Tara Will, "Feels Like Home," 2021, soft pastel, 19 x 25 inches.

Tara Will – Painting The Energy Of The Landscape

This month’s guest, Tara Will, will blow you away with her bold, colourful, energetic work! I was delighted when she agreed to contribute a guest post. (I wrote about one of her pastels in a monthly roundup. You can read it HERE.)

Before I hand over the blog, here’s a wee bit about Tara.

BIO for Tara Will

Tara Will attended Mount Saint Mary’s University in Maryland double majoring in Art and Philosophy. She achieved her Master Circle Status with the International Association of Pastel Societies (IAPS) in 2017. She’s a Signature Member of the Maryland Pastel Society. Tara was featured in the Pastel Journal Magazine’s Pastel 100 and recently exhibited work at the Mall Galleries in London. She currently resides in Maryland with her husband and four small children. You can explore more about Tara Will on her website HERE.

And now…here’s Tara!


“People mistakenly think that art is about nature, or about an artist’s feelings about nature. It is instead a path of enlightenment and pleasure, one of many paths, where nature and the artist’s feelings are merely raw material.” ~ Wolf Kahn

I would encourage anyone who is painting to try to address the “why”. What is it about a scene or subject that stopped you in your tracks; what excited you and made you want to share with a viewer? 

When I first started using pastels I worked from my own photos. I once heard from a fellow painter that you have a stronger connection to images that you’ve seen yourself with your own experience. There’s something about that experience that brings more energy, passion, and interest to the subject. When you’re painting a place you’ve never been, you lose some of that genuine voice that people so love to see.

Tara Will, "Gold Rush," 2021, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches. Available.
Tara Will, “Gold Rush,” 2021, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches. Available.

I have four children. I started using pastels when my twins were born, going to take a class at the community college. I fell in love with the medium. My teacher did a really excellent job enlightening us on the different types of papers, pastels, and techniques. From that point, I soaked up all I could in that class and also resorted to books, my favorite and first being Wolf Kahn’s Pastels. I remember how much that book made me fall in love with the medium even more. His handling, his sense of color, and seeing how his work changed over time were really inspiring to me.

Tara Will, "Black Eyed Susans" (done en plein air), 2015, soft pastel, 27 x 21 inches. Sold
Tara Will, “Black Eyed Susans” (done en plein air), 2015, soft pastel, 27 x 21 inches. Sold

Working from my own photos in my basement with one little light bulb, I called an electrician uncle. I asked him to put some more lights up for me in the basement so I could see better while painting. I was shocked when he told me “No.” As I absorbed that information he said to me, “Tara, if I put light bulbs in that basement you will never leave it. We are building you a studio.” I was thrilled. As I sold a painting, I bought the trusses, sold another, bought the windows. After a year and a half long process of building it, part by part as I sold paintings, the studio was born.

Tara Will's studio
Tara Will’s studio

It is now a place of limitless inspiration. My own little wonderland of potential and materials brings me endless joy. I would encourage anyone to carve out that personal studio space, no matter where it is, to really have a place where you don’t have to put everything away each time you paint, a place to pin ideas to the walls, to have a chair where you can sit and think about the work you’ve produced.

Having said that, I also love working en plein air. I started working en plein air because I heard about Plein Air events in my area. These are events where people gather together to paint outside and exhibit work together when they are finished. I thought it was so fun to go out into the world to all kinds of different places and try to reflect that energy back to a viewer. I think learning outside makes you see value relationships better. To be able to hone in on compositions with a vast amount of information. Working from life makes you understand your photo references better too.

Tara Will, “Molalla Reflection,” 2020, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches.
Tara Will, “Molalla Reflection,” 2020, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches.

I have always enjoyed working large and working outside is no exception. I think your whole body language changes when working on smaller work. You kind of hunch in and get much closer to your painting than you would if it were larger. Larger work makes you move your whole arm and body to do it, rather than taking tiny tight movements. That makes it a little more open and gestural in my mind.

Tara Will, “Crepe Myrtle Walk,”...in process, 2020, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches.
Tara Will, “Crepe Myrtle Walk,”…in progress, 2020, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches.
Tara Will, “Crepe Myrtle Walk,” 2020, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches.
Tara Will, “Crepe Myrtle Walk,” 2020, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches.

As a viewer, I prefer to see work that really gets the “gist” of the subject. To see the idea behind a piece, and not so much all those finishing frills that make it clean and sterile. I love the brevity, looseness, and freshness of work that reveals the artist’s thought process and really allows the viewer to be able to participate in viewing and bring their own experience to the table. Really, it is important as an artist to know what you like, know your habits and personality type, and to try to not compare yourself to others when you’re painting (or the product when you are finished).

