Tom Bailey, "As Is," Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 16 x 20 in.

Tom Bailey – A Wandering Improvisational Dance

I’ve been following the work of artist Tom Bailey for some time now. I’m regularly taken by his landscapes, full of complexity and comprised of small energetic marks yet often filled with the feeling of calm and ease that comes from being in nature. Needless to say, he’s been on my potential guest blogger list for quite a while! This past October, he participated in HowToPastel’s 6th Annual 31-pastels-in-31-days Challenge. I delighted in many of his pieces and thought, okay then, this is the moment to ask him to be a guest on this blog! And yes…he said yes!

So grab a yummy beverage (wine? latté?) and cozy in to read Tom’s words of wisdom. You’ll find yourself smiling at his gentle humour and nodding and ahha-ing through his story. He does have a way of wrapping us in the warm blanket of his words.

Don’t know Tom Bailey’s work? Then check out the piece below. A few years ago, I found myself mesmerized by it and chose it for inclusion in one of my monthly round-up posts. I exclaimed about the energy, the marks, the pictorial composition, and the deeper meaning I read into it. You can see what I had to say HERE.

Oh, and one more thing – please note the size of some of these pieces…they aren’t that small!

Tom Bailey, “Peace in the Valley,” pastel on multimedia board, 18 x 24 in
Tom Bailey, “Peace in the Valley,” pastel on multimedia board, 18 x 24 in

Before I hand you over to Tom Bailey, a wee bit about him first. (You can see the humility of the man by the short and concise bio. But do pay attention to the letters after his name…it’s not that easy to achieve those!)

Tom Bailey Bio

Tom Bailey, PSA, IAPS-MC, describes himself as an “Inadvertent Impressionist.” He combines rich textures and energetic mark-making to create vivid landscapes that he hopes people will want to visit. And then visit again. You can see more of Tom and his work on his website by clicking HERE.

And now…here’s Tom Bailey!


Warning: This guest blog post is a lot like my studio

As you read this, or if you come visit the place I actually paint, I ask the same thing of you: please forgive the mess and look past the initial disorganization. I hope you’ll notice a few finished concepts peaking out from stacks of raw, unrefined ideas and some clarity within the clutter.  

What I write will not be like a retrospective museum exhibit. No curated collection of finely framed pieces. Instead, I offer you the verbal equivalent of a ragged notebook full of rough sketches in no particular order. 

There are also some examples of recent paintings. Like all art, they say more than I could ever put into words. Come on in. Please watch your step. 

Tom Bailey, "Down But Not Out," Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 18 x 12 in.
Tom Bailey, “Down But Not Out,” Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 18 x 12 in.

I paint the way I cook.

Cooking and pastel painting have a lot in common. First, both require an abundance of ‘good taste’. (Sorry. I couldn’t resist). Both also require a similar mindset and method as I learn and apply lessons. 

I consider formal cookbook recipes as mere “suggestions.” 

I read them to learn the basics, the universal principles of how to best create a specific result. Which ingredients are required and which are optional? Do they play well together? Are there specific steps that must be followed — in a certain order? How do I avoid poisonous disasters? 

I absorb those ‘rules’ about ingredients and techniques. Then, I mostly leave them behind. I inevitably change, add, and adapt details to meet my own tastes of the moment. I might swap out big foundational things. Or perhaps I’ll just tweak a few of the smallest details. 

I work the same way with my pastels.  

Tom Bailey, The Lookout, Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 16 x 20 in.
Tom Bailey, “The Lookout,” Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 16 x 20 in.

I have been fortunate to study with some of the superstars of the pastel world. They generously taught me the fundamentals. And the flourishes. I thank them. I give them all the credit for where I am today. But none of the blame. 

I attended their workshops and bought their books and DVDs. I learned about classic methods and tried the latest tricks of the trade. I experimented and tasted the results. 

In short, I “read their cookbooks.” 

