You’ve been painting in pastels for a while now and have taken some classes and workshops. Your teachers have encouraged you, some of your work has been accepted to a national show, and even though you haven’t won any prizes you know it’s time to start making a little money with your art. A good next step might be to begin with an art fair. Art fairs, or booth shows, are a great place to embark on selling. Shows allow you to step into the sales arena with a relatively modest cash outlay, effectively introduce your work to a local audience that can be receptive and supportive, and help you find the price range and niche your work may fill in the marketplace. Being accepted to a fair may be the boost you need to get your paintings finished, framed, priced and ready to sell, and could provide the opportunity you need to be seen by galleries as a selling artist.

First consider local shows. If you can, attend the show and take detailed notes about what you see. Try to picture yourself showing there. Ask the promoters or participating artists what has been provided. If this is an outdoor show, find out whether the artists supply everything from the ground up or if a structure is provided. Notice whether aluminum display panels, pegboard sheets or other walls are in place. Most of the time there are small tables or cabinets where customers may pick up cards or brochures and the artist writes up sales. Take note of the height, style, and sizes used to decide what works best. Look at the chairs. A tall, folding director’s chair is often the best choice, as it allows the artist to sit at eye level with customers.

Once you’ve found a show that interests you, request a prospectus. The application should tell you a lot about the show, even if you haven’t been able to attend. For instance, is the show held outdoors or indoors? Do you have to provide your own display system or tent? If this is an outdoor show you’ll need weather protection for your pastel paintings. Determine whether you can you drive up to a booth to drop things off, or will have to carry everything in from a parking area. Find out the cost of entering the show and the cost of the booth, including all your options. In a juried show you submit slides or photographs, or present examples of your work, and there’s usually a jury fee that is separate from the booth fee. You need to know exactly what you will get for your investment.

You also want to know a few things about the show and its history. How long has the show been in business? A successful show will have a good track record. How many artists do the promoters plan to host? You’ll be sharing the available dollars with the other exhibitors. Do they intend to balance art and craft exhibitors, or is this exclusively a painting show? The kind of work featured will determine the response from the community. Notice how many days the show runs and what hours it’s open to the public, and find out whether you may safely and confidently leave your paintings in your booth overnight or whether you’ll need to take down the show each day. If you were able to attend the show, refer back to your notes. What was the venue and were there many people attending? What physical set-up worked best? Were there walls or curtains dividing the booths? Most importantly, could you picture showing your art there?

Once you have applied to and been accepted to a fair, you have some important decisions to make. You will need to look into the various methods for displaying your work. Most artists use flexible, lightweight display panels that may be broken down and carried easily, but provide attractive wall space. Outdoor fairs often require you to provide your own tent, as well. Your notes should give you some ideas of what artists do at these shows. Consider the need for lighting, if the show continues into the evening hours. Be prepared to deal with weather considerations, as well.

You need to exhibit a range of sizes and prices. If you’ve already sold work in an exhibit use that as your foundational price. If not, you’ll need to decide on a fair price for your work. Review the notes you took where you carefully logged the prices of work similar to your own and be fair in your pricing. Don’t undersell too much or unduly overvalue your paintings. Decide whether you are willing to sell your pastels without a frame and if so at what price. Think about the possibility of taking commissions for your paintings if your subject matter warrants. If you’re willing to do this, establish your deposit and payment policy.

A fair is a wonderful opportunity to advertise your work. Show promoters may offer you a chance to advertise in their bulletin, an effective way to get your name in front of everyone who attends. Be certain to have excellent business cards with a color photograph of one of your paintings, as well as your name, phone, e-mail address and web page on them. A brochure that tells about your history as an artist and features more of your work can be made on your computer. You can use the show as a chance to build your mailing list, so put out a guest book where customers can record their name, e-mail or mailing address and comments. Be sure to send thank-you notes to anyone who buys a painting, no matter the size or price. This is a great way to build good customer relations in your community so that you can continue to enjoy the life of a selling artist.


Self-criticism is a skill every artist needs to develop. The ability to look at your work dispassionately and see clearly its strengths and weaknesses is a tool that serves the artist as much as her easel or palette. The goal is to be honest without being overly brutal -- or too lenient.

