For this month’s guest post, I’m pleased to bring you this very popular artist and instructor from Australia. I’ve heard so many people say, “I wish I knew how Stephie Clark paints her flowers.” Well, you’re about to find out!
Don’t know Stephie’s work? Check this out!
Before I hand you over to Stephie Clark, let’s find out a little bit about her!
Stephie Clark Bio
Stephie Clark is an Australian-based soft pastel artist, best known for her uninhibited exploration of the natural world. Self-taught, Stephie began her love affair with soft pastels in 2011, cultivating inspiration from the Impressionism art movement and her close observation of beauty in nature. She is also drawn to nature photography and uses many of her original photographs as references in her soft pastel paintings. See more of her work here.
And now, over to Stephie!
Creativity shows itself in all sorts of ways at various times of our lives…mine has always been based around colour; interior decorating, sewing, quilting and gardening…never art of any kind.
New Years’ Resolution time came around in 2011 and watercolour art struck an interest with me, so off to the library I went to study the how, when, and why of this medium, talk about a rabbit hole of joy and love. Then in November 2011, I went to visit a Picasso exhibition in Sydney and was incredibly taken by his early fine art. I was so moved by this one painting, grey jug with apples, that painting immediately became my next priority. Rushing to the closest art supplies store I asked for something I could paint with quickly….the sweet lady handed me a small container of Conte pastels – my lifelong passion in one box.
With watercolour on the backburner, I was immediately obsessed with the immediacy and tactile joy of placing a mark and watching the magic come to life on paper. Time-poor with a busy job, this medium was exactly for me; just paper, pastels, and me anytime, anywhere!
Squirrelled away in my home studio, I painted each and every day learning more about this magic medium and finding my way to sing my song in the language of florals. As a keen gardener, I only ever wanted to paint florals and fruits. I’ve spent hours at the library researching my favourite artists, totally taken with the 17th-century Dutch artists especially Jan van Huysum and of course the Impressionists Monet and Renoir. Adoration for the depth in these paintings became a bit of an obsession, and experimenting with many ways to produce that effect in my art has led me to the process I use today.
Firstly, observe, observe, and then observe….from the background to the in-focus foreground…watch the light in every plane; background, mid-ground and foreground. Visually separate the subject’s point of focus.
Commencing with the background, I may do a light sketch with the side of a pastel or pan pastel to check my composition and placement.
Then the fun bit begins. Using Pastelmat or Lux Archival paper, I start my backgrounds with light layers of pastels, slowly and gently applied, and then massaged into the depths of the paper. These layers are blended in a circular motion to create the ‘cloudy, romantic ethereal’ look I am after (thanks Renoir).
Peeling off the subject and everything in-between and attending to the darks, lights and values in my background, leaves me with a ‘map’ for where my subjects will be placed, like waypoints to build my creations.
Pulling the background into where my subjects will sit allows me to paint on top of the background beginning the creation of depth in my art. In the background, using a light touch with dry pastels is imperative.
Next, I focus on the mid-ground checking which leaves, petals, branches etc. sit behind and then paint them, accordingly, ensuring that hard and soft edges are used to develop that sense of depth and giving the viewer somewhere to escape to and enjoy the serenity of quiet strokes.
Stroke direction at this point is so important. We almost direct the traffic of our viewers’ eyes at this stage of our production…checking our light story again and focusing on our values to deliver drama where it’s needed. For me, it’s like making lasagna…gently layer, layer, and then layer again.
At this stage, it’s so important to check that your strokes are lost and found so the eye is drawn to where the focal point or points are. There can be more than just one mid-ground of course. I just look and make sure I am painting from the back to the front.
One particularly important point right here is that when these hard and soft edges are applied and gently manipulated and peaceful… LEAVE THEM ALONE… no blending, no touching with fingers as this will create mud! If you must go back over them, do it with a pastel or pencil. We are not looking for any detail in the mid-ground stage, just suggested detail.
I always strip my pastels of any paper wrapping as I am all about using the length of the pastel to create my strokes. I’m quite partial to any broken pastel pieces as they reveal total magic with unusual mark-making and sometimes even a gift from the pastel gods in the form of an incredible mark that can change the direction of my composition. Watch and listen to your painting as you build your piece and be open to artistic license for things to change. Freedom to ‘go with it’ and leave strokes imperfect is one of the things I treasure most while putting down my art.
