9” x 12”, 30 minutes

I’ve been teaching for many years now and very few people have come to me to ask how they could become tighter painters. Far more often they ask what they can do to loosen up and be free, not constricted by tight realism and a slavish adherence to detail.

This exercise will help you relax and paint a little faster. It limits the amount of time you have to paint, making you move faster and without inhibition, as well as limits the palette of colors, which forces you to be creative.

Start with a smaller piece of paper. This small size seems to allow you to let go a bit more easily since you aren’t filling up a huge piece of paper. A smaller paper also allows you to move more quickly without getting bogged down. I usually suggest a 9x12” or smaller size.

If you’re working on Wallis or another sanded paper that has no color, toning is a good idea. It makes the first marks on the paper, which frees you of “white canvas syndrome” and gives an overall color to the paper that you can use with a limited palette. You may choose one of the colored papers such as Art Spectrum, La Carte or Pastelmat.

Any subject matter will do for this exercise, but clouds and skies are particularly suited to it. The idea is to paint fast and furious without a lot of detail, which works nicely in the sky. The palette of colors found there is already somewhat limited, and clouds lend themselves to looseness.

Prepare ahead. Tape your paper to the board, clip your photograph on the board where you can see it and take out a white paper towel for your palette of pastels. As in the last chapter, devoted to limiting your palette, carefully choose only 10 colors. Use dark, medium-dark, medium, medium-light and light colors, based on the photograph. Lay out the colors you’ve selected on a paper towel and put away your palette.

Find a timer, preferably one that has a loud alarm that will stop you in your tracks, and set it for 20 minutes. Begin with an extremely fast sketch that only locates the horizon line and the major elements of the composition. There’s no time for details.

Work all over the painting with the colors so that you structure things altogether at one time, relating all the elements to one another. Don’t start with any detail. If you begin to put in too many details you’ll slow down too much. You must keep moving. If you don’t have the right color, layer the ones you do to achieve the right value instead. Make use of the different colors and values on hand to make new ones, layering and blending them.

Keep the timer where you can see it so that you’re aware of how long you have left to paint. This is a sprint, so go all out. Abandon yourself to the color and mood, dashing in streaks and smoothing down swaths of colors all over.

When the timer sounds, lay down your pastels. Now step back and analyze what’s happening. Look for the accidental things that thrill you and for those things that are working. Ask yourself if you missed one or two colors, perhaps colors you didn’t choose or missing values.

Choose only one to two more colors and add them to your limited palette. Set the timer for an additional 10 minutes and get going. Again, move fast, not letting up for details. Work right up until the timer sounds, then lay down your pastels.

If you’re like most of us, you’ll find things you like about this fast little painting, and some things that displease you. Sometimes it takes a little practice to loosen up and accomplish much in just a half hour, so practice! Set a goal for yourself, perhaps to paint 10 of these little ones in a week. This will give you the motivation to keep working.

When you have a small body of these paintings lay them out together and analyze what’s working and what isn’t. There’s a lot to be learned from this.

• Stop criticizing what doesn’t work because you were moving fast, and instead look for trends, for those things that happen repeatedly that please you.

• Put them in order of your own personal preference and ask yourself why you chose this order.

• Find the things in each one that works and ask why. Use corners to crop down to the area that is spontaneously successful and think about what happened there that is good. Did you use a certain kind of stroke, a particular set of color layers, or another element that works? Be specific.

• Evaluate the things that happened that pleasantly surprise you with their clarity, despite the messy, spontaneous strokes.

Then go paint some more.

6" x 9", 20 minutes

6” x 9”, 20 minutes


To learn how to control color and use it creatively, try an experiment that limits the number of colors you use. Find a photo -- really any subject matter will work -- but make sure it’s something that you find intriguingly colorful. (This may not be a brightly colored photo, just color you like.)

You’ll begin with only 10 colors, so choose them carefully. Use dark, medium-dark, medium, medium-light and light colors, based on the photograph. If it is a high-key photo with lots of light colors your darkest dark may be a medium. If it’s a moody, dark photo, you may choose far more dark colors and only one or two medium-light ones. Lay out the colors you’ve selected on a paper towel and put away your palette. It’s much easier to do this exercise if you can’t see what’s missing.

Work all over the painting with the colors so that you structure things altogether at one time, relating all the elements to one another. Don’t start with details. If you don’t have the right color, layer the ones you do have to achieve the right value instead. Make use of the different colors and values on hand to make new ones, layering or scumbling with a slightly harder stick over softer pastels. Notice how the color effects differ when you layer them in a different order. Pay attention to the way some colors look dark in light areas and light in dark areas. These ‘bridge’ colors are very useful!

