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Using pastel pencils, hard pastels and soft pastels together - "Golden Whistler"

Creating a wildlife portrait and not sure at which stage (or part) of the painting you should be using pastel pencils, hard pastels and soft pastels? Confused by the varied recommendations in the 'how-to' pastel books on the order of laying pastels down?

Wildlife portraits are pretty straightforward if you remember simply that the focal point (which is usually the eyes) should have the greatest detail, and it doesn't much matter what happens in the rest of the painting.

Pastelists have a bewildering number of rules for painting successfully with pastel - you should use hard pastels for outlining and blocking in the first layers, you should use firm pastels for the lower layers, and soft pastels for the upper layers, you should work from darks to lights in your colour palette, you should limit the number of pastel colours you use to less than a dozen for consistency, you should maintain the same tonal range within an area to keep consistency, you should vary your stroke direction and pressure for variety, etc. It all becomes a bit complicated to follow!

I find that pastel pencils in particular allow you to achieve a level of detail in pastel paintings that is otherwise unobtainable with ordinary soft pastels. So I often tend to use pastel pencils or hard pastels exclusively for detailed sections of paintings, and this makes it very easy to work out where I should be using them!

The most crucial part of a wildlife painting to get right is/are the animal's eye/s (see WIPs 1 and 2). Without a sufficient level of detail and precision in the eye region, the painting loses believability. You can do pretty much anything with the remainder of the animal - it can be scratchy and loose, with lost and found edges, thick expressive strokes of soft pastel, anything, so long as there is detail in the eye, which usually acts as the focal point.

After getting the focal point of the eye right with pastel pencils, I usually then combine both soft and hard pastels - I use the soft pastels to lay in broad sections of the base colour, then if I need detailed sections of shadow or light I'll often use the hard pastels over the top (see WIPs 3 and 4).

It can be difficult assessing how much detail to use in the remainder of the animal's body (see WIP 5) - too much and it appears static and flat, which is a common criticism of acrylic paintings in which the detail of every feather is included. Detail also takes a lot of time to include - so you want to be sure that you need to include it before you spend hours laying in every single feather! Less detail can also help create a sense of movement, with blurring edges and rough strokes.

When blocking in the branches of this piece, one of the most crucial components was defining the areas of light and shadow along the branch (see WIP 6). I did this with broad strokes using soft pastels directly. Without shadows the branch would look completely flat, and the scene would appear unrealistic. This is one reason I particularly like painting from reference photos taken in sunny areas - light provides for fascinating effects when painting, and scenes lit completely by diffuse light can seem lifeless.

It is much easier to lay soft pastel regardless of the number of previous layers of pastel filling the grain of the sanded paper, so if there's a section that needs a particularly bright highlight, I'll add that in with soft pastels too (pressing harder with hard pastels doesn't give you brighter highlights, you tend just to scrape the previous layers off and see the colour of the paper showing through; see WIP 7 and the highlights on the breast and branches).

In this painting, all the highlights were added with soft pastels, even down to the stroke of light coursing down the left leg - I couldn't achieve this brightness without the soft pastel.

Have you ever been unsure of where to use the various different types of pastels in your paintings? Do you have a method that seems to work best for you?


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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!

All images, graphics, and content on these pages are ©2015 Laura Grogan all rights reserved.

For permission to use artwork, please contact Laura.