Saturday, November 19, 2011

Impending Storm - pastel

Finally able to spend some time in the studio today...

Impending Storm
11x14 inches - pastel on w/c paper with Golden pumice ground
© S.Johnson
Another painting based on a snapshot taken during our drive back from the Needles Overlook road from the Moab trip, right near the junction of Hwy 191.  Those are the Abajo Mountains to the right there.  I have a thing for these dark, brooding skies against sunlit yellow grasses, and I found myself repeatedly drawn to the photo and realized I needed to paint it.

One thing that continues to surprise me is how some of the best reference photos I have for painting are those shot out of the window of a moving car.  No careful planning of the composition, but somehow, many of them translate into what I feel are very good paintings and often with minimal adjustment.

I love the starkness of this land, and the fact there are no trees and essentially no green to speak of.  It's open and bare and the antithesis of the pastoral tree-covered landscapes of the east that many people define as "beauty".  Nothing cozy or comfortable about this, which is perhaps why I am so drawn to it. It has occurred to me on numerous occasions that I would be perfectly happy to never paint another green landscape again in my life!

Our local newsstand finally got in some copies of the Dec issue of The Pastel Journal, so I got mine yesterday.  I was reading Richard McKinley's column, which is always wonderful, and I felt he was reading my thoughts when he spoke of the "...creative malaise and diminished desire to paint" from photos in the studio after spending all summer painting on location.  Glad to know it wasn't just me!  Anyway, he pointed out that this is the time to experiment with new techniques and materials that you'd normally not want to do when painting on location.

He included a demo with a grayscale value underpainting on some Rives BFK paper and overlaying this with a clear gesso ground and watercolor underpainting.  It inspired me to pull out one of my pieces of prepared w/c paper, the same of which I mentioned in my previous post.  I didn't feel like using the cheap-o watercolors I had, so instead, I just went with a pastel and rubbing alcohol underpainting, which is how I usually paint on this paper.

However, there wasn't a particularly good layer of the Golden ground on the paper, resulting in poor adhesion of the pastels.  In his column article, Richard mentioned using fixatives, and I decided this would be the perfect time to experiment with using them.  And besides, Degas frequently used fixatives in his pastel work, so why shouldn't I give them a try?

I ended up using 2 applications of Grumbacher workable fixative to get the coverage and depth of the sky how I wanted it.  For this painting, which is essentially (and purposely) split between the land and the sky, I wanted there to be a contrast of textures between the two.  So the sky is heavily blended, and with the exception of some of the darker areas of the immediate foreground shrubs and grasses, I tried to not blend anything else on the land elements (okay, I forgot that I did blend a bit in the mountains).

I should have taken a photo of the original underpainting so you could see just how totally funky it looks in that stage before being transformed into something I am actually pretty happy with, just because I always find that sort of thing to be fun(ny).

Even if you aren't a pastel artist, if you can find a copy of this months' Pastel Journal just to read Richard's excellent article, I'd recommend it.  The suggestions he gives for experimenting could easily be applied to any medium.


  1. Thanks Jala - nice to hear from you again :)

  2. Love these last few posts. So, you went back! I was out there for 8 days over the plein air event, and did lots of hikes, as well. We did Fisher Towers, Corona Arch, too. You have so captured all the colors and the feel of the area, despite your comments about your paper, etc. Loved seeing the photos of your pastels!

  3. Beautiful! And nice post too. I love seeing your ongoing work.

  4. This is so pretty, Sonya! I love the stark landscape and brooding skies, too. And your title really captures the feeling. Great work!

  5. Hi Pam - thanks so much for stopping by Yeah, we went back because the trip we planned before PA Moab got rained out. Also, it's less than 3 hrs. to drive there, so we can go regularly. I remember seeing your post about hiking to Corona Arch and also driving down that steep Jeep road. Love the area!

    Thanks so much Liz and Darla - I really appreciate your encouraging comments about my work :).

  6. Your plein air work shows. It is the best teacher. I enjoyed reading your post too.

  7. Sheri, thanks so much for reading and your comments.

    I couldn't agree with you more about the value of plein air painting. It has been the single best thing I've done towards advancing my painting skills since I started painting regularly just over 2 years ago.

  8. I love the purples in this painting. They are so rich. I will have to check out our Walmart for that paper although I agree it is an in and out sort of thing for me too. Too crowded in the store and the parking lot.

  9. Thanks Ruth - I love being able to paint skies like this when I can. And, I agree about Walmart; the crowds are what drive me nuts about going there.

  10. That is a stunning painting Sonya!!!!!!

  11. Thanks, Sarah :). It's definitely one of my favorites to date!


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