It’s difficult to determine why it’s easier to dislike certain parts of a painting than it is to find those we value. However, most of us can go more quickly and easily to the things we don’t like about a piece. We need to develop a means by which we can evaluate the painting, something we can rely upon to help us find problems and see where we need to enhance our skills.


Each painting should have an objective, some target you’re aiming at in this single piece. Setting goals helps you know where you’re headed and how close you came to hitting the mark. Your goal might be broad, such as painting realistically or capturing the quality of an object or mood of a place. Or it could be as specific as having put the detail in all the right places or utilized heightened contrast in value. You might be attempting to paint new subject matter, say landscapes, or trying out a new kind of paper or other materials. You might be attempting to use more brilliant color or broken color, or perhaps you need to concentrate on painting foregrounds or perfecting trees. Whatever the issue, first ask yourself where you were heading and where you ended up.

You must try more than one painting to achieve any goal. Challenges take work and time. If after your first attempt you’re not satisfied, look carefully for those things that worked and why they worked, then paint another one that aims at the same purpose. Most of us are not likely to succeed on the first try -- and even when we do, that probably will not give us the skill to be able to do it again. So don’t give up. Dare to keep on trying.

Hold onto your first attempts at something new in order to be able to compare later on. Consider this “research and development” a good way to approach something new. You can more clearly evaluate your progress when you have a basis for comparison. So slide the first attempt or two under the bed or into the back of the portfolio and pull them out later on so that you can see how far you have come.


Be willing to learn things you don’t know. This is a lot like walking to the edge of a cliff in the fog, not knowing how far you might fall. Until you’re willing to risk failure, trying something that you’ve never done before or something that you have had no success with in the past, you can never learn it. Many times we stand at the edge of the thing we don’t know and imagine it to be a cliff when it’s only a curb. The failure can be relatively painless in the face of what we can learn from going there. After all, how much do we learn from success and how much from failure? A baby learning to walk falls down quite a lot, but once he finds his balance he uses the skill for a lifetime. We will assuredly use the skills we develop, but we learn the most when are in the fumbling, falling-down stage.


Once you think your new painting is fairly complete, spend some time looking at it, reviewing the goals you set. This time should be spent only looking, not making changes. Let your eye come to see the strengths of the painting over a period of time. This might mean that instead of setting it on the easel to review, where you could be tempted to grab a pastel to correct it too soon, you should instead set it somewhere away from the studio. Spend time with the piece, walking past it at different times of the day, in different lighting situations. Live with it a while until you have some sense of the good things you see there, as well as the things you know need changing.

When you see what needs to be changed, think about the solutions you might use. Too often in our haste to rid the painting of the offending portion we snatch a color and cover it up or wipe out that part altogether without taking the time to think. Stop and consider at least two or three possible ways to correct the problem. If color is the difficulty, what additional colors layered over might cure it or what color might replace the existing one? If it is a compositional problem, how might you rearrange the elements? Whatever the trouble, taking the time to think of several ways to treat it will help increase the knowledge and skills you must have as an artist.

When you’ve arrived at a decision about the changes to make, try the first way. If that seems not to correct the issue, try the next solution. Rational, well thought-out decisions are the instruments by which we learn.


Never become so devoted to any one part of a painting that you’re unwilling to sacrifice it to the betterment of the entire work. These little icons of success can often be the obstacles that hold us back from progressing. No matter how successfully painted, if the sheen of light on the river is too light in value, distracting the eye from the center of interest, you must take it out. No matter how beautifully rendered the lacy edge of the foliage, if the sky shining from behind is too dark, it must be replaced. Too often we esteem the one part that succeeds and forget to reach toward the success of the whole.

Most of us tend to be somewhat enamored of those paintings that make it past the first few revisions. We’ve put considerable time into the painting and may find irresistible what has been achieved. Now we should wait until we have fallen out of love with the piece before continuing to evaluate it. This might be a good time to put the painting away for a long enough time that you forget that first blush of pleasure. When you can look at it more dispassionately, in a manner that’s detached enough to admit the flaws alongside the strong points, bring it out for a final evaluation.