After you have painted for a while, you’re likely to find yourself missing one or two key colors. This is not the time to add 10 new colors -- only one or two. You may need a particular color that’s missing. You may need a darker dark or a lighter light. Whatever you really need you can add. Cover your palette after choosing them so you aren’t tempted to grab more. Then work to your conclusion using only those colors.

I suggest you make a separate chart of the colors you chose. You’ll find it comes in handy later to remind you how you made those colors, so it might be a good idea to stick it to the back of the painting.

• Evaluate this painting a bit differently than you would your other work.

• Look for the things that happened that pleasantly surprise you with their clarity, despite the spontaneity.

• Where are the accidents that please you, and what did you do to create them? Which colors did you layer together?

• Did you blend them?

• Why do you think that grassy foreground look good or the tree-covered hillside work?

• What is it about the lavender you were forced to layer into the sky that is so pleasing?

• What color combinations did you find surprisingly successful?

When you have developed a small body of these paintings, lay them out together and analyze what’s working and what isn’t. There’s a lot to be learned from this. Put up a little show for yourself in the studio and analyze them. Look for trends, for those things that happen repeatedly that please you. Put them in order of your own personal preference and ask yourself why you chose this order. Find the specific things in each one that works and ask why.

You can see that I chose three colors as the most significant ones, the medium blue-violet, orange and rose. In addition to those main colors I chose a deep lavender, dark green, a medium yellow-green, a light cerulean blue, peach, light yellow-ochre and two peaches, one pale and one medium. The colors in wall behind the pot with the dappled the sun and shadow please me.

I found three key colors here, as well, a light yellow-orange, medium magenta and cobalt blue. The bright orange and intense yellow-orange layered over the light and medium-light blue sky work well. I added a dark red-violet and blue-violet, as well as touches of deep turquoise and dark blue to finish the palette.


Cedars on orange, 6" x 12"

In this experiment you’ll work on different colored grounds using the same photograph for each painting to see how the ground color affects the finished image. You’ll observe more clearly how much influence the ground can have on a painting once you try this.

Choose a simple photo that has good contrast and interesting colors. Cut your paper to the same size so that you aren’t trying to recompose the painting each time.

White paper is easy to find, as is a medium tone. However, you might want to try toning your own paper, which allows you to experiment with a variety of colored grounds. My method is simple. You can see just how I do it in CHAPTER THREE -- GETTING STARTED.

You might try some of the Pastelmat colors for this experiment.

For more about Pastelmat visit

Complete each painting separately, not side by side. Let each one come of your response to the ground. It’s not necessary to retain the same palette of colors for all three paintings. (If you do use the exact same palette, use a light touch that allows the ground color to be seen beneath the colors.) I prefer to allow each paper color to inspire me to use differing palettes. I usually find that light colors move me to use brighter colors, while darks result in richer colors that are deeper in tone. Very bright grounds make for a saturated colors – and sometimes a heavy hand as I desperately try to cover all that offending color.

Think of these as three paintings, not one painting done on three grounds. Let the color motivate you from the beginning, and try to analyze your responses to those first color choices. My observations on how I usually respond are below. Yours might be different.

White or very pale ground: Usually a white ground allows darker colors to harmonize quickly and intensifies pure colors. The light of the paper seems to glow through every color. Because it’s light, however, you need to nail your darks in place early. Take notice whether this light color inspires you to play with bright colors more, or if the lack of color bothers you.

Cedars on white, 6" x 12"
Medium ground: A “safe” alternative, the medium ground seems to allow all colors to work together without too much influence. As you paint on this ground, analyze how you feel and whether you’re relying on the ”usual” colors in your palette. Are you free to grab any kind of color? Or does it constrain you to certain choices?

Black or very dark ground: Dark grounds instantly harmonize lighter colors, which is often the majority of a pastelist's palette. Depending on how dark or black the color the ground, you might notice that all of your light and medium-light colors look similar in value until you have covered most of the surface. You therefore need to pay attention to the medium values in this painting. Notice whether this ground color influences your color choices. Are you inclined to pick up more muted tones? Does the somber tone make you feel differently about the colors? Or do you prefer stronger contrasts as a result?

Cedars on black, 6" x 12"
Bright ground: If you choose a particularly vivid color to paint on, you may find that your initial colors seem dark and dull, which may make you tend to grab more vivid, bright colors. The ground color influences every color, so depending on whether you’re using a complement or an analogous color you may feel very differently about each one -- at least until you cover more of the ground. Sometimes I find I’m just dying to blot out that color and work hard to cover it all, resulting in a thick layer of pastels that effectively ignores the ground color. Make certain you think the color is suited to the subject you’re painting, perhaps a complement to the majority of the ground color. Notice how this choice influences your process.

Once you’ve completed all the paintings put them up and study them together. Don’t lightly go over this step; really study the images and decide what worked.

• Analyze what worked and why.
• What colors made for a more successful painting and why?
• Do you feel better about working on a light, medium or dark tone?
• How about vivid colors?
• What other ground color experiments do you think would be helpful?