But then it is my responsibility to make those lessons my own and apply what works for me. To abuse this analogy even further: My goal in both cooking and in pastel painting is the same. I want to create something totally unique that nourishes and satisfies me but that others might enjoy, too

Paint what you love – Invite your viewers to love it too 

I’m comfortable in the woods. 

I was even a Registered Maine Guide for a while, licensed to take groups out camping and canoeing onto deep wilderness waterways of New England. Those types of destinations often appear in my paintings. 

Dense woodland interiors, flowing rivers, streams and lakes are common themes. Dappled sunlight streaming through a canopy of pines inspires me every time. If I see a hint of mystery, perhaps a warm glow from just up the path or around the bend I’m already opening up the pastel box. 

Tom Bailey, "Wetlands," Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 18 x 24 in.
Tom Bailey, “Wetlands,” Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 18 x 24 in.

Those images take me away to places far removed from the frenetic static of everyday life. They become the secret locations I want to share. 

Just like in the song by John Denver, I try to create paintings that make the viewer feel like he is “coming home to a place he’d never been before.” 

I know my painting has made a real connection when I hear comments like “I feel like I could walk right into your painting” or “That’s the place I want… or need … to be right now.” 

Let the viewer fill in the blanks

A young couple was very interested in one of my New England landscapes. They stood in front of it holding hands and sharing smiles. As I walked up, they commented how much they ‘loved’ the painting and were very interested in purchasing it. 

“Where did you paint it?” they asked. 

 “That’s one of my favorite places to paint,” I answered. “It’s in the backwoods of New Hampshire.” 

Thud. Crickets. 

“Oh.” she said with a disappointed sigh. “We wanted it because it reminded us so much of our wedding.” 

“But we got married in Vermont,” she continued, “not New Hampshire.” 

“Sorry to have bothered you.” 

And out they went. 

I think I’ll stick to creating loose interpretations of mostly-imaginary landscapes. 

Tom Bailey, "Hidden Cove," Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 12 x 18 in.
Tom Bailey, “Hidden Cove,” Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 12 x 18 in.

“Hey there! Here I am. Come closer.”

I love boldness, contrast, and attention-grabbing color. I want my painting to reach out and pull the viewers’ attention from across the room.

I learned, though, that the best method to add impact and sustainable interest is not to just keep increasing the volume. If everyone is yelling, no one can be heard. If you want people to listen, sometimes you have to whisper. Works for paintings, too. 

I build on a foundation of subtle grays and desaturated colors. When I eventually add a bit of color and contrast, less becomes more. Instead of screaming and clawing for attention, my desired focal point only has to take a few small steps forward to enter the spotlight and earn respect. Against a chorus of neutrals, even slightly more-saturated colors sing out. 

Tom Bailey, "Flowing Onward," Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 12 x 18 in.
Tom Bailey, “Flowing Onward,” Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 18 x 12 in.

About my mark-making

I guess I get more comments about HOW I paint than about WHAT. People ask how I use the pastels, my ‘mark-making’.  

I tend to use lots of quick frenetic lines against more muted swatches of color. I think they give life and energy to my paintings. The paintings I like best are the ones that remain somewhat sketchy (in the good sense of the word). I love applying scratches and scribbles. I lose myself in the process and have SO much more fun when I do. 

Tom Bailey, "Bends And Turns," Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 9 x12 in.
Tom Bailey, “Bends And Turns,” Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 9 x12 in.

A friend used to say “Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.” That may apply to parties and hot sauce but not to my painting. I have to control myself. 

I remember the wonderful instructor at a workshop I was attending calling out to me while he approached from across the room. 

“Put some variety into your marks, Tom,” he said. “They’re all the same.” 

 He hadn’t even seen what I was painting yet! 

“I can tell just by listening,” he said. “I can hear you applying the pastel to the paper. Every stroke sounds the same.”  

Scritch. Scritch. Scritch. 

All short, fast, repetitive. Using only the tip of the stick. Each mark made with the same pressure. 