Now is the time the painting should be subjected to the opinions or advice of the critic you select. Learning self-criticism does not mean you never ask another person to criticize your work. In fact, having a critic you trust is important. You can learn a lot about how and what to criticize by working with a good critic.

Find someone who can consistently help you grow and has your best interests at heart to help you evaluate your work. Whether this is an artist friend or a professional teacher you pay to critique a small body of work, do not neglect this aspect of learning and evaluation. You have to seek criticism in order to grow.

Do not ask for an opinion about a painting or body of work until you are ready to hear and use the advice. Nothing is gained by asking for guidance you intend to refute. To defeat this, be sure you know what you value in the piece and what parts you want help changing. Instead of approaching the critic with a helpless “I just don’t know what to do” attitude, it might be more helpful if you point out those things that please you and are working, as well as those you feel need improvement.

The opinion of an untrained critic can be valuable as well. If a neighbor steps into your studio, ask what she thinks of some aspect of your piece. Again, this might work best if it’s specific rather than general. Asking a question about the color or composition elicits a less ambiguous reply, but be open to hearing whatever comments come. Children can be particularly candid -- and often helpful in their forthrightness if the artist is willing to be open.


Criticizing your work is a skill that must be developed alongside the painting techniques you need to succeed. Being able to evaluate what works and why, as well as what needs improvement, is an ability you can develop with practice.

Set goals and remain open to possibilities. Be willing to take risks and look for the things you need to learn or improve. Take the time you need to see your strengths and weaknesses, to decide rationally on a course of action and pursue it or try varying solutions. Find a critic you trust and listen to the advice you receive.

As an artist, you have a lifetime of challenges and new growth ahead. Do not neglect the art of self-critique.

How to Criticize Your Own Painting

Before you change anything...

As you look at a new painting consider many possibilities before changing anything. Analyze these and consciously decide on changes before doing anything. Then ask the following three questions:

1. Where are the places of harmony and movement? What has succeeded? Which part is most pleasing to you and why? Are there places that you especially like?

2. Where are the places that jump out? What causes this? Think of two or three ways to correct the problem.

You may stop here and make the needed changes if you feel you have enough ideas and information to go on. If not, try step three, but be sure you know what you like and don’t like before asking anyone else.

3. Show the painting to a critic. This should be someone you trust to tell you the truth, trained or untrained, or can be someone off the street whose opinion you know nothing about. The idea is to get a fresh viewpoint, not to determine the majority opinion. Ask people to help you see problem areas before you make changes, then develop a plan and learn from what you try. This is a way to aid in the development of your own opinion.

Do not stand in front of a painting and “try things.” This rarely results in improvement. Instead, make brief note of the possible changes in each piece and consider what will happen if you try them. Willy-nilly changes sometimes work, but often you can’t sort out why.

Take the time to ask questions about the painting, then move around and try different ways of looking at it before you pick up a pastel.

When you’re ready, make the needed adjustments.

Questions to ASK about the painting

What was my goal in this painting? What is it about the place or the photograph that made me want to paint it?

Was there a feeling or mood I wanted to express here? Did I succeed?

What is my center of interest or focal point?

Have I used detail in the appropriate places to enhance the focal point, or is the painting overly detailed and boring?

Are there a pleasing variety of textures and lines? Do they enhance the focal point or overwhelm it?

Is there a good range of light to dark values? Do they form an interesting abstract pattern?

Where is the area of highest contrast? Where do the darkest dark and the lightest light come closest together? Is this enhancing the area of greatest interest?

Are the four landscape values presented accurately? Is the sky light, the ground medium-light, the mountains medium dark and the trees dark? If not, why not?

What palette of colors have I used? Are the colors in this painting generally bright, muted, dark or light? Is it mostly warm or cool? Would some variation improve it?

Did I begin with a strong underlying abstraction of shapes? Did I retain them throughout the painting? How might I improve this in the future?

Is the shape and size of the paper best suited to this composition? Would this painting be stronger if I changed the format?

What movement occurs in the painting? Is it interesting? Is it organized and complete? How could I vary the shapes to improve the movement?

