Bill James: Conjuring Up Color

Technically, you can?t mix colors with pastels the way you can with other media. That?s why pastel artists tend to keep hundreds of sticks around them as they work. But there are some techniques you can try that?ll allow you to create more vivid, complex colors to the viewer?s eye. As with so many things in life, the first step is to build a proper foundation.


Church on Readus Road (pastel, 19×28-1/2)

After much thought and observation of the works of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, I discovered that I hadn?t begun my paintings with a satisfactory base of color. I also realized that I needed to rub in some of the pastel in the initial block-in phase. Then, by painting in each element with loose yet refined strokes, I could effect a more harmonious image.

In addition, I make use of two other techniques called glazing and scumbling. Glazing is the application of a translucent layer of darker color over a lighter value (either translucent or opaque). With scumbling, you apply lighter-valued, translucent color over a darker layer, altering the original color without totally concealing it. (For more details, see my demonstrations in the Pastel Handbook article in the February 2002 issue of The Artist?s Magazine.)

My finishing touches always include glazing complementary colors over the existing elements to add interest and promote harmony. But I don?t do this indiscriminately; I rely on yet another little trick, which is the use of reflective color. Look for colors that might be reflected from objects nearby—for instance, a little bit of green picked up from a patch of grass can be applied to a red barn in that area. Blue from the sky can also be scumbled over other elements in the landscape to bring everything together. I do this consistently when working on the backgrounds of my landscapes; it allows mountains and other scene components to seem more distant.

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