Scritch. Scritch. Scritch. 

No long flowing curves with the broad side of the stick or gentle, almost silent swaths. No variety. 

Of course, he was right. I had created a wall of scratches and static. I needed to be selective with my marks. I still do.  

Tom Bailey, "Morning Mountain Mist," Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 12 x 16 in.
Tom Bailey, “Morning Mountain Mist,” Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 12 x 16 in.

I add small hints of unexpected hues within larger fields of color. I might dab bits of reds, oranges, violets or blues within a traditionally green field. They might not be noticed at first but they create added energy and interest. My skies often have pinks and greens. 

I don’t make those additions as a gimmick or to be “artsy’. Somehow, they fit with what I’m trying to convey. That’s enough for me.

It’s a great time to be a pastelist! 

I have been painting with pastels for more than fifteen years. I am amazed at how much has changed and evolved during that time. Innovative new materials offer us a rainbow of raw possibilities that have changed our medium forever. Seriously, can you imagine returning to life before sanded paper?  

Experimental techniques have become mainstream. Pastelists continue to boldly invent new applications while reimagining the classics of the past. Here’s one: apply clear gesso over the underpainting, let it dry and scumble pastels over the top. Instant real impasto!

I didn’t invent any of these ideas. You probably know them all already. But have you TRIED them?

Tom Bailey, "Glow From Below," Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 18 x 12 in.
Tom Bailey, “Glow From Below,” Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 18 x 12 in.

I’m a big fan of undertoning and underpainting.  They eliminate those annoying pinholes of harsh white poking through the pastel strokes. They also provide opportunities to create fascinating glow, depth, and energy. 

Lately, I have been experimenting with brown, blue, even black surfaces. Wow. My usual pastel colors take on bold new impact with the added contrast.  

I might apply a basic block-in of harder pastels and then loosely (!) brush denatured alcohol or odorless mineral spirits over the top. I let the wet colors merge without hard edges or overly defined shapes. I encourage drips and runny streaks. 

Details can always be applied later. For now, I give myself permission to relax and just let things flow. Literally.  Sometimes, I like that result so much that I call the painting “done” right then and start another one. 

Tom Bailey, "Stepping Off-Road," Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 18 x 24 in.
Tom Bailey, “Stepping Off-Road,” Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 18 x 24 in.

I love layers. And layers.

 I might apply ten to fifteen layers of pastel before I’m done. I don’t apply full coats of color, covering up everything below. I’m not painting a wall. 

I just keep adding new bits of ‘what if.” A highlight here. Maybe a quick flick for emphasis over there. Touch-ups and tweaks. It adds up. And it adds to the final piece. 

Maybe each collector should also sign our paintings 

We never create our art all by ourselves. The viewer is always the co-artist. We can only put symbols on paper and push them out into the world. We pull back the strings of the bow, aim, and let the arrow fly. From then on, we can’t control its flight.

Our intended message WILL be filtered through the very different experiences and evaluations of each viewer. What we say isn’t always what they hear. If ever. 

The good news is that each viewer will also ADD value to our art. They attach their own fond memories, past emotional highlights, and pleasant interpretations to our paintings. That’s where the full value is created.

Tom Bailey, "Picnic Place," Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 18 x 12 in.
Tom Bailey, “Picnic Place,” Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 18 x 12 in.

A joke or a classic novel?

Before I’ll invest in a particular piece of art, or offer one of mine, I ask myself if it will stand the test of time. 

Is enjoying that painting going to be a one-time-only event, like hearing a good joke? Momentarily enjoyable, sure, but once you know the punchline, it’s done. No need to go back and hear it again.

 Or, is it more like a classic literary novel? Will it be a refreshing spring that you can dip into again and again for years to come? Will it keep on giving?

That’s the one I want on my walls. 

That’s the one I want to create. 

I want to thank Gail Sibley for letting me share a few notes and ideas for her How To Pastel blog. I hope they offer a hint of what I do and why. Where I am and how I got here. 