Are the negative shapes in this piece interesting?

Are there a compositional X that traps the eye or a V that points the eye off the page?

Do I have a visual treat at the apex of any visual path such as a road or stream? Does it move the eye or stop it?

Is the linear perspective correct?

Is the aerial perspective correct -- lighter, bluer, less detail, less contrast, softer edges? Is there a sense of “air” no matter how shallow the depth?

Are there little objects sitting on the windowsill of the painting?

Are there any places where the painting is unresolved and mysterious?

Are there places where color jumps out or there are needlessly interesting details?

Are there any haloes?

Are there any wallpaper patterns?

Is there any object cut in half or less? If so, why?

Are there any unintended repetitive shapes?

Different ways to LOOK at the painting

Squint your eyes to lose detail. Is the underlying design of shapes and values strong?

Use a red filter to look at your painting, your photo or at the world so that you can see values. Remember that any reds will turn white or very light in value.

Stand back far enough that your painting looks no larger than a postage stamp, even if you have trouble seeing that far. Take ten steps closer. What has changed? Take ten steps closer. What has changed? Repeat. Notice how distance changes your perceptions. At what distance is the painting strongest and why?

Trace the movement by closing your eyes for a minute, then tracking where your eye begins and ends in your painting. Try this several times until your eye moves easily around the composition. Name the kind of movement: horizontal, vertical, circular, etc.

Look at the painting using only your peripheral vision. Stare at a point to the side of it.

Turn your painting upside down and sideways. Look for the abstract elements of color and design.

Look at your painting in a mirror or use a reducing glass or binoculars turned backward. Look for the abstract shapes.

Put a mat around the painting or use wide masking tape to make a mat to cover any vivid color on the edge of your painting.

Crop parts of the painting to see if it improves.

Put your painting in direct sunlight. What happens to the colors?

Put your painting under artificial light at night and use a dimmer switch to see how the light levels change it.


Have more than one painting to work on at any time. Give your mind room to wander from subject to subject as your mood changes.

Find your strengths and don’t try to do someone else’s work. Emulate techniques. Develop your own style.

Let go of failure and look to the future.

Relax. Have fun. Learn. Grow. Experiment.


Poblanos Autumn, 12" x 9"
 (With thanks to The Pastel Journal where this was originally published.)

A man stands at his easel painting the breathtaking vista before him. The sky is bright blue, the day calm and warm. His black umbrella punctuates a field of green and yellow grass near shady cottonwood trees. The mountains are a sweep of cobalt and lavender, topped with crisp white clouds. It looks ideal. No wind. No rain. No bugs. No dust. It’s no wonder painters wish to paint outside on such a glorious day.

But the fact is that it can be uncomfortable painting “en plein air”—meaning on location. Dust does blow, bugs do bite, the sky darkens or the wind blows. It takes planning and energy to drag the easel, pastels and umbrella to the car, drive to a location, lug your gear to a spot, set it up and take it down, then drive home again, usually tired and sometimes unsatisfied with the day’s work.

Working in the studio is usually far less challenging than location work. There, you can control the environment and are able to settle down to work. Lighting conditions remain stable and you can take the time to carefully plan and execute a painting, which can be difficult when working outside. There are no burrs clinging to your socks or stray dogs wandering under your easel, no wind or rain to contend with. Studio work is much less physical, and if nothing comes of the day’s work at least you haven’t spent gas money to do it.

So why do so many painters go through all that to paint outside?

It’s simpler to paint a striking locale from a photograph, yet open-air paintings have a depth and range of color impossible to find in any photograph. Photographs taken at the same time and location look accurate but often are unsatisfying. We’ve come to believe that the color in a photograph is somehow more real, when in fact the interpretation of colors that the artist brings to a painting is far more valid. Shadows are frequently too dark or light areas washed out in a photograph. Paintings made on location have an appealing variety of colors, in shadow or sunlight.

Color is made from light. Painting in the natural sunlight reveals the complexity of the colors all around us. As you look into the shadows you can see details, though they are cooler and darker in value, while the light areas are luminous and glowing. Although most painters prefer to work under the shade of an umbrella or in the solid cast shadow of a building or other object, it’s not impossible to stand in the open sunlight and paint. Light and color go hand in hand. Light is the key to color, which is in turn the key to mood in a painting.

