9th Annual Pastel 100 Competition Winners

Read the complete articles about the five grand prize winners and the top five category place-winners and view full-color reproductions of all 100 exceptional award-winning pastel paintings that make up this year’s Pastel 100 in the April 2008 issue.

Ron Monsma
Winner of the Jack Richeson/Unison Pastels Best of Show Award
Collection With Acorns (pastel, 16×20)

The setup process for a still life involves a lot of fine-tuning, as the artist makes certain decisions about what’s working and what’s not. “If I see something static, I’ll move something,” he says. “You’re essentially a director of this stage play and you’re blocking the stage. You’re making the decision about where these actors are going to be standing on the stage, where you want to call the most attention and how you want to move the eye.”
Monsma finds that thinking of his still life items as actors contributes to a feeling of animation in his work. “Even though the elements are pretty realistically rendered, it does—in my view—help to give them a little personality. I don’t know that it really happens,” he says, “but I think that it helps me in the placement, to think that there’s a relationship going on between these objects.”

Monsma thinks of the setup as a series of smaller still lifes within the larger one—for his more complex arrangements, in particular. “The piece has to work first as a whole,” he says. “And then I think that you have to be able to have interest in certain areas. I try to have little areas that work, and other areas that work, and they all work together—like subplots in a movie.”

Barbara Groff
The Ruth Richeson/Unison Pastels Award
Bittersweet With Blue (pastel, 28×22½)

The story of Bittersweet With Blue, Barbara Groff’s prizewinning painting, begins with the soft natural light in the living room window—that perfect mid-afternoon glow—and the reflections cast in a berry blue ceramic vase and its counterpart in white at the end of an antique marble tabletop. It’s the bittersweet’s branches and red dot berries that carry us through the painting, but the golden folds and finely stitched floral details in the fabric hold us there, as we luxuriate in layer upon layer of rich and velvety pastel. It’s a story about the history of objects and a story about objects with a history, as only one artist could tell it. “The way you approach a still life is really a part of who you are,” says Groff. “You want it to be as unique as you are.”
It’s for this reason that Groff rarely uses borrowed items for her still life setups; they’re almost always constructed entirely out of items she holds close to her heart or items she spends weeks if not months hunting down in antique shops and fabric stores. “Most often, I try to incorporate what I have,” she says. “It makes it more about who I am as an artist.”
… The history of these objects—and the artist’s fascination with the old and the unique—becomes the subtle subtext of many of her paintings. One senses her affection for them in both her meticulously careful rendering, and in her propensity to return to them again and again as subjects. “There’s just such a warmth in antiques. I can’t describe it, but it adds to the look and the feel of what I’m trying to say with these paintings,” she says.

Brian Cobble
The Pastel Journal Grand Prize Award
Tchoupitoulas (pastel, 15×34)

Brian Cobble happened onto Tchoupitoulas Street on the uptown side of New Orleans in 2004, Hurricane Katrina was a disaster yet to come, but already the area was “spooky and semi-abandoned,” he says, and very much the sort of milieu to inspire a painting, as it did this award-winner, Tchoupitoulas. The shipping industry that once fueled the commerce of this warehouse street has moved out, leaving memories but little action. If Katrina altered things even more, Cobble doesn’t know. He’s not been back. He took a number of photographs of the scene, and then finished the painting about three years later.

… Cobble used to begin with a full-scale charcoal drawing to create his pastel cityscapes, but more and more these days, he starts out with just a soft 2B pencil, which is easily erased. He begins directly on the surface—usually a heavy Strathmore Series 500 illustration board. For anything larger than Strathmore’s biggest, 30×40, he turns to a heavy watercolor paper such as 156-lb. Arches, mounted on board.
When the pencil drawing is complete, he covers the surface with Winsor & Newton clear gesso, to give it the tooth he likes. Underpainting is the next step, and a crucial one. Using either oils, acrylics or gouache, he puts down colors that set the tone or may even clash with the eventual colors, but are in keeping with the value structure. Because he went through art school, planning to be an oil painter, Cobble considers himself essentially self-taught in pastels. “I don’t know anyone who works just this way,” he says, adding that he’s done a lot of experimenting with techniques.

Bill James
The Art Spirit Foundation/Dianne B. Bernhard Gold Medal Award for Excellence
Morning in the South (19×28)

If any artist knows how to tell a story, it’s an illustrator, the career choice Bill James made after graduating from Syracuse University and relocating with his wife to Washington, D.C. after living there for several years, they moved to Miami, Fla., where they lived for the next 38 years. Though his fine art studies equipped him with skill across a variety of media—oil, watercolor and pastel—as well as the talent for different techniques, James credits his demanding career for making him an artist-chameleon. “Clients would come to the art studio I worked for and say, ‘Hey, can you do this?’ ” he says. “And if you said ‘No,’ they’d go somewhere else.”
So James plugged away for 32 years, creating what was expected of him by day, and working on his personal art on the side. He says his illustration work was what fueled the Impressionistic, “color-separated” fine-art style that he developed in the early 1980s and that remains characteristic of his work today. “I wanted to do something that was completely different from my illustration approach and the techniques that were going on in the day, which was New Realism, so I thought I’d loosen up and just start laying down strokes,” he says. “I liked the work of Degas and Cassatt—the masters—so I developed that technique of one stroke over the other. Then, over the years, I’ve kind of pulled it all together and developed the technique I use today—which is a little more refined, but still the separated technique.”

Diana De Santis
Art Spirit Foundation/Dianne B. Bernhard Silver Medal Award for Excellence
Jessica (40×30)

Jessica was completed in about 15 hours, which is typical for De Santis, and it was painted on Gatorboard, which is her favorite surface. She prefers this surface for its light weight, which can be critical given the weight of the glass necessary for framing a pastel. She also appreciates its ability to accept up to 10 layers of the medium. “Except for drawing, I haven’t used paper in a few years,” she says. De Santis also appreciates the luminosity she can get from the Gatorboard when coated with her homemade ground—a mixture of acrylic gesso, pumice, a little bit of water and acrylic paint in the color that works best for the painting.

For portraits, including Jessica, the color added to the mixture is an earth green made from ivory black and cadmium yellow, which she finds flattering for just about any skin tone. For landscapes of any season, she uses a combination of orange and burnt sienna. “I’m a lazy sort,” she says, “and I don’t like preparing boards at all. This is a one-step process—I’d rather spend time painting.” De Santis likes to work on a relatively large scale—her paintings are often as large as 4×5 feet—and Gatorboard makes that possible. “I don’t necessarily prefer a large painting to a small one, but it’s a challenge, a different expression and a different way of painting. Sometimes you need a change,” she says.

De Santis paints mainly in pastel, but she also works in oils, and it’s easy to see the similarities between her work in the two media: She wants her pastels to look like oil paintings, and it’s the many layers of rich color that make this possible. Although the color-mixing process is quite different, she says, the painting process—darks progressing to local color and middle values and finally lights—is largely the same.
She uses touches of impasto in her oil paintings, and she uses topstrokes in pastel in much the same way. “I like to do broken color, too,” she says, “especially if I’m doing trees. Little red dots of color—I think complements really liven up the painting. But I do it tactfully, so that you don’t see it too clearly, but it still excites the eye.”

You’ll find the complete articles about these five prize-winning artists and the top five place-winners in the Landscape, Still Life, Abstract, Wildlife and Portrait categories, plus full-color reproductions of all 100 award-winning pastels, in the April issue

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