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Blending landscapes with pastel - "Sunset" WIP1-3

Looking for an easy way to paint landscapes? Wondering how to quickly create that expansive sense of depth over a large canvas/sheet? Perhaps you should try blending techniques with pastels!

I'm pretty new to painting landscapes - most of my previous work has hinged on wildlife portraits, with minimal backgrounds. A couple of days ago I decided to test my theory that pastels are great for blending colours (better perhaps than any other medium), and hence should be good for blending large landscapes for that atmospheric feel.

Late last year I spent some time in the Blue Mountains (2hr drive west of Sydney, NSW, Australia) with my mother for a photography recuperation retreat. We were staying right near the 'three sisters' landmark, and did some dusk and dawn hikes and photography (looking for birds, but mostly finding magnificent landscapes). I took the photo that this painting is based on looking west from Echo Point just before the sun dropped below the horizon (see Fig. 1).

Reference photo.jpg

So how do you go about starting a landscape painting with soft pastels (I'm using Schmincke brand, on 72 x 52cm Mi-Teintes Tex paper)?

  • The first step is of course a graphite or charcoal sketch, just to get everything roughly in proportion. You can use a grid to transfer the image from a smaller size, or simply sketch it on. I've found that the Mi-Teintes Tex paper (which has a texture a bit like fine sandpaper, so quite 'toothy') accepts HB or 2B graphite very well (and rubs out successfully with a plastic eraser as well as a kneadable one) - so well in fact that you need to have a sharpener on hand to maintain a sharp point. Many people recommend sketching with charcoal to avoid the graphite showing up in the final painting, but I find graphite to be more precise.

  • The next step is blocking in with pastels. What do I mean by blocking in? Basically I take some key colours that will make up the hues for the background, and I lay down blocks of colour, sometimes overlapping somewhat, but drawing minimal details, and without any attempt at blending at this stage. You can see this step in WIP 1 where I've laid down blocks of colour for the sky. At this point you can still see the colour of the paper through the pastel strokes. I don't aim to cut out all this colour at this stage (and some artists leave it visible in strategic places, such as around the edges of their paintings), because doing so with the soft pastel sticks would waste a lot of pastel (in order to rub it into the grain of the paper).

WIP 1.jpg
  • Next I start blending the background colours. I've started to do this in the sky region of WIP 2. There are a number of different options for tools that pastelists use for blending, but the simplest of these (and one that I find provides sufficient control without wasting pigment) is blending with your fingers and hand - basically rubbing the pastel into the grain of the paper with your fingers, and making small circular motions over colour transitions in order to blend them smoothly together. I have previously used tools such as tortillions or paper stumps, brushes, cotton buds, and tissues etc, but found them to remove much of the pastel from the surface during the blending process. A disadvantage of using your fingers is the risk of skin abrasion from the rough paper surface. I simply blend all the colours together at their transitions to provide a thin but evenly coloured ground for further work with strokes later on.

  • You can see in WIP 2 that I've also started to block in colours in the foreground - while the colours are pretty important at this stage, you can be fairly imprecise with the appearance of your pastel stick strokes this process. I use this stage to 'break-in' new sticks, where I wear down one edge of the cylindrical pastel stick in order that it has a flat side for later stroke work (I also break all my full pastel sticks into half sticks to make them more manageable).

WIP 2.jpg

  • Once again, I blend the foreground colours this time by rubbing the pastel into the paper texture (as you can see in WIP 3). Already the landscape is taking reasonable shape. I have left only a few 'sharp' edges to delineate the rocky tree-covered escarpment.

WIP 3.jpg

Have you tried blending with pastels? Do you blend with your fingers or use a particular tool? How do you find that blending pastels on the paper compares with the ease of blending paints (such as watercolours, acrylics or oils)?

#landscape #bluemountains #apr14 #blending #pastel #schmincke #sunset

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Laura is a visual artist, veterinarian, conservationist and disease ecology Research Fellow trying to juggle a multitude of passions - and she's too stubborn to drop any of them! She is particularly fond of bush walking, rogaining, camping (especially with her mother, Jenny), bird watching and photography. She lives with her partner Pete in sunny Brisbane, Australia, and dreams of having an art studio in the rainforest!

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