Still, plein air painting takes some getting used to. The almost overwhelming amount of subject matter can result in crowded paintings with no focal area. No piece of paper is adequate to the task of painting the whole world -- or even the western horizon alone. It’s necessary to limit the scope of what you paint on location. Rather than trying to do a painting of the road that leads to the house with the shade trees and flower garden, and the mountains beyond that with the clouds building up to a storm, it’s better to select only parts to paint. Choose the road leading to the house one day. Move closer and paint the garden another day. Then take on the mountains and clouds on a day when they are spectacular.

Even within the context of your chosen subject -- say the mountains and clouds -- use some tried-and-true methods to limit what you paint. Frame the world with your hands or use mat corners to block out portions until you can see clearly what will fit on the paper. Select a visual landmark where you can place your viewfinder, putting the corners in the same position repeatedly so that you can renew acquaintance with your selected bit of the world when needed. Some artists like to look through an empty slide mount. Because you have to close one eye to do this, your field of vision flattens, which sometimes makes it easier to see shapes as interlocking puzzle pieces.

Paintings composed using photographs often look different from those painted outdoors. They contain details that are easily ignored when painting on location, such as the grass directly in front of the easel and the branch overhead that protrudes into the picture plane. The camera lens puts the world out at arm’s length, pushing everything away from the viewer, changing the perspective. The point of view of a plein air painting seems grounded, as though you can sense the easel sitting in the dirt, and extraneous details are easily ignored.

Instead of attempting to complete a painting while on location, it might help to begin by making color and composition sketches on site. When you work quickly and freely you are freed from the desire to paint the perfect finished version of the view. Take along your camera to record details of the place but paint to record your personal response to the colors you see and select the viewpoint and details you want to include. The photographs then become an aid to your personal vision rather than commanding the image. In the studio you can use both photos and sketches to make a finished painting.

Once you discover the pleasure of painting on location and see the merits of color and composition done there, in all likelihood you will be willing to pack your gear and drive out to that special spot or spend time searching out a new one. The delight of seeing and the pleasure of recording your surroundings will begin to outweigh any annoyance and distraction you find there. You probably won’t abandon your studio but you will likely discover that location work strengthens what you do in the studio.

One day you may find yourself standing in a green and yellow field under an umbrella, painting cobalt mountains on a perfect day. No wind. No rain. No bugs. No dust. Then you will know why painters go out on location so often.

Coronado, 12" x 9"


Materials for Plein Air

lightweight, portable easel
stone sack or empty gallon jug with twine
small palette of pastels (~125 half sticks)
small drawing board, clips, clamps
paper cut to 9x12" or smaller
11x14" newsprint pad with clips OR Clearbags (to transport paintings)
umbrella, clamps
spray bottle (to keep cool)
camera, sketchbook, charcoal, pencils, viewfinder, red filter
wet wipes, paper towels, tape, tools
sunscreen, bug spray, hat OR gloves, scarf, extra socks, jacket
large plastic bags (rain protection, garbage)
cooler, water
folding chair (if watching a demonstration)

Back yard plein air.

Many people ask me about my easel and palette setup for plein air. I keep it fairly simple. I use the Anderson Swivel Easel, which works perfectly for my height (5'4"), and an old Rembrandt box filled with half-sticks and smaller bits of pastels that I open and set on top of the easel. I carry most of my supplies in a rolling box. (I have carried things in my backpack, too, but I do that less often now.) I try to keep things simple, lightweight and portable, although I pack a lot into my car so I have it when I need it.

Painting with mast flat.

My well used plein air palette.

I enjoy the Anderson Swivel Easel because I can swivel the mast around 360 degrees, allowing me to simply turn another direction without rearranging my easel, or lay it down flat and paint looking over it, standing to one side of the easel. (In windy conditions this can be quite helpful.) It's lightweight, only around nine pounds empty. I often cut paper and tape it in place on my board, one piece on top of the next, so that I can start painting the moment I arrive on location. Then I simply remove that piece, slip in into the newsprint pad or a Clearbag to transport without smearing, and I'm  ready to begin the next one.