Imagine a River, 12" x 18"

Do you remember sitting before a blank piece of paper when you were a child, imagining what to put there? It was so easy to paint. Everything you put down meant something to you and it didn’t matter whether anyone else understood. Times have changed and now the strokes you put on the paper need to communicate clearly, but there are still some wonderful things you can derive from your imagination. You may be surprised to find out how much you already know.

Mount a piece of untouched pastel paper, place it on your easel and simply look at it. Don’t think of it as a potential painting but as a window. If I ask you to imagine something through your window, the chances are you’ll think, “I don’t know what to paint!” So start by bringing to mind the subjects you’ve already painted successfully. Do you like to paint mountains and skies? Maybe you paint dogs, or figures, or the ocean or flowers. Whatever it is you know and feel comfortable painting is fine. Find an interesting composition using a subject you know well. Recall a clear picture of your most successful or most recent painting to inspire you.

Spend some time imagining your painting in different formats. Most of us think of the horizontal landscape or vertical portrait formats, but how about a painting that’s quite wide and short, or tall and thin? Perhaps this painting could be relatively small, or you may use the whole page. Format and scale play a large part in the success of a painting. Mask off the format you’ve chosen, changing the shape of your window.

Before starting to paint, think about the value structure of your painting. Far more important than color is the arrangement of tones, which you should plot out in your mind. Whatever subject you plan to paint, think about how dark or light the colors will be and locate key elements. Where do the darkest and lightest areas come closest together? Where will you place a calming neutral? Is there an interesting massing of dark, medium and light colors, as well as smaller and larger shapes? Imagine all kinds of shapes and values together.

Now think about the palette of colors you want to use. When painting a familiar subject you’ll have a suggested color scheme -- sunflowers are yellow and black, for instance. Certain color choices appeal to us, so we frequently repeat the same palette. This may not be the time to try something new but to rely on what you’ve found pleasing and successful. However, you don’t necessarily need to think of this painting as a slavish rendition of reality. You may want to make your sunflowers orange and purple, or gold and blue. The point is to summon up colors that please you, whether true to the actual subject or a departure from reality. Plan the color scheme for all the local areas in your painting, not just the subject. Decide what color the background and foreground will be, filling in the blanks in your mind like puzzle pieces. Consider how the color of the paper might factor in the finished painting. Painting on a bright color or a very dark one will change the overall look. If you plan to tone the paper, take that color choice into consideration as well.

At this point you might feel ready to begin painting, but take one more step before putting pastel to paper. Identify the movement you use in your paintings most often. Movement is the energy of a painting, the motivating factor in shifting the viewer’s eye from place to place. We tend to repeat movements that please us. Think about the successful paintings you’ve completed already and determine whether you can find connecting threads of movement. For instance, you may be inclined to use a centered and circular motif in your still life compositions. Perhaps you use strong zigzagging diagonals in your figures, or calm horizontal movement in your landscapes. Knowing your habits will allow you to either use this inclination to its best advantage or go against the flow in your imagined painting. Plan the movement in your imagined painting by visualizing where the eye will start and the direction it will travel around the subject.

Try to visualize the painting fully, seeing it in your mind’s eye before starting. Be sure to use this mental picture only as the starting point -- an aid to help you reach a goal that’s not set in stone. Do a few thumbnail sketches to help you pinpoint the location of key elements, map the values you plan to use and find the movement that interests you. Limit these sketches to less than a minute to begin with, gradually lengthening the time until you have a small, satisfying composition.

The painting should begin to flow as a result of your visualization and planning, slowly taking shape as you paint. Be responsive to what begins to happen, allowing those pleasing incidental marks that occur to lead you. Occasionally close your eyes to envision your goal, and then refer back to your thumbnail sketch so that you don’t lose sight of that goal. Be flexible, but don’t allow the painting to overwhelm you. The excitement and energy of painting can sometimes become so absorbing that you’ll find yourself heading too far from the envisioned outcome, which can often result in a mess of colorful, fun marks that don’t communicate anything. As a child you could get away with spontaneity in place of communication, but now you must be in control, disciplining your mark-making and choosing successful, though lose and painterly strokes, that tell the story. Don’t let the joy of painting fool you into losing touch with what you’re trying to say.

Take frequent breaks to step back from your painting and look at it, remembering the vision you imagined so that you can compare the results. You may need to punch up the contrast, or change the size or scale of an element. Perhaps some accidental stroke or color combination will inspire you to change things. Whatever you see is legitimate since there’s no photograph or other record confining you. The goal, aside from a few thumbnail sketches, is all in your mind. Try several of these paintings, allowing yourself to come to trust that you are able to paint without a net, utilizing the spontaneity of a child and the discipline of an artist.