As you can see, my painting path is more of a wandering improvisational dance than a straight march from point A to point B. If it had a soundtrack, I guess it would be more like Dixieland jazz or a Grateful Dead jam session than a droning Gregorian chant. Either way, I’ll keep humming along. 

Tom Bailey, "Cool And Contented," Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 9 x 12 in.
Tom Bailey, “Cool And Contented,” Various Pastels on Sanded Paper, 9 x 12 in.


Ahhhh…so what do you think? Do you have thoughts, comments, questions you’d like to share with us? Then please leave a comment as we’d love to hear from you!

And while you’re at it, why not let us know which is your favourite piece.

It’s such a pleasure to host Tom Bailey on this blog. I very much look forward to meeting this artist in person one of these days!

Until next time,


PS. The featured image is called “As Is,” and it’s on sanded paper, 16 x 20 in

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68 thoughts on “Tom Bailey – A Wandering Improvisational Dance”

  1. Hello
    I like the little patch of snow in the back of « Cool And Contented ».
    I was already ever endebted for your posts. This one surpasses the whole thing.
    Thanks to you both.

    1. Gail, I love the artists you invite, I like reading about their thought process, the themes they share and I like knowing about all these awesome people out there creating. I particularly loved Tom’s thought that we never create our art all by ourselves, that the viewer is always the co-author – that’s so thought provoking!

      1. Yay Angie! Thanks so much for your positive feedback about the guest posts!! I too get so much inspiration and enjoyment from their work and hearing about their processes.
        And I agree with Tom – basically, the viewer takes over from where you left off.

    1. This whole opportunity has been an amazing boost for me. Thanks, Jean.
      Clear Gesso is an acrylic liquid that is often used to put down an initial surface to paint upon. It can be roughly brushed on and let dry to leave the strokes and ridges. Then scumble the pastel over the top. Examples include Golden Acrylic pastel Ground and Gesso and Art Spectrum ‘Super Tooth Colourfix – Clear’. You can tint them or let the underlayer show through (make sure you use CLEAR gesso to do that!). I learned the trick from Richard McKinley. He has several articles about the process. Enjoy!

  2. Thank you Tom and thank you Gail. What a refreshing, joyful piece! Tom’s enthusiasm shines in his words as well as through his beautiful paintings. It all makes me want to create!

    1. Keren, I think hearing that Tom’s guest post is inspiring you to create is the best response we could wish for! That and all the other lovely things you said! And agreed – Tom’s enthusiasm does shine through. 😁

    1. Thanks for sharing your choices for ‘favorites’, Betty. They seem so different from each other (to me) so I’m fascinated about what attracted you. Definitely another case of ‘art is in the eye of the beholder’. I’m psyched that some of my art caught your attention. Tom

  3. Choosing between such beautiful pieces is hard, but since asked, I would choose “The Lookout.” It is so full of energy and color! I thoroughly enjoyed reading Tom’s story. And I love his advice of taking in all the rules and then abandoning them to wander along his own path. As a result, he has found a style all his own! Each piece tells a story. And yes, if standing in front of any one of them, I would feel the urge to “walk into the painting.”
    Thank you,Tom, for sharing your passion and your talent with us all!

    1. Oh Mike, thank you for going into detail about your specific enjoyments of Tom’s post. I love that painting too and yes, so much story possibility there!

  4. I am completely blown away. First, by Tom’s paintings and second, by his voice and character. Tom is an artist of all trades (fine arts, the written word and I wonder what else). The couple who left because they were hoping the painting was of a scene in Vermont, but it was of New Hampshire: well, I think they were probably in search of a map rather than a painting. Talk about missing the point! Anyway, I remember Tom from the very start of HTP. He was very supportive and kind to me and he directed me towards the Connecticut Pastel Society (CPS), which I had never heard of at that point and time, lol. Tom, you’ll be happy to know that I not only found CPS, but I became their member chair for a few years. Evidently, you’re also an advisor and I’m so happy to have benefitted from your art, your written word and your advisory. Thank you for it all!! Oh, and your HUMOR!