Tara Will, "At First Light," 2022, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches. Available
Tara Will, “At First Light,” 2022, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches. Available

When I started using pastels my work was quite a bit more restrained and refined. When I thought of contrast, I strictly thought of it in terms of values, light to dark. For example, if you want an area of high contrast, you would put two opposing values near each other. To make that dark tree silhouette feel even darker, adding a light next to it will produce even more contrast. This worked for a while but my love for color was really pressing me to incorporate ways to produce contrast with color.

Enter Johannes Itten. A Bauhaus color theorist, his work The Elements of Color really changed my perspective on color theory. He introduced me to new ways of producing contrast. Instead of leaning so heavily on values, I could incorporate warm/cool contrast, complementary contrast, simultaneous contrast, contrast of extension, value contrast, hue, and saturation. 

Tara Will, "Awakening Orange," 2021, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches, Available. Demo on Simultaneous Contrast
Tara Will, “Awakening Orange,” 2021, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches, Available. Demo on Simultaneous Contrast

These concepts really blew my mind because before when I attempted to achieve contrast, I only had that one tool: value. Now, with his expert examples in teaching (he was an amazing teacher), there were more tools available for me to produce contrast in my work. 

All of these ideas now just kind of sit on the back burner percolating as I do my work. Color, value drawing; they all inform me. They are a kind of structure or standard by which I measure my paintings; they gently drift in the back of my mind while I’m working. I don’t THINK about them when I am working. The fact that I am not thinking of value, perspective, drawing, or color while I’m painting allows me to really get into a zen-like flow where I just get lost in the process. 

Tara Will, "Summer Days," 2022, soft pastel, 25 x 19  inches. Available. Teaching demo.
Tara Will, “Summer Days,” 2022, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches. Available. Teaching demo.

I think so often people get caught up in the product: needing to walk away with a successful painting. Something salable. Something that they can take away a sense of pride in. I would really try to encourage you to get away from that line of thinking. Focusing on the product instead of the process cheats you out of really learning how to enjoy painting.

I really love working on Sennelier LaCarte paper. It’s my favorite surface with beautiful textures and colors. I love the grit, the consistency, and the way the pastels lay down on its surface. I love the way I can lay marks down ever so gently and kind of “scumble” like an oil painter. To lightly drag the pastel across to apply the smallest amount of pigment possible. In contrast, it also holds up beautifully to really forceful direct marks.

Tara Will, "Fall Lily Pads" (done en plein air), 2021, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches. Available
Tara Will, “Fall Lily Pads” (done en plein air), 2021, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches. Available

I love trying to make the mark’s direction follow the energy of the piece. Since horizontal marks are so static, I usually use those for things in the distance or areas that I want to “sit down”. I save the exciting diagonals and strong verticals for places of interest; usually in the foreground. This movement of marks really helps move the viewer’s eye along through a painting.

Tara Will, "Fall Shine," 2022, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches. Available
Tara Will, “Fall Shine,” 2022, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches. Available

I generally work on full sheets of LaCarte (19 ½  x 25 ½  inches) but I do work bigger, for instance, the piece that went to the Chicago IAPS show was 70 x 48 inches. That was a monster piece that was primed on a double-ply rag matboard with pastel ground mixed with acrylic. It was mostly done with Unison Colour pastels, a brand that I really enjoy. They are such a solid workhorse pastel that I know I can rely on them for consistency and for a broad range of use. The piece that went to the show, Canyon Lace, was framed with museum-grade optium acrylic and went from my home in Maryland to Chicago (about a nine-hour drive) in a box truck and hung at the show. I’m very proud of that piece.

Tara Will, "Canyon Lace I," 2020, soft pastel, 31 x 23 inches. Available. Study for the larger work.
Tara Will, “Canyon Lace I,” 2020, soft pastel, 31 x 23 inches. Available. Study for the larger work.
Tara Will, "Canyon Lace," 2021, soft pastel on hand prepared surface on 20 ply acid free mat board, 70 x 48 inches. Available
Tara Will, “Canyon Lace,” 2021, soft pastel on hand prepared surface on 20 ply acid free mat board, 70 x 48 inches. Available

In closing, the best subject matter is one that you’re inspired by and one you want to share with others. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pile of wood, a beautiful vintage car, or a mountainous landscape. If it inspires YOU then YOU will want to paint it, enjoy yourself while you paint it, and reflect that good energy to your viewers. I heard once that painting is an act of absorbing the energy of a subject and trying to really take that energy and put it down for a viewer to see and enjoy. My hope when people view my work is that they really get a chance to see that spark of joy that enticed me to share it with them. It brings me joy to know that my work can brighten someone’s day or show them a new perspective of a scene they might have walked by. 

Tara Will, "Kolob Canyon" (done en plein air), 2020, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches. Personal Collection
Tara Will, “Kolob Canyon” (done en plein air), 2020, soft pastel, 25 x 19 inches. Personal Collection

I hope that you can find that spark that really excites you about your subject and makes you want to reflect that to others. In this day and age, I think we could all use a little joy.

