Our guest this month – David Shkolny – only came to my attention a couple of years ago. I think I was only slightly aware of his work when I noticed that he would be teaching at MISSA that summer. A pastel artist teaching at Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts? – yay! And, I loved what I saw of his work! That was when I got reeeeeaaally curious and went searching for more of his art. And oh my! I was blown away by the energy and bold mark-making he brings to a landscape. I couldn’t wait to bring his work to you! Happily, David accepted my invitation and so let’s jump in.
But first, a wee bit about him plus a sample of his work!
David Shkolny Bio
David Shkolny (BFA, NSCAD 1992) has been painting landscapes for almost forty years. With more than twenty years of experience teaching, including painting holidays in Italy, he loves to share his experience working in the captivating medium of pastel. David’s studio is based in Edmonton, Alberta. Make sure to check out his Instagram account.
And now, here’s David!
My history with soft pastels goes back to the late eighties when I was a student at Red Deer College, Alberta, Canada. I was hooked as soon as I tried my Rembrandt pastels on Canson Mi-Teintes paper! What I liked most was how the colour of the paper was a visible and substantial part of the final piece, and how it seemed to harmonize everything by being a little bit everywhere. That has stuck with me.
Fast forward to the early 2000s, when I resumed working in pastel after a hiatus of a few years and was intrigued by the articles I’d been reading in Pastel Journal about sanded paper and how much those artists’ work looked like paintings. A painterly pastel!
I tried a few different papers, but settled on Wallis as my favourite – it had just the right grittiness I wanted. What I learned through trial and error that differed from my work on Canson was how to moderate the pressure I was using in my pastel strokes, particularly in the initial stages.
I had found if I was heavy-handed early in the piece, the tooth of the paper filled quickly and limited the range of texture and colour that could be applied. If too much pastel was on the surface, attempting more layers made it muddy and the pastel sort of “swam” on the surface in an unpleasant way. Like a lot of artists, my biggest disappointment is overworking a piece.
I also upgraded my pastels to first Unison Colour with their 72-piece landscape set and some time after that, a few smaller sets of Terry Ludwig. Then, to a lesser extent, Sennelier, Schmincke, and Nupastel (great for underpainting by the way) rounded out my rapidly growing palette of pastels.
Unison Colour, besides having an excellent range of colour, has a great consistency, somehow not too soft or hard. Ludwigs have the advantage of squared edges which add to the choreograph of strokes. They also have an amazing range of dark darks. This isn’t common amongst a lot of brands as these pastel sticks are generally more expensive to manufacture, having mostly only pigment and binder as their ingredients.
My pastel landscapes begin with a light charcoal drawing, limning the essence of the landscape. Subsequent layering and erasing of pastel bring colour and life and offer suggestions for further exploration. Experimentation ensues by “underpainting” with pastel and then sealing the loosely blocked in pastel shapes with isopropyl alcohol and a brush.
Careful not to lay down too much pastel as this would also clog up the paper, I find delightful, the unexpected textures, splashes and drips that can appear on the surface of the paper. Oftentimes they became a significant element in the finished piece (and harked back to my earlier experience of the paper showing through) after working on top of it with the dry pastel.
The next three landscapes are from a commission I received – they are based on photos provided by the client. The photos were really moody and evocative and I enjoyed the challenge of interpreting them. Each painting has a ground toned in a warm brown and you can see it in the sky and water coming through.
Let me take you through the progression of a piece.
In this photo, I liked how I could see some of the same kind of purples in the foreground as in the buildings so I thought it would be a good way to harmonize the composition by using the purple grey ground as a starting point. Additionally, it would simplify how I would approach doing the buildings, as it would be easy to add too much and make them too busy with all the detail apparent.
After putting some strokes of purple grey pastel on the white, sanded paper, I proceeded to dip a brush in isopropyl alcohol and melt the pastel into a somewhat uniform tone.
When the alcohol ground dried, I sketched in the shapes with vine charcoal, and proceeded to start with the sky colours – somewhat practical as the pastel dust can filter down to lower parts of the picture. I also like to use the sky as negative space to create the edges of the buildings and trees and take the opportunity to make small refinements in the shapes. A little dark purple to start on the buildings and model the subtle light and shadow on them.
Adding some greens to the ground area to show some perspective lines and keeping them all around the same values, with a little variation so they sit together in space and don’t pop out too much. More work on the buildings – a little more negative space and some lighter hues in blue and lighter purple. Smaller tree added to the right side of the roof as I was a bit concerned about the readability of the other trees and wanted to make it more asymmetrical.
Finally, some bits of the ground reflecting the sky to finish it off and a decision not to fill the foreground in completely, but leave it open and more “sketchy”. I like how there’s some surface tension created by the verticality of the original drippy ground contrasted with the grassy area marks and how it leads the eye into the buildings. It’s tempting to blend the sky, but I restrain myself so the texture harmonizes with the rest of the picture.
Painting en plein air in mid-summer in the prairies. There’s no shortage of canary yellow fields of canola to inspire.
In this one, I uncharacteristically used a cooler blue green ground instead of my usual warm ground. The resulting palette is more acidic.
It goes without saying that the experience of working en plein air is challenging (bugs, weather, changing light, people!) but exhilarating. It can’t be matched by the relative comfort of working from a photo. When I’m outside I feel a greater urgency, which often presses the right buttons to create fresh work. However, most of the work here, unless stated otherwise, is created by photos I take. When I get to work using these photos, I put myself in a mindset of being on location.
Once I begin a pastel, having practiced for many years, I feel I enter a zone that’s somehow protected from my environment. I become laser focused and I could very well be in the middle of an airport or a field – the concentration and decision-making is the same. I love to lose myself in the work, no matter where I am.
If I had any advice to give landscape artists it would be to put into practice useful habits that settle and quiet the mind when beginning so you at least feel safe to enter a state of creation. For me, it’s as simple as blocking in shapes with my vine charcoal and preparing a ground I think will work well with my subject. Experience has also taught me that “happy accidents” hold potential for growth in one’s work.
Exciting landscapes right??
I can’t wait for artist David Shkolny to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions about his work!
Until next time!