    1. Elaine, thank you for sharing the various connecting points you have with Tom. How wonderful about the thread with CPS. And I can imagine Tom’s support and encouragement of you in the early years in the HTP Facebook group. He’s just that kind of guy!
      Laughed when you said the couple missed the point. They sure did!

  5. Thanks for sharing Tom’s amazingly inspirational blog Gail. My large collection of pastels and coloured pencils has been untouched for over 2 years but reading Tom’s words and seeing his beautiful work has stirred a desire to get the box out and dust down my pastels. Thank you both, I’m very excited to get going and try some new techniques and hopefully fall in love with pastels again.

    1. Jiny that’s soooo wonderful to hear and I’m sure Tom will be delighted to know his post has inspired you to get out those pastels! Please let us know how it goes. And if I may suggest, put on some music and just make marks on paper, do some layering, enjoy the feel and possibilities with these glorious colour sticks! Then set a timer and do a small piece. It’s been awhile so go easy on yourself. Create for the joy of it and don’t worry about the outcome. Here’s an article that may be useful along those lines – LINK.

  6. Loved this interview so much ! and the comment re “Don’t increase the volume…sometimes you have to whisper” …… sums pastels up perfectly to me !

    1. So glad to hear you enjoyed Tom’s post, Adrianne! And I’m delighted you picked out those words as I think they are such an important reminder!

  7. What a free fun fascinating way to approach pastels. I really enjoy Tom’s sense of humor as he explains his process. Too bad about the one that got away, but their loss. So hard to choose my favorite. I’ll say Wetlands, and the one at the top that wasn’t named….. Improvisational Dance maybe? I love the contrast, in Wetlands, between the calm waters and the very active trees above. And the one at the top? Wow!!! the mix of color and composition has me lingering over it for a long while. Thanks Tom! and thanks Gail!

    1. Ohhh Ruth, thanks for taking the time to choose your favs AND for sharing WHY! And I love the painting in the Feature Image too. Apologies for not having the title there – rectified that – it’s now a the bottom of the post.

    2. Ruth, the title for the top one is “Peace In The Valley”, but I may steal your idea of “Improvisational Dance” for some upcoming piece if that’s okay. I think both of your choices convey a bit of the idea of sparkles and energy that I’m searching for. Thanks for helping me look at my works with fresh eyes. Tom

  8. I really love The Picnic Place – that blue in the centre just hits you, almost physically. Wow! The blog was so interesting and I’ve already got a few things that I must go away and try. Tom is so generous in sharing his thought processes and techniques – not keeping them secret, (only available to those who have the money!). Thanks, Gail for sharing it with us, too.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed ‘The Picnic Place’. That one was the third (?) different distillation of one idea. It was kind of an exercise in chipping away the unneeded until I had only what I wanted to keep. Thanks, Jackie.

  9. Thanks for this great blog post.Very inciteful. I found it interesting that he doesn’t work from the traditional dark to light, but starts with neutrals. I guess every rule was made to be broken by somebody.

    I loved most all of them, but I was struck by the contrast of “Stepping Off-Road”.

    1. Thanks, Kyle, for your noticing and bringing to our attention something about Tom’s working process. And thank you too for sharing a particular piece and why it struck you. And I get that it’s difficult to choose only one painting!
      The “rules” are useful to guide us as we learn. Once we understand them and why they exist, then we understand how to break them!

  10. Love love the cooking and painting analogy. I too cook without following recipes and use cookbooks the same way. Am striving in my painting to do the same because then for both it is the most glorious and fullfilling nugget of time.

    1. Tom’s cooking analogy is marvellous isn’t it Kathy?! Once you understand how a recipe works, your uniqueness comes from veering off! And ahhh yes, glorious and fulfilling indeed!