I prefer to do color sketches rather than trying to make a "finished" painting. I record the scene as soon as I'm set up and starting to sketch, taking a photo as I see the view from the easel. I record another shot at the end of the hour (if I paint that long--rarely any longer), so that I have two photos and a color sketch to use in the studio if/when I make a finished painting. However, having freed myself from the mental straitjacket of painting to a finish on location, ironically I'm far more inclined to paint what I consider to be finished work. The three paintings shown here, for instance, were painted entirely on location, with no further work in the studio. 

Corrales Acequia, 9" x 9"


Mesa Meadow, 18" x 12"

Color and value are inextricably intertwined. They're very much like a hand in a glove; although the glove exists independently in the material world, it does not function until the hand is inside it. So it is with the glove of color, which needs the hand of value to motivate it. Artists rely on color as one of the fundamental elements of painting. Value is an issue that comes up as the artist advances in skill and consideration of the theory of painting. Value or tone, which is the lightness or darkness of any color, is independent and exists with or without color. It's black and white and all grays in between, as well as all of the dark to light tones of any given color. It's an essential component of any color. You cannot separate color from its value, but you can and should consider value as an issue of primary importance, separate from color.

Understanding value can strengthen color. Most artists use color easily, almost without thinking, far more often than they consider the underlying, driving force of value. This doesn’t mean that they disregard value -- quite the contrary. Value is so intimately linked to color that they seem not to consider the hand apart from the glove. As the artist progresses through her career, value sneaks in, becoming increasingly important. As fundamental as it is, value is often left to the consideration of the more experienced painter. This should not be a surprise since, as in so many other disciplines, the further one goes into the depths the more elemental the concepts become. Still, the most experienced painter can learn new things, which is why art is one of the richest and most varied of pursuits and may continue for a lifetime.

One way to come to understand the interdependence of color and value is to plan a painting that utilizes only complementary colors but retains the original value of each of those colors. In doing this you will come to see the value or tone of the color more exactly as you challenge yourself to duplicate it while using its complement. Spend some time looking at a painting you have recently completed. Select one of the colors you used and name its complement. In your mind begin to choose the complements. If the sky is blue, it becomes orange. The green tree is now red, the yellow grasses are purple, the white clouds are, surprisingly, white. Why? Because the complement of white is not black. White is a value, in this case, not a color. If you’ve retained the correct values of the colors in your mental painting, they haven’t shifted except in color. If the clouds aren’t really white, but are a very light pink with touches of pale purple and blue, they become very light green with touches of pale yellow and orange. If they’re white, they stay white. This exercise will help you begin to think of value and color independently, and will increase your awareness of the multiple colors you can use in any value range. It will aid you in learning how to layer or lay side by side different colors of the same or similar value in any one tonal area.

In doing this painting it’s best to have two photographs from which to work, the original color photo and an excellent grayscale copy of it that accurately shows a range of dark to light values. The photograph is helpful because you’re freed from making compositional decisions and are also able to study the colors separately from their values. This is strictly an experiment in value and color. Using the grayscale photograph, do an underdrawing or value study of the image using black, white and grays. Accurately render the tones. This can become an elegant rendition of the scene that develops your sense of colors as values. As you draw, you’re able to see the color of the object you are depicting in your mind’s eye, which helps you identify its value.

White Wallis paper toned with gray pastel.
Charcoal underdrawing on gray-toned Wallis paper.

Now, looking at the color photograph and using a color wheel, select and lay down the opposite color of the natural one. Be careful to select the correct value, whether a light, medium or dark tone. It’s helpful to use a color wheel to find these complements at first. Find the blue of the sky and lay your finger on the orange as you seek out the right shade.

