Ohhhhhhh I am
In case, you have never seen any of Richard’s work, here’s a teaser. (I wrote about this piece in one of my round-ups which you can read by clicking here.)
Before I hand the blog over to Richard McKinley, first, a wee bit about him.
Richard McKinley Bio
Richard G. McKinley, PSA-MP&HFP, PSWC-PL, has been a professional working artist / teacher for over 40 years. His work is represented in several national galleries and is in the permanent collection of the Butler Institute of American Art Museum (Ohio), City of Albuquerque (New Mexico), and the Hang Ming Shi Museum (China). He holds Master Pastelist designation with the Pastel Society of America and in 2010 was inducted into their Hall of Fame. In 2012, Richard was designated Pastel Laureate by the Pastel Society of the West Coast. He has been featured in seven instructional DVDs and included in numerous art books.
An avid plein air landscape painter, Richard divides his time between painting the locations he is passionate about, reinterpreting those paintings back in the studio, writing about art matters, and instructing painting workshops.
Read and see more on his website.
And now, here’s the man himself, Richard McKinley!
My Beginnings With Pastel
My introduction to the medium of pastel was in 1974. As a young aspiring artist, I was fortunate to be introduced to an amazing artist, Margaret Stahl Moyer, who had studied at the Chicago Art Institute and agreed to critique my work once a week. After a few months of providing guidance on my oil paintings, she handed me a box of Grumbacher and Rembrandt pastels and said, “With what you have shown me as an oil painter, I think you should also give pastel a whirl.”
At the time, I was eager to explore every fine art medium and didn’t even think to ask her why. Like so many pastelists I’ve met, it was love at first application. Something about the tactile nature of holding what is very close to pure pigment in your hand and the limitless possibilities for creative exploration, clicked with me. Although I continue to occasionally play with other mediums, oil and pastel have been my main focus of expression.
Pastels – Those Sticks of Magic
As more brands of pastel became available, not to mention surface choices, I found myself wanting them all. An automobile’s main purpose is to transport us from one point to another, but the experience of driving a Volkswagen Beetle compared to a Ferrari is very different.
At this stage in my pastel life, I don’t think about what I need, it is what I want. Currently, if I painted ten hours a day, every day, I couldn’t use all of the pastels I have amassed. What is thrilling, and comforting, is that they are there quietly waiting for me to take them for another artistic ride. The artist with the most when they
The Palette – The Magician’s Wand
The advantage of having worked in paint was extremely useful when it came time to setup a working pastel palette. After considerable trial and error, I ended up with a palette that visually represents the three components of light that we see:
- The full spectrum of color (represented by a color wheel)
- A range of value associated to those hues (lighter and darker)
- The chromatic variants of those hues and values (grayer tones)
Some of my pastel palettes are smaller, others larger, but all are arranged using this system. This has given me the ability to focus on what and how I am painting without the distraction of searching for a certain hue, value, or tone. Since a major amount of my time is spent painting with pastel on location (en plein air), I have tried to limit the size of my travel palette for ease of transport (note the photo of my plein air pastel palette). This palette, which is my mainstay, is filled with an assortment of brands, which denote various degrees of softness.
An old oil painting mantra – Thin to Thick, Dark to Light, Dull to Bright, Soft to Sharp – influenced my choice to have more of the darker, grayer, pastels in my palette be composed of harder brands and the lighter, brighter pastels lean more towards the softer (buttery) brands.
On What to Paint
Early on, every representational painter just wants what they do to be recognizable. We never forget the day someone knew what it was we were attempting to paint. Our focus is more on how to paint and what to paint versus whywe paint. It’s the mechanics. As our technical skills develop, we discover that our real goal is to not just paint a picture, but to paint a painting which represents the way we see and feel about the world around us.
There are many beautiful landscapes, the world is filled with them, but a pivotal juncture in my work happened when I challenged myself to find the beauty in the mundane, to seek out those places that most people pass over, day after day, without ever pausing for a second glance. I remember going to a remote section of eastern Oregon, where most people drive as quickly as possible to just get beyond, and spending a week observing, sketching, and painting.
This experience took my work from being a competent representation of something considered beautiful to finding and embracing the visual power of the tenants of design: Rhythm, Scale, Depth, Texture, Color, Value, Tone, etc. These are not identifiable objects, they are associated to them. The sand and brush that inhabited the area would be considered ugly by most passersby; it was the orchestration of the elements of design that made them art.
I am always amused when someone watching me paint stops and comments that they would have never considered painting that, or don’t see anything worthwhile about the subject, and yet, they love the painting. For me it is the reward of taking the prosaic and making it poetic. The simple rhythms of a field, the negative spaces of mysterious light peeking through a grove of trees, or the atmospheric effects across the surface of the earth have become more of my inspiration as I have matured as both a person and pastelist.
With this as my challenge, it doesn’t matter where I am. I can always find a ditch, swamp, group of trees, or field of grasses to paint. It’s the adventure of the travel and the experience of different stimuli that is enjoyable. As a workshop student once noted while painting with me in France, “You could have painted a group of trees like those where you live.” My reply was, “But we are here in France, eating well and drinking some of the best wine on earth, what’s not to love!”