    2. Thank you Kathy. My wife and I have a game where we hear a cool phrase and say “That would make a great album name”. “The Most Glorious and Fulfilling Nugget of Time” has just moved to top of the list!

  11. Tom knows I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time. I so enjoyed hearing him talk about his application of pastel. It’s clear that he paints what he loves and the results communicate it well. It is always a treat walking through his paintings. I have a few favorites in the above collection but I admire his expertise in “Flowing Onward” creating such believable depth in a vertical format and the way he takes me into the painting with organic line work. Thanks Tom and Gail for a very enjoyable trip!

    1. Thanks Gailen for pointing out the evidence of Tom’s deep love of the subjects he paints. You’re right – it comes through clearly! I too was most taken by “Flowing Onward.” Glad you enjoyed the trip!

    2. Thank you, Gailen, I truly appreciate how you’ve been a rousing, supportive booster for my work over the years. Your positive comments have been a great personal resource through my inevitable ups and downs of this crazy art life. I’m glad you like “Flowing Onward” and that it ‘worked’ for you.

  12. “The Lookout” was my favorite! Encouraging comments throughout, but especially liked his comments about whether a painting “will stand the test of time”. Is it a work someone will treasure for time to come? Lots to consider. Thanks!

    1. Oh yes, a fav painting of mine too Lori!
      Thanks for picking out that particular thought/question – such a good one and one worth asking. Is my painting one that a viewer will continue to love, one in which they will discover something new overtime? Glad you have lots to consider!

    2. Lori, for me, your description of “… lots to consider” is the hallmark of all the posts on Gail’s site. It’s said that “When the student is ready the teacher appears”. I guess that’s why I can go back and re-read something I already read here but pick up new, different ideas.

  13. Nice comments, Jackie. I think we might share a philosophy about learning: I also try to find something I can take away and USE. Today, if possible The whole idea of sharing what we know is, I think, one of the best key foundations to How To Pastel and this whole wonderful pastel community. Thanks again. Tom

  14. Two of my favorites are Flowing Onward and Peace in the Valley. This is my first time admiring your paintings and I love the looseness and beautiful combination of colors. I also love painting nature and look forward to imitate your style. Thank you both for a great lesson and inspiration and looking forward to more.

    1. Sofia, I’m delighted to have introduced you to Tom Bailey and his beautiful paintings. I can’t wait to see how Tom’s style influences your own work!
      And I’m with you on your painting choices!

    2. Nice to hear, Sofia. As I go back and compare the two paintings you chose, I think they might offer some of the same facets but maybe from slightly different places on the intensity scale. Hmmm. I’m going to have to ponder a bit. Thanks for sharing.

  15. “Glow from below”, if I had to pick one. I like the freedom pastels give me and have a couple workshops, lots of demos and videos to watch and hopefully learn from slowly. I need improved composition and how to see values and pick the pastels and a few books have helped me draw and mark. I liked reading your journey and altho mine just started 11/20 in the corona lockdown, I could not put it down and keep trying. I was invited by real artists to come plein air paint and they said I was drawn to the hardest object to draw and paint. I was so new and timid about mark making, shadows, light, etc.. that I watched and sought feedback and tips. I went to a nancie king mertz workshop, had Karen Margulis patreon, John Preston local pastelist and watercolor artist, one Nocturne day demo. I have a cheery husband who helps overcome my critical side. None of mine are similar and I framed them all for kicks and am super excited to be putting up on a floating wall shelf gallery and my walls to change up and play with. Nancie King home is full of all her art she sells on the walls and that was the inspiration. Sorry this is so long. I want to learn and yet create and be free to be glad most of the time now. I see some online lessons I am drawn to Gail.

    1. Hi Jackie, first off I’m glad you enjoyed reading about Tom’s journey. And second, thank you for sharing your own journey into the world of pastels. It’s all a slow and continuous journey as we hone our skills and develop our artistic voice and vision. Everything you do is a step in that journey no matter what the results. So keep learning and most of all, keep painting!

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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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