Once you have placed a single layer of the complementary colors in the proper values all over your paper, put the color photograph out of sight. If you’re looking at a photograph of a blue sky it’s very difficult to discipline yourself to pick up orange, but if you have already chosen the new colors and briefly recorded them in place, it’s easy to look at the black and white copy to paint. Forget the colors in nature now, and begin to expand your painting using the correct values and opposite colors on the color wheel. Think of the purple mountains as yellow. You already have a layer of yellow in place so you no longer need to think about that. What color is a dark yellow? Most yellows tend to shift to a muddy brownish-green as they darken, so choose a dark gold or yellow-green instead. Make it dark enough, sacrificing the exact complement to the correct value if necessary. The important thing here is to get the appropriate darkness or lightness of the color while not relying on the real color to find it. When you lean on the colors of the natural world, you’re dismissing value. Remember the hand and glove effect of value and color.

Complement layer in place.
You might spend some time completing this complement painting. It will almost certainly look like some unfamiliar place or thing, with all the colors shifted out of the world we see. Don't be concerned if you feel that it's unsettling and looks wrong to you. Relax and have fun in this alien place. A glowing pale orange sky, billowing white clouds with yellow shadows, dark reddish-orange hillsides, purplish-red grasses or red and orange trees with pink highlights can encourage you to play with color. Allow this new reality to inspire you. Think of the ways you flavor color when painting the natural world and apply that way of thinking to this complement painting. Analyze how it is that you vary colors. Do you consistently rely on a certain shade of blue to flavor a shadow? What version of orange color does it become now? Is there a way you might use that new orange color, rather than consistently using the same blue, in a future piece? What might happen if you begin to layer it over or put it down next to the favored blue? If it grays the blue too much for your taste, how might you shift it slightly one direction or the other on the color wheel to aid the blue, making it more lyrical and visually stimulating? Experiment with color this way. A series of paintings could be very instructive, freeing you to have fun with color in a way you might not have tried before.

Once you’ve completed your new complement painting, spend some time analyzing what happened. Ask yourself if this has challenged you more than you thought it would. Most of us have become dependent upon a palette of colors that we routinely use, which in itself is not a problem unless it’s become overly dull and boring. This experiment might suggest some new alternatives or additions. At this point you might have a painting that‘s worth keeping as it is. Often the new colors are intriguing and inspiring. If so, set it aside and try another using a different photograph. However, in painting the landscape you must keep in mind that you have a filter for the color blue that’s built into your brain. You know that the bluer and paler a color is, the farther away it is, but when you switch to the complementary colors you create an orange filter. Your brain is not able to process orange as a distant color, so landscapes often seem to lack a sense of air or space. This can be a dissatisfying effect. The solution might be to paint the colors of nature directly on top of your complement painting.(See Mesa Meadow, at the top, the finished painting with the natural colors added over the complementary layer.)

You might choose to spray a layer of workable fixative on your painting to give it more tooth, which will help hold another layer of pastel, but remember that fixative will slightly darken the colors. (If used, I suggest Spectrafix, which is non-toxic and alters colors less.) It’s not necessary to fix your work if the paper you’re using is adequate to the task, such as Wallis paper. After all, if you’re going to match the values using the colors of nature, you should be able to carefully lay them down directly atop the complement and arrive at a color that’s only slightly grayed or dulled. Finger blending is not recommended, as it tends to result in colors that are somewhat dreary and grayed. Now is the time to return to your original color photograph so that you can add the colors of reality. Remember, however, that the photograph is not a goal, but an aid to you. Use it to recall the colors you saw when you recorded the scene, then let this new color take the painting into places the photograph cannot go. As you put down the latest colors beside or on top of the original ones, notice how they optically jump, dazzling your eye. This is the power of complements. When a bit of red shines beneath the green, it adds some sparkle and pizzazz. Orange under blue gives some zing. Purple below yellow makes it snap a little. This is the essence of optically blended color. The artist must choose the degree to which this is successful and pleasing, but should not disregard the potential of such color use. Experiment with this idea, adding colors of the same or similar values to your paintings. Think about how using broken color might make your paintings stronger, so that instead of falling back on the color habits you have developed you become more adventurous. Take a chance with color and see where it takes you.

You might also choose to leave a portion of the complement painting untouched while covering a part with the natural colors. Divide your painting somewhere that logically leaves some of the underpainting showing so that you can see both lower and upper layers. Now make a painting the usual way, using the same photograph, without first layering the complementary colors. Notice the color choices you make and analyze whether the experiment has changed the way you think about and approach color.

