Gail Sibley, "Hatchet," Unison Colour pastels on UART 500, 18 x 9 3/4 in - detail of feet

How To Make Changes in Pastel – My Approach

I’m often asked how I make changes in pastel. Do I erase and if so, how do I do that? The answer is I rarely (ever?) erase. The reason is I prefer building up rather than breaking down. I prefer adding to subtracting.

What does that mean?

Just as it says. I make changes by adding more pastel. If you work with a light hand and you have good paper, paper that holds a number of layers of pastel, this kind of change is possible!

To illustrate this way of making changes in pastel, I’ve thought I’d take you through the progress of a recent commission. I had to change part of the painting three times! 

The commission was to paint Hatchet, the deceased hound beloved by my sister’s husband Richard.

Initially, it was going to be a portrait of Hatchet on his own, showing his entire body in profile as in a show stance. As I made sketches, however, I had a nagging feeling. What I wanted to paint was the connection between hound and man. So, rather than focus on the whole dog, I decided to crop in on what to me reveals their relationship. I then made a thumbnail of that idea.

The reference photo
The reference photo of Hatchet
Thumbnail in pencil
Thumbnail in pencil, approx. 4 x 2 in

I then created a small colour study as I wanted to show something more concrete to my sister than a thumbnail and sketch. Doing this also helped me decide on the main colour palette for the piece. It was based on what was there but honed and limited to reveal the hound’s colouring.

Make changes in pastel - the colour study
Colour study using Unison Colour pastels.

After getting the go ahead from Andrea, I drew up the piece with vine charcoal on UART paper.

Because it needed to be accurate, I spent time on it. Once satisfied, I wiped it to soften all the lines. (I love how vine charcoal collaborates well with soft pastel!)

It was then time to get down the first layer of pastel.

I chose blues for the light and middle value areas as I wanted a cool colour under the warm greens. Also, the white fur of the dog was in shadow so I needed that cool feeling on which to build a warm coat. For the dark value I chose a warm brown as most of the darks would be Richard’s cool dark green pants. The other areas of dark are the orangy colours of the dog.

Make changes in pastel - First layer in three values
First layer in three values

From there I started to build up the piece. Throughout the process of painting, I applied the pastel with a light hand. This allowed changes to be made as I progressed.

Make changes in pastel - building the piece
Building the piece

At this point, I needed to find the shape of the dog again and so I redrew his contours in charcoal. I also lowered Richard’s right foot. 

Make changes in pastel - redrawing the body in vine charcoal
Making adjustments in vine charcoal

From there, I built the piece. I worked primarily on Hatchet so as to be able to share some progress with Andrea. I thought it was going well. And so I sent her this image.

Make changes in pastel - getting there! Time to get feedback from my client, Andrea!
Time to get feedback from my client, Andrea!

Well the feedback was good – “I love Hatchet’s face” – and then the not so good news.

“It all looks good, the only thing I’m not sure about, and I imagine it’s too late to change it [it wasn’t 😁], is the angle of the dog’s leg. It’s because I know a straight leg is desirable conformation. Another reason the leg angle worries me is that when an animal doesn’t want to be with you, it would brace back like that as opposed to leaning in. It sort of contradicts the soft lovey dovey of the head.”

Andrea then had a suggestion. 

“I was wondering if the far leg was a bit visible behind, maybe it would look like he had stepped forward explaining the pose?”

Ahhh, okay I thought, I can change that. So I went looking through the myriad of photos I’d taken of Hatchet and found one I thought I could use although it was quite zoomed in, i.e. the space is compressed. 

New reference photo for the foot
New reference photo for the foot

Using vine charcoal, I drew in the lower leg and slightly raised foot, trying to make it work. I also tried what I could do to straighten the front leg without needing to start over. Subtle change but it makes a difference!

Make changes in pastel - Making changes in vine charcoal
Making changes in vine charcoal

I worked on the back leg and also added pastel to other parts of the painting. This included paying attention to the colouring and texture of the hair on Hatchet’s body. 

Make changes in pastel-Changes made but ugh!
Changes made but ugh to the foot. (I’m embarrassed to put this up!)

But that foot!

When I took a break and came back to the painting I was aghast! The foot was squished into the space in a way that, in real life, meant that the dog would fall over! EEK. The foot is absolutely in the wrong place with no real space around it. Where it’s placed doesn’t allow for the volume of the body in space. As I often remind my students, this is what can happen if you use a photo that’s been very zoomed in – the space is compressed and you need to adjust for it. Yet I hadn’t done this. Grrrr!

In any case, the foot looked like a cloven hoof. 🙈

So it was back to the drawing board.

I scoured my photos and found another that could work. Happily Andrea had given me the thumbs up on the straightened front leg.

