much the links!! Will check out your previous posts. I love Florence Rodway’s work. Also Ellen Eagle, whose beautiful book I own.

    Self-portrait= nightmare 🙂

    1. Faaaaantastic!!
      “Big PLUS and eye-opener” – those words are the reward for me Harriett! Thank you for your kind words. It brings me great joy to inspire, motivate, and encourage others 😀

  8. Hi Gail. My love of pastel brought me to your site. I’m just setting up a subscription but it looks like a great deal of great content. And I was thrilled to see this piece on Robin Nyikos. I exhibited at the PAC show in Aurora that she judged. I very much like Veni Creator Spiritus, and what a great blog she added to your site. I look forward to keeping in touch. Rob

    1. Hi Rob,
      So happy to have you as a subscriber and YES!! There’s a ton of content here. You can search by category or just scroll through.
      Glad you enjoyed Robin’s post. I was delighted to have her as a guest here 🙂

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