Pastel Pointers | A Painting’s Orchestration

Expressing our individual perspective and feelings is the core reason most of us paint. When we look at another artist’s paintings, it’s as if we’re seeing the world through their eyes. In representational art, the ability to see and understand the visual reality of what lies before us, and having a mastery of a chosen painting media, is the foundation of self-expression. The old saying, “You have to know the rules before you can break them”, applies well. This leads to intensive study in the craft of painting. Years are devoted to drawing (relative shape, size and mass relationship), value (light and dark relationship), color (harmonious hue relationship), and mastery of painting media techniques. Once competency is achieved, it is the work of orchestrating these elements to a desired effect that becomes the goal of the artist.

According to,  to “orchestrate” means “to arrange or manipulate, especially by means of clever or thorough planning.” A good analogy is that of the orchestra conductor. Before the baton is bestowed, conductors have to learn to read music and understand the individual instruments that make up the orchestra. Listen to different conductors performing the same piece of classical music and you will witness their individual orchestrations. This act of arrangement, manipulation, and choice is evident in all of the arts. Consider writing: The author must have a degree of spelling, punctuation and sentence structure skills before attempting to communicate his or her intentions on paper. Otherwise, it is simply well intentioned gibberish. In the beginning, it is more rudimental and mechanical, with time it becomes more intuitive and self-expressive. What we do as painters with the visual elements of our scenes and painting techniques is very similar.

While our goals may be to conduct the New York Philharmonic, write the next great Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, or paint a painting worthy of The National Gallery of Art, we all have to start at the beginning. The better we understand the elements involved in painting, the better we will be at orchestrating them. With enough patience, discipline, and practice you will one day find yourself raising the sound of the string section, placing an explanation mark at the end of a sentence, and manipulating color in a section of a painting for effect. A tree will no longer be just a tree and a flower a flower. You will be able to skillfully manage the audience’s perceptions to match your intent. Ultimately, artwork worthy of being called a masterpiece may be produced and you may even achieve the status of Maestro!

[pictured above] Evening Mood (en plein air, 16×12, pastel on Ampersand Pastelbord). After a few days of painting in this ranching area of Eastern Oregon, I found myself feeling intimidated by all the diversity it had to offer. As the threat of rain approached, a somber, yet dynamic mood materialized. I decided to relax and focus more on orchestrating the elements of the scene to better communicate how I felt. The end result became a painting, instead of a rendition.


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3 thoughts on “Pastel Pointers | A Painting’s Orchestration

  1. Janie Hutchinson

    The orchestra in this painting is of exquisite quality. For a small moment, I wondered why you left so much sky above the trees, but then realized that the french horns were needing to express the coming rain there. Now I see it all – the trombones, clarinets, violins and trumpets in the mid-ground. However, the bassoons and tympani’s in the foreground were my favorite in this piece.