Yet another reference photo!
Yet another reference photo!

I softly and lightly smeared the back leg and then with vine charcoal, drew in the new version. 

Make changes in pastel - Redrawn once more.
Redrawn once more. (This is a screenshot taken from a timelapse video so it’s slightly skewed.)

That felt better and as I worked towards the completion of the painting, I felt relieved. Finally, it was working! When I figured I was done, I sent a photo to Andrea who responded with, “It’s super!!!” Yay!

Final version - Gail Sibley, Hatchet, Unison Colour pastels on UART 500, 18 x 9 3/4 in
Gail Sibley, “Hatchet,” Unison Colour pastels on UART 500, 18 x 9 3/4 in

And here it is in black and white to compare with the thumbnail.

I didn’t take a photo of the pastels I used but here’s a shot of the painting on the easel with colour study nearby and pastels below. The pastels I used were from my Unsion Colour set.

Painting in progress with colour study on the side and Unison Colour pastels below.
Painting in progress with colour study on the side and Unison Colour pastels below.

Question: Are the changes I made evident in the final piece? A ghost of the change remains but I think I only see it because I know it’s there. What do you think?

Make changes in pastel - Gail Sibley, "Hatchet," - closeup of the feet
Gail Sibley, “Hatchet,” – closeup of the feet

I hope this post and step-by-step progress through this painting shows that you can make changes in pastel. It is possible to do this without erasing or brushing off pastel! As long as you work with a light hand throughout and have sanded paper that will accept many layers, you’re all set to make changes in your pastel painting.

I’d love to hear your thoughts so be sure to leave a comment!

Until next time,

~ Gail

PS. It’s always nice to see a painting framed up. In the end, Andrea and the framer floated it. Gulp. If I’d known that was going to happen, I’d have tidied up the edges a bit more lol. Having said that, I’m one of those people who like to see the working behind a piece sooooo…maybe I’m okay with it after all!

"Hatchet" framed!
“Hatchet” framed!

PPS. A while back, I worked on another commission of a hound for Andrea. This may have been the first time I worked on a dog portrait! 

PPPS. Today, 5th July, happens to be Pet Remembrance Day.

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20 thoughts on “How To Make Changes in Pastel – My Approach”

  1. Thank you for showing this work in progress, Gail. It is very helpful and we all make mistakes, so how to correct and fix things is really good to know. The finished portrait is lovely!

  2. Very helpful step-by-step, Gail. And what a lovely result! I didn’t know about Pet Remembrance Day before, but I sure do miss Peaches, Sasha, Pepper, and Reggie, magical dogs all.

    1. Thanks Kim!
      I didn’t know either! I’m glad that there’s such a day. Not that we forget our beloved companions but I like that a special day brings our full awareness into play.

  3. This is a great post about how to deal with changes and, in general, using a light touch over multiple layers. I love how the painting turned out!

  4. REALLY helpful to have seen your entire progress, Gail — and Andrea’s comments also validate that it really DOES help to know your subject well (dogs). That little subtle move in the legs made all the difference. Was great meeting you at IAPS and congrats!!

    1. Yay Paula!!
      It’s difficult to draw/paint something well without a good understanding especially when you can no longer see the subject in real life ie in three dimensions!

  5. Thanks for the excellent advice. Erasing the initial attempt at the far leg has worked wonderfully. I’ve heard that Pastelmat can be washed for revisions. Can sanded paper be washed?

    1. Glad you liked it Sonny. And just to not, I didn’t erase the first attempt – I merely smudged it lightly.
      I can’t confirm about Pastelmat but certainly you can wet and brush a number of sanded papers…like UART paper which is the paper I primarily use at the moment.

  6. Hello, Gail Sibley! I met you at IAPs dueling demos and I told you I followed “How to Pastel”! So I thought I would say here I am! I adore this piece. It’s such a fresh take on a pet portrait and really communicates the relationship between beloved dog and owner! 💓

    1. Hellooooooo Susan!! Thank you for commenting – it really fills me up so please feel free to comment whenever you are moved to say something!
      And thanks for your kind appreciation. I was delighted when my sister was okay going for this version rather than a traditional full portrait of Hatchet.

  7. Great blog Gail.
    I love your subjects and it helps me so much, Especially all your different steps so constructive and so reassuring too.
    I realize that I have the same doubts. I loved when you said that you thought it was ugly at first!
    That’s right with me.
    Many thanks for sharing so much !
    I so learn !

  8. Thank you for sharing your process and how you worked through problems.
    And especially for sharing a “what in the world is going on THERE?” moment.

    The finished painting really captures the bond between dog and owner and I’m glad your sister and brother-in-law were happy with it.

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Gail Sibley

Artist. Blogger. Teacher.

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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