Another time I was standing painting a simple field of grass textures with my back to one of the most spectacular places along the Pacific Coast. A fellow that had been watching me paint for a while tapped me on my shoulder and said, “Are you aware of what is behind you?” I smiled and replied to him, “And are you aware of what is in front of us?”
Personal Style and the Techniques Employed
So many artists wish for a style. My belief is that it is not something you pursue, it is something that you let come out. This applies to what we paint, but also to how we paint. I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to watch a lot of diverse artists paint with pastels, and I continue to revel at a chance to watch a demonstration or take a class.
A master pastel artist that I credit with empowering me to paint in the fashion I am meant to paint, is Albert Handel. When I saw how he gently drifted the pastel over the surface of his paper with such sensitivity, I knew I had found my pastel tribe. Up until that time, I had typically applied pastel with bold marks, layering one on top of another, and never smudging the pastel. This was simply how I thought it was supposed to be done. What I witnessed that day, while watching Albert paint, was an approach that while bold and intense was at times as delicate as the breath of air from a butterfly wing, as so adeptly described by James McNeil Whistler.
It is from Edgar Degas that we all gain permission to experiment. He did whatever he needed to do to produce a painting. Rules of what can, or should, be done were discarded for the sake of the end result. My pastel techniques are more about could, versus should.
I follow one law: Is it archival? And I break a lot of painting rules. This has led me to try various fluids for wetting pastel, and numerous mixed-media under-washes, to create an underpainting. Experimenting with various techniques of underpainting as a setup for the application of the pastel has become the foundation of my approach. All that stick pastel requires is a surface with enough tooth to hold the pigment. When you factor in the variation of responses created by different surfaces, it becomes creatively limitless.
One technique that I have recently been re-exploring is the intentional application of pastel grit to emulate something akin to the impasto technique oil painters frequently use. This adds another visual dimension to the painting that is not intended to be random, or gimmicky. Who knows what wild idea will become the impetus for where my pastel techniques go in the future. It is a big part of my enjoyment.
I believe that the longer we paint the more we discover about ourselves. The key is to acknowledge what it is we do well, and work on our weaknesses. None of us ever graduate! One such realization for myself, which now governs my approach to pastel painting, is that I like to work in stages.
Stage One I refer to as the Sensitivity Stage. This is the drawing and composition stage of the painting. No matter the subject matter, I attempt to quiet myself and get away from the mechanics of painting and focus on the seeing/feeling part of the process. I play a visual game with myself where I think like a sculptor and try to mentally touch the surfaces of the objects I am about to paint. Rhythms and movement become important. I ask myself, “Where is the viewer’s eye traveling within the confines of the composition? What is the attitude, and personality, of the objects that make up the scene?”.
When the drawing feels good, not necessarily done, I go to Stage Two – Serendipity. This is the underpainting. It is the setup for the anticipated application of pastel. No matter the technique being utilized, I want it to be playful and not overly controlled. Drips, runs, splashes and unforeseen accidents are embraced. I remind myself that pastel is an opaque medium and if my underpainting is a complete disaster, I can repair it with pastel. What do I have to lose?
Once the underpainting is done, I go into Stage Three – the Solution. The pastel palette comes out and the gradual application of pastel begins. I prefer to incrementally apply the pigment, knowing that more can always be applied. By going slowly, not out of fear, but to encourage myself to see the potential of what is happening, I am frequently surprised to realize that while more may be applied, it may not be necessary. Stopping myself from doing things, just to be doing them, or because they are there, has not come easily. But it has made all the difference in the end result.
Looking to the Future
Failure is never a goal but embracing the notion that true creativity is not a linear line, has become my inspiration. So often, we feel that we have only accomplished something when it looks good. When in fact, more is learned from our failed attempts.
I once heard a great artist respond to someone who ask them to please explain what they were thinking about while painting during a demonstration we were watching. Without hesitation, they responded, “I am not thinking, I am doing.” What I now nurture in myself is my intuitive voice. When the heart says, “Pick up that violet and put it there”, I don’t listen to my brain that says, “But why?” I just do it!
Margaret Stahl Moyer’s inkling that pastel and Richard would become friends was true. She understood me better than I did at the time. And what I now appreciate is that it is the limitless creative possibilities pastel affords that keeps my hand reaching for another stick. The journey is not over.
OH. WOW. Can we all just say that together??
Now we want to hear from YOU!
Have questions? Ask away. Have comments? Let us hear your thoughts. Richard McKinley and I would LOVE to hear from you so do please leave a few (or many) words after this post.
ONE MORE THING……
WORKSHOP with RICHARD MCKINLEY!!
AAAAANNNNDD I’m pleased as punch to be helping organize a workshop on Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada with Richard McKinley, 9-13 September 2019.
This 5-day studio/ plein air pastel painting workshop will be focused on the basics. All levels welcome!
The cost will be US$600 and a $200 deposit will be due January 2019 to hold your place.
The workshop is limited to 18 people so if you’re interested, email me as quickly as you can. I will start a list and be in touch with you for a deposit come January.
And that’s it for me!!
Until next time,
Two fabulous books by Richard McKinley!!
PPS. In case you’re interested, here are a couple of short interviews I did with Richard McKinley…. (I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to catch up with him at IAPS 2017 byt as President, he had a LOT on his plate!)