Colour is the absolute cream in the pastel process for me, due to the fact that I’m a self-professed pastel tragic. I have thousands of these gorgeous sticks to play with and will rarely choose a specific palette. Rather, I use a box with suggested colours I see in my photo or still life setup. Studying the values and colours excite me no end and then interpreting them MY way, always painting from dark to light in my mid/foregrounds. Again, observation is key…
Each pastel has a unique ‘feel’ – some are creamy, some buttery, some so light they feel powdery. I love using dry pastels like Art Spectrum (AS) extra soft, JLuda, NuPastels, Unison Colour, and Mamuts as they have that dry subtle touch. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and if I see the colour and value in another creamier variety, I will use it but sparingly so as not to flood the paper with pigment.
Interestingly, my darks are the pivotal point of my florals and fruit. I constantly tell my students, ‘Start darker than you think you need’, adding drama at every turn is how we create the depth and attract the viewer’s eye to discover the magic of pastels. When blocking in our mid-ground, constantly think, colour and shape. We are not searching for detail.
Starting with a value chart is important to identify the darks, mids, lights, and highlights and where these will be placed in order to portray drama and atmosphere. Simplifying into dark, mid, and light helps me no end with placement.
Having the security of my light source in my background, I can apply the value needed to create depth and dimension by layering my darks first. I often use 3-4 darks to build structure and my unashamed favourites are Sennelier 463 (deep blue) and 179 (black-green), and Terry Ludwig “eggplant.” I’m open to any deep umber and quite often use either the Sennelier (not sure of the number) or the JLuda umber.
With my darks down, I can move up the value chart and choose the hue that is required to work my way to the lightest pastel that I see in that specific area. So… in my work….the lightest dark will become the darkest light….reread that!
By using the mid-tones as the lightest darks and the darkest lights, we can set up harmony and quiet areas in our art which are just as important as the drama. It is a balance of colour, balance, and focus for me.
With the blended background highlighting our light source and the mid-ground containing planes of hard and soft edges on forms showing where the light gently caresses branches, leaves and foliage, we have set the stage for the divas.
At this stage, it is a rare thing that I will touch the painting with my fingers (again, rules are made to be broken) because our eyes are on a journey of learning about the subject from the back to the front. My light source is suggested in the background, again addressed in the hard and soft edges of my planes in the mi-ground. Now the light will explode on my focal point and disperse in a pleasing manner over the subjects that are in the light’s trajectory.
I keep stepping back to make sure that my darks are dark enough and often must go over and bump them up a bit if I’ve lost the dramatic shift from dark to light, remembering to paint each flower from the back to the front, again observing the order in how this subject comes towards us.
At this stage of my painting, I can see where the divas will be performing. I can not emphasize this enough – these florals will be painted with direct, intentional strokes…untouched by human hands! When blending is necessary, this will only be done with another pastel skimmed over the top of these strokes. Honestly you lose the beauty of mark-making if you play with foreground strokes…trust me I speak from a path well-worn from experience!
Each flower, no matter the direction it’s facing, has a back, mid and front. Paint them just as they grow. I start with the middle of the flower where the petals arise from and the stalk comes out, to give me a waypoint, somewhere to bring the petals into. Then from dark to light, I will use my values to create form, glazing the colours together to give Nature’s seal of approval for the hues she uses.
Slow and deliberate your strokes should be, with a known direction before you place the pastel on the paper. With the final highlight on the edge of your petals, take your pastel from the top edge of the petal and use a touch of pressure to drag down the pigment into the next value as you release your pressure et voilá…the glazing magic happens!
Focus on one area to portray detail to your viewer, explaining to them the light source, the composition, and the direction of the subject, then slowly lead them to areas where the light is less intense, and the detail implied with only a suggestion. I adore the way Renoir brings you into his art only to let you discover the edges of his subjects and your artistic eye paints the detail.
My process has been self-developed overtime and my techniques adjusted to suit the expectations of my own art, but the fundamentals stay the same:
- Paint from the background to the foreground
- Out of focus to focused
- Observe your light source all the way through
- Paint colour and shape when blocking in
- Dark to light
Wow! Sooooo much info there! So now you know how Stephie Clark does it! Her secrets are out.
We want to hear from you! Was that helpful? Do you have questions? Let us know your thoughts! 😀
And that’s it for now.
Until next time,