Pastel Techniques: Tips for Sky Holes

It is what surrounds an object within a scene that tells us the most about its character. The background often best defines the shape of the human head, the tablecloth–the still life objects, and the sky–the trees. Many painting techniques suggest we start with the background (that which is the farthest behind) and paint in layers to the foreground (that which is on top). This may seem logical in approach and work well for painting media that dry to a hard surface facilitating an additional layer of paint, but it is nearly impossible to control with wet “alla prima” (all at once) painting. Pastel, unless workable fixative is utilized to isolate layers, is akin to wet alla prima painting. Our pigments mingle and interact. When placing a dark tree on top of a light sky, a grayed mess can easily be produced as the pigments interact. This is why a preferred pastel technique is to use the sky to define the edges of the tree.

Pastel painting tips by Richard McKinley | ArtistsNetwork.com

A pastel painting of trees on a cloudy day in Cape Cod, Mass.

Since we work on a two-dimensional surface and attempt to produce the third dimension of depth, anything with bulk needs to be finessed. Softening edges and slightly weakening value and color saturation can help to facilitate this. It is also important to note that we are attempting to duplicate the glowing intensity of the sky. When objects are silhouetted against bright light, the light appears to break around its edges, producing a subtle glow.

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When it comes to the sky holes, those areas of sky light that break through a tree, it is important to note that they are rarely the same pastel as the sky around the tree. It is easy to attempt to place the same pastel in these sections only to have it appear too light, ultimately appearing like Christmas lights. Consider what you are seeing: light traveling through a gap in the tree’s foliage. This light must travel through a tunnel and be refracted in its journey to our eyes. As this occurs, its intensity in both value and color are weakened. “Simultaneous Contrast” also plays its part in why the same pastel placed around the tree appears lighter when isolated within the trees form. It’s a visual phenomenon. Due to these factors, in the sky holes, it is best to start with a darker value of sky color and work towards lighter notes as larger openings develop. It is also advisable to keep at least one edge of the sky hole soft to replicate the refraction of light as it fights its way through the tree. As always, “less is more.” A few strategically placed sky holes will depict the character of the tree far better than duplicating every one.

Through observation and a little orchestration of pigment, a realistic facsimile of the sky and its interaction with the trees that reach for its light can be produced.


Editor’s note: McKinley visited the ArtistsNetwork main offices this year to film three new DVD workshops, and they’re now available for you as part of the Pastel Painting Journey: Alla Prima w/ Richard McKinley Kit. It includes the following:
• Pastel Impasto (DVD)
• Alla Prima Pastel Painting (DVD)
• Composition and Design for Landscape Painting in Pastel (DVD)
PLUS an artist’s sketch box with palette, a set of pastel papers and SavvySoap Hand and Brush Cleaner.

It’s an offer that you won’t find anywhere else, and will bring you hours of pastel painting instruction.

MORE RESOURCES FOR ARTISTS

Did you know that the instruction Richard McKinley has shared in the Pastel Pointers blog and magazine columns has been collected into a book? The book by the same name is available now for pre-orders and will be ready for shipping in late November. Click here to check out Pastel Pointers, the book, in the new, expanded NorthLight Shop.

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