Painting a Pattern | A Still Life Demo in Pastel by Sarah Blumenschein

“Color Coded,” by Maureen Bloomfield, originally appeared in The Artist’s Magazine, (January/February 2013). Enjoy this free excerpt of the article, including a step-by-step demonstration of a pastel still life painting by Sarah Blumenschein.

Color Coded

“I’m a color person,” says Sarah Blumenschein. “I’m often inspired by color combinations I see in real life; my paintings always start with a color scheme. For example, I’ll see heirloom pumpkins piled outside a Whole Foods store and think of a painting of warm colors—sage greens, golds, dark green, oranges. For Roses and Wedgewood (see The Artist’s Magazine, January/February 2013) I envisioned greens, oranges, pinks and gold, but I had to wait until I found tea roses of the perfect color.”

Sarah Blumenschein pastel still life painting

Scroll down for the free demo of ‘Little Ginger Jar’ (pastel, 8×10) by Sarah Blumenschein.

Blumenschein collects some of the elements that appear in her pictures and borrows others. “I had a small copper kettle and I remembered that my parents, when I was growing up in England, had a larger copper kettle that they lent me for Roses and Wedgewood. The predominance of warm colors (oranges and yellow-greens) is countered by accent notes of blue and cool green. Conventional wisdom would say that it’s a mistake to place two comparable colors next to one another—orange next to copper; cool green next to warm green—but Blumenschein achieves a beautiful harmony by working within those minute gradations. In addition to subtlety, Blumenschein likes rich color. When she works with reference photos, she often heightens the intensity of the colors in Photoshop so she can see what happens if she exaggerates the color she actually sees, making it more intense.

Judging color in pastel is easier on toned paper; Blumenschein has learned that toning the sanded paper with a midvalue red-gray or a red wine color helps her select “colors that are warmer and brighter.” Painting on a mid- or even darker value also helps her “get the darks more effectively.” She works with the flat of the pastel, never the point. “I try to avoid mixing or rubbing the pastel on the paper with my fingers,” she says, “because that tends to make the colors muddy. I layer rather than blend.”

Does color theory influence how she works? “I understand the principles of the color wheel,” she says, “but I work intuitively. I was trained as an engineer and it’s too late now for me to go to art school. I’m interested in reflections and texture, as well as color; I try different things and then I think, That looks cool.”

Painting a Pattern: A Still Life Demo in Pastel by Sarah Blumenschein

Red Ground and Block-In
1. Red Ground and Block-In

Once I’ve sketched the outline of the ginger jar, I sketch in a simplified version of the pattern. I start by painting in what will be the white background around the pattern. I use gray-violets and grays in the shadowed area and warm beige in the light areas. I use these same colors to block in the reflection on the tabletop. I also block in the shapes of the pears with dark carmine for the shaded areas and bright reds for the light side. I use these same pastels to block in the reflected shapes on the tabletop.


Adding the Pattern
2. Adding the Pattern

Rather than work on the pattern and then fill in the white of the ginger jar, I start with the white and then add the pattern, using shades of Prussian blue and blue-gray. I use the side of the pastel and keep the pattern simplified. Again, I use the same colors to block in the reflection on the tabletop.


Blocking in a Neutral Background
3. Blocking in a Neutral Background

I block in the background color, using a few different grayish blue-green pastels. I bring those same colors into the reflected areas in the tabletop. At this point, I also paint the shadows, which usually are a dark version of the background color.


Indicating Reflections in a Pastel Painting
4. Indicating Reflections

To create the effect of the reflection on the tabletop, I take a midvalue bronze-green pastel and, using the side of the pastel, gently apply one thin layer over the top of the reflections. I apply this thin layer in one direction. Once I’ve done this, I use the side of my pinkie to drag the shadow area to the bottom edge of the painting, moving across the entire tabletop area.


Sarah Blumenschein pastel still life painting
5. Reinforcing the Lights

To finish the reflection, I’ll often reinforce the light areas. The last step is to add the highlights on the objects and on any other reflections in Little Ginger Jar (pastel, 8×10).

See more of Blumenschein’s paintings in The Artist’s Magazine, (January/February 2013), on her website at, and in this web extra that features the work of three incredible still life artists.

Discovering Animals, Figures and Portraits in Pastel with Margaret Evans
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Click here to view a preview of “Discovering Animals, Figures and Portraits in Pastel with Margaret Evans.”


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