Richard McKinley’s Pastel Pointers Blog | The Incremental Approach

pastel pointers incremental approach

In this small 8x12 painting, the underpainting shows in sections and the incremental relationship of pastel.

Artists bring their individual personality to the process of painting. No matter the subject matter or technique style, who we are and what we like will eventually manifest in how the pastel is applied to the surface. This is what makes every artist unique. Some make bold marks while others subtly swipe. Settling into these technique comforts takes time and exploration. The stages of learning to paint can be compared to human development. Youth is about wonder and exploration. A sense of self develops. Maturity is about taking whatever skill sets we have developed and working within our comfort zone, hopefully to a fulfilling end result.

One technique that I employ which evolved out of youthful exploration and mature observation is the “incremental approach.” As the phrase implies, it’s based in working in small gradual steps instead of bold leaps. This is especially useful if you employ an underpainting process. It works like this: Instead of starting with the extremes and filling in, such as setting the darkest dark and the lightest light, or the brightest color tones, you work towards those extremes, incrementally. We all identify the extremes at the beginning of a painting. These are often the things that attracted us in the first place. When small indications are placed early in the painting, they can prove very helpful, setting a sort of visual benchmark to respond to. But, when overstated, the process of trying to fill in between them can produce overworked, muddy results. The final painting can appear disjointed. I equate this with someone trying to shove cake under the icing. It is a messy process.

What works for me is to start a painting by setting a few masses that indicate the general value and color of the composition (value is much more important than color in this stage) and then respond with incremental movement towards the accent extremes. These masses can be produced with pastel or mixed media techniques and may be visible in the final painting. Once I have set the under-foundation—baked the cake, so to speak—I find a pastel stick that takes a gradual step towards where I wish to go and begin the icing. For instance, if I need to create dark in an area, I will find a pastel stick that is one step darker and begin there, then take another step and so on. When a shift in color is desired, I’ll respond in the same gradual way. This incremental application of pastel allows for the eye to connect the pastel stroke to the underpainting substructure, often making it difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. This allows for gradual work towards the extremes.

When students state that they are always covering up the entire underpainting, I tell them that it is generally an indication that they were not working incrementally or that the value structure of the underpainting was too far off and had to be covered to create a sound painting. Sometimes the cake didn’t work, even with the best icing. Bake another!



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3 thoughts on “Richard McKinley’s Pastel Pointers Blog | The Incremental Approach


    It is your incremental approach that makes you stand out among pastelists, Richard–it creates the wonderful subtlety and atmosphere that so many others lack. Bravo–and thanks for sharing your techniques with the rest of us!

    Ruth Rodgers