Online Pastel Demo: Painting a Sunset

They call New Mexico “The Land of Enchantment” and a good portion of the magic results from the drama of the sky. Our dry atmosphere and high altitude make colors clear and bright, setting clouds aglow against our famous turquoise skies. I prefer to paint sunsets from a photograph, which stills the rapidly changing light, but I bring to the painting memories from long observation, as well as plenty of plein air experimentation. I recommend that my students make rapid sketches at sunset, which doesn’t allow time to do much detail, only to see and record colors. As I paint, I try to recall the quick, gestural strokes used in such a setting, the frenzied dashes of colors layered together and the thrill of seeing the splendor unfold once again.

Here I’ve painted on La Carte Pastel Card, a softly sanded surface that invites layers of color, using my softest pastels, primarily Schmincke, Great American and Terry Ludwig pastels.

Pastel Painting Demo of La Carte

I begin the pastel painting on 12×18 La Carte. I’ve chosen the salmon color to enhance the predominantly purple and orange colors that I’ll use. I use extra soft thin vine charcoal to lightly sketch the placement and add a suggestion of values.

Pastel Painting Demo of La Carte

I always start with sky colors, layering several different hues in the correct value. Here I want a dark but rich blue and prefer to end up with a turquoise sky, which I think is more representative of summer skies in New Mexico.

Pastel Painting Demo of La Carte

I graduate the color so that it’s lighter on the horizon, but I use several layers all over, varying the hue and blending the pigment with several layers. I don’t finger blend. Notice that I push the pastel color into the edges of the clouds, which swamps the smaller clouds below almost entirely. This is because I know the clouds will grow a bit larger as I paint them, and I want the sky to be essentially established as behind the clouds. No part of the sky will be in front of any cloud.

Pastel Painting Demo of La Carte

I loosely build color, establishing the strong pastel color and contrasts that will be necessary to the finished pastel painting. I don’t begin with the exact color I want to finish with, but choose richer, deeper or brighter colors that I’ll be able to build on top of to achieve the boldness of this image.

You can see that I started with a dark eggplant Ludwig color for the deepest purples in the sky, but muted it with freely applied strokes of medium cobalt blue. I want to suggest the movement of the clouds from the first.

Pastel Painting Demo of La Carte

I begin to mute the edges of the upper clouds and shape them loosely with more of the cobalt blue, and add pale peach and clear yellow to the clouds and sky in the sun drenched area.

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Pastel Painting Demo of La Carte

The bright, smoky wisps of cloud caught by the sunlight are started with some soft strokes of bright orange. I also begin the delineation of the trees on the ground plane using a deep yellow-green and a few touches of rust.

Pastel Painting Demo of La Carte

I further refine the wisps with more colors, deciding on the shape that will best enhance the overall composition, as well as shaping the sunlit cloud bank, giving it more form. I’ve added a bit more information to the foreground, creating a cool stretch of blue-green to add depth.

At this point, about two hours in, I end my first session of pastel painting. I’m relatively happy with it but I know I have more changes to make. One part that’s not pleasing me much is the lower sky area where the three red-violet clouds seem unrealistic and distracting.

Pastel Painting Demo Molten Moment (12x18)
Molten Moment (12×18)

Looking at the pastel painting with new eyes, I realize I need to take the three clouds out and restructure that area of the painting. My decision is to quiet down the contrasting colors and value on the right half of the painting in order to focus the viewer on the fiery, sunlit clouds. I reshape the lower right-hand area by removing the deep clouds with a foam brush, and repaint the delicate sky and cloud colors there. I mute the orange of the wispy clouds with some red-violets, and add a bit of interest into the foreground with final touches of lights, suggesting the last light of day near a small town.

Pastel Painting Demo La Carte

In this detail you can see the more delicate pastel colors I’ve used, retaining the loosely applied pastel approach used in the entire painting. Most of the salmon colored paper is covered with thick pastel layers, although in places it still influences the look. I find that very often the paper color is more of an inspiration to me, encouraging me to use colors in different ways.


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