Recently, I’ve been teaching via Zoom and have really enjoyed how much teaching helps you articulate your painting process. Once you’re comfortable sharing your work with others, I would highly encourage you to begin teaching. I really grow so much from seeing my students work, and being able to articulate my process while I’m working so that they can see subjects through new eyes. 


Such glorious colour and energetic mark-making! And…I’m in awe of Tara working so large on location!

We’d love to hear from you. Do you have any questions for Tara? Or would you like to share an “aha” with us? If so, then go ahead and leave a comment!

Until next time,

~ Gail

PS. Here’s my current favourite of Tara’s work. (I’m a sucker for chickens and these are fabulous against the colourful background!)

Tara Will, "Jordan's Chickens," 2022, soft pastel, 25 x 19 in.
Tara Will, “Jordan’s Chickens,” 2022, soft pastel, 25 x 19 in.

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76 thoughts on “Tara Will – Painting The Energy Of The Landscape”

    1. Wow, Tara uses less layering/mixing than most pastelists. Her work is just incredibly fresh and vibrant! Her joy really shines through. Thanks, as always, Gail.

      1. Yes!! Tara’s way of working is immediate and bold without any fussing whatsoever!
        Pastel is such a versatile medium, allowing us to explore and reveal what we want to say in so many different ways!

  1. Thank Gail! This is such inspiring and exciting work!!! I love the way this artist simplifies shapes and values and depicts them with energetic, expressive marks and gorgeous color.
    Georgia O’Keefe meets Wolf Kahn meets Vincent Van Gogh all wrapped together in work that is so completely this artist’s own exuberant voice. Wow. I’m saving this essay and will reread often.

  2. Wow, wonderful inspiring and uplifting work! Just what I needed when the hills are grey and the wind is screaming around the house!
    Thank you Gail for introducing it to me

  3. Thank you Gail for such a wonderful guest post. Tara’s work is truly exceptional — such vibrant color & energy! What grabbed me the most was her exploration of attaining contrast not just through value, but through color. Will definitely get the book Elements of Color today!

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it Patti!
      And yes, that book is a bible! I needed to get it for my art classes at University many moons ago. And it’s still on my book shelf and one of those books I won’t ever part with!

  4. I have a question for Tara, whose paintings are absolutely STUNNING!!! You have developed a unique “style” that is evident in each of these paintings shared. Did you paint this way from the very beginning with pastels? So many of us begin by trying to “reproduce” the reference or image, and we struggle to find a painting style that is our own. Your vibrant colors, hard lines, and bold strokes would make it easy to identify you as the artist. How do you encourage your students to find their own unique style of painting? I’m still “searching” for my own. Thank you for sharing this information through Gail’s blog.

    1. Hello there Mike! So it’s a bit of a long story but to be brief, I had to learn to forgive myself for the things that I wasn’t: or wasn’t interested in being. I have a pretty short attention span so excessive detail feels like a bit of a punishment to me. I really wanted to make work that I loved. So once I allowed myself to act like myself without the pressure to “be” anything at all, I kind of started to see my voice. I’d recommend just being honest with yourself about who you are, what interests you and really seeking to connect with your subject. If your interest is being more deliberate I often have students time themselves with 10, 15, 20 minute studies. Might help you loosen up! And see what information is essential in a time crunch. It forces you to choose more deliberately. Hope that helps! Thank you for your kindness.

  5. Tara is one of my favorite artists! I am grateful to know her as a person and an artist! Her work is inspiring to me! Thanks for having her on the blog

  6. I did a painting of the Grand Canyon a while back. I was never satisfied with the results. I think I will look again and rework it or start over. I think adding to the energy will help it.

    1. Painting the Grand Canyon, to really reveal something of your experience, is a daunting task Patricia! I love that you’ve been inspired to relook at the piece you’ve done. Take the risk, make the marks! What have you got to lose??

  7. I love Tara’s work. She is so right in that you can really feel her energy and joy as she paints these beauties.
    Her color sense is remarkable and I find her truly inspiring. I wonder sometimes how she produces such magnificent work , with four children about. She is a gem in our field for sure.

    1. Maureen, I was certainly wondering the very same thing and I’m glad you caught that and brought it to the fore! I hope Tara will give us some insight on how she does it with four children!

  8. I was so delighted to see this month’s entry. Spotting Tara’s work on Instagram is what got me interested in pastels again after briefly dallying with them in high school and then abandoning them for decades. She is the one who got me to sense the excitement in them again, and it is such a pleasure to gain deeper insights into her process here.

  9. I so love the energy and spontaneity in her paintings!
    I’ve been feeling so stuck lately and her approach and the joy that comes through in her work is so inspiring.
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Karen, that’s so fantastic to hear! Having guests on the HowToPastel blog is to inspire and educate and get us out of our ruts so I’m glad to hear Tara’s has done just that!