Original photograph.
Painting color with value in mind is not a new idea. Most artists seem to intuitively come to understand value as they progress through their careers. However, using this series of exercises can help show you some new ideas about the use of color and challenge you to attempt new, visually exciting combinations. Put your experimental paintings alongside one another and compare results. Include the one that shows the complements below and the colors of nature directly on top, as well as paintings you did in the usual fashion before these experiments and subsequent to them. You may see that you’ve come to understand the values of the colors a bit more thoroughly, and you might also have found a way to utilize new colors of the same or similar values, but shifted toward the complements to enliven your color.


20-stroke sky

This experiment is designed to help you make fresh, lively paintings using a few well-chosen and carefully placed strokes. Where in the previous chapter, Limit Time and Palette, you moved fast, here you may actually slow down a little and take time to find the most effective and efficient strokes you can use. You’ll find simpler colors, use somewhat larger, gestural strokes, and overlap them to create an impression of detail, while limiting the number of strokes you use. The idea is to see how few strokes you can use to make a painting that effectively expresses a place.

thumbnail sketches
Begin with a few thumbnail sketches to sort out the major shapes. Keep these simple and fast, which will allow your brain to see shapes without regard to what the object is. Your eye and hand have the ability to see and record these things more accurately than you think, almost independently of your will. Do more than one thumbnail. Start with a credit card-sized box and do a quick drawing of what you actually see in your photograph. Then begin to move in closer, remove objects, rearrange them or add to the shapes to make an interesting composition. It’s simpler to stick to three values, dark, medium and light (which is usually the paper), although you might use medium-dark and medium-light values, too. As you refine the thumbnail, think about how you could make use of strokes to create the shapes.

only one stroke each
Let’s talk about what constitutes one stroke in pastel. Unlike an oil painter, your brush won’t run out of paint as you drag it across the paper. You can make some very lengthy and intricate strokes. Count each stroke from the moment you touch the paper to the point at which you lift your pastel stick. You might lay a stick flat on the paper and drag it over the entire area of the sky, using a back and forth motion to fill it in. If you have distant mountains, that same stroke might be lightly incorporated there as an under-color. A jagged stroke might simulate a line of trees or grasses across the entire span of the paper, while a continuous curlicue could create foliage or the undergrowth on a distant hillside. One stroke could serve several purposes as you vary the pressure on the stick. Use a big zigzag shape, or a huge swoop that curls and curves back and forth. It could go on for quite a while, so eke the best out of each stroke. You could conceivably paint half the piece in one well-conceived and executed stroke if working on a small sheet of paper. For our purposes, count using your finger to blend a passage or a Colour Shaper™ to brush pastel around like paint as one stroke.

I recommend preparing a smaller sheet of paper and doing a very simple line drawing to locate the major shapes. Think carefully about what needs to go down first. Paint what lies behind before painting what’s in front of it. Paint through objects, varying pressure where the sky passes behind trees or other items bisect space. Utilize some of the lovely habits of pastel, sometimes making a thick, impasto stroke to obscure what’s below, or a soft dry-brush stroke that allows color to glow from beneath. Think about how you can create color modifications using careful layers and different kinds of strokes.

Don’t try to make every nuance of color, highlight or shade. Distill the colors to essentials, modifying them where most useful to express the scene you’re painting. Choose the most vital shadows or highlights. Decide where smaller strokes will be necessary and most informative, and use them judiciously to draw the eye to the area of interest.

Painting in progress with hash marks to one side.
Keep a record of your strokes, limiting yourself to only 20. It’s probably simplest to make hash marks alongside your painting. You may find your paintings too rudimentary to start with, but in time you’ll find there’s a charming elegance to these simple little pieces. Paint a series of smaller images using 20 strokes. Later, if you desire, increase the stroke count to 30 or 40, and analyze how that changes your paintings.

Take the time to find strokes that work together to create the impression you seek. Go slowly, thinking through how you will structure the piece. In searching for the essential stroke you may find that you honestly don’t need to use more strokes. You only need to use better ones.

20 stroke Sandia