  10. My favorite room in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum in Glasgow houses the work of the Scottish Colourists, namely, Peploe, Cadell, Ferguson and Hunter, who painted using bright colour pigments, a bold fluid handling of paint and an impressionistic style. That’s the reason I’m such a huge fan of Tara’s work.

    1. Thanks John! When I was introduced to the Scottish Colourists a few years ago I was blown away and couldn’t understand why they aren’t more widely known. Thank you for naming them here. I can’t wait to visit that museum in Glasgow. I’ll put it on my list for my 2023 visit to the UK!!

  11. Beautiful work! I was curious about your mention of using optium acrylic for pastel. Is there any problem with using it with pastel instead of glass? Are there any special precautions to take? Do you have to use fixative in order to frame with acrylic? Thank you!

    1. Hi Paul!

      I don’t ever use any fixative. It alters the colors too much. The optimum is anti static (so it doesn’t pull like some other acrylic) and I have never had any trouble using it. It makes shipping so much easier and safer! I put it right against the pastel and it has always done fine. If I have the choice, I prefer glass with a spacer, but do use it on occasion when needed. Hope this helps!


  12. Thank you Gail for these opportunities to hear from these talented and gifted artists.
    Wow work! and thank you for sharing so much of yourself Tara! I am stopped repeatedly by your reels/stop motion clips. The final pieces appear effortlessly as amazing works of art. I look at the Wolf Kahn inspired color and dynamic line energy which reminds me of Thomas Hart Benton’s work. Who else inspires you?
    Your music choices to accompany clips are lovely. Do you listen to music as you paint?
    I am also curious about your pastel palette. Do you use a limited preselected selection? The sticks appear to be randomly placed in the tray yet you seem to always pick the right color stick.

    1. Laura, you are so welcome! It really is my pleasure to do so.
      Agreed about Tara’s reels/Instagram posts stopping the scroll!
      And ohhh so many fab questions! LOVE them and can’t wait for Tara’s responses 😁
      (And so interesting about the relationship you see with Thomas Hart Benton‘s work. Cool.)

    2. hi Laura!

      Thank you for your kind words about my work! It is definitely a joy to produce. I’ve heard before (I think it was Brian Rutenberg) Say that as an artist we are kind of absorbing the energy of our subject and putting it down for a viewer to receive. I do like that concept 🙂

      I LOVE ART BOOKS 🙂 I have a ton of them, but I would say that Johannes Itten has inspired my “color theory” or how I address color. I love the work of the group of seven, Tom Thompson, Lois Dodd, Fairfield Porter, Gabrielle Munter, Kathe Kollwitz, Wayne Thiebaud to name a few. I really enjoy a wide range of things!

      I definitely listen to music while I paint. I love listening to all kinds, but Fiona Apple is my musical soul mate, and I am into Hozier and Beyonce’s LEMONADE album at the moment 🙂 I like all kinds of things in that genre too. Music works in tandem with visual art and I just love to be moved by that talent too.

      I don’t have a pre selected palette. I am fairly random in that way. I almost prefer the chaos of the hunt of finding what I want. It sounds strange but in a way, sometimes the way that I can tell what I am looking for is that I have a visual memory of the shape of the pastel when it leaves my hands. I often am looking more for that shape than for its color. (although of course I am looking at color too).

      Thanks for the questions and for reading the blog!


  13. I really enjoyed reading about Tara’s process – especially sharing the energy and spirit of a place in a painting. So lovely.
    Thank you Gail for sharing this and sharing your amazing work as well.

  14. Wow I love this style of mark making — her work vibrates with colour and energy I just love it! Someone new for me to follow. Thanks for featuring Tara here.

  15. Thank you Gail for Tara’s interview – can’t believe I missed this one so sorry for the late response!
    Tara has been a dear friend of mine for the 6 years I’ve been an artist. She is unquestionably such an incredible talent not only as a pastel artist but also as an oil painter and printmaker.
    But more importantly Tara is an honest giving person who wants to share her wealth of knowledge collected along her colourful journey. I have seen first hand how speedily she works en plein air and from photo references indoors when she came to stay with me in the UK a few years ago.
    Although astounding the speed with which Tara paints isn’t built from a frantic need to get the job done it is in fact such a beautiful calm process of seeing what’s essential for her to choose what to leave in and which colours to select to fulfil that thought process in a measured way.
    We are at opposite ends of the spectrum regarding our art process and style but I have full appreciation for Tara and all that she does.
    As she freely says ‘You do you’

    Yes I’m a huge girl fan – love you Tara x

    1. Thanks so much Michele for this enthusiastic endorsement of Tara as an artist and person. Love that you shared your own personal connection with her! Thank you 😁

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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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