Exclusive Interview with Pastel Artist Jannene Behl

Maureen Bloomfield interviews pastel artist Jannene Behl in the March 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. The following is a free excerpt from the feature article.

California Dreaming: Jannene Behl considers color temperature when working with value to evoke the halcyon landscape of California in soft pastel.
Interview by Maureen Bloomfield

One morning in early October I spoke to Jannene Behl. In Cincinnati, the trees had started to change color, and the red maples outside my window were particularly bright. In contrast, Behl was 15 minutes away from the Pacific—looking at rain as it fell on the Ojai Mountains.

MB You live in a small town that’s so beautiful that it stood in for Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s movie Lost Horizon. How did you end up in Ojai, California?

JB I knew I wanted to bring my child up in a rural area, the kind of place I grew up in. When we go hiking we always find waterfalls and pools we can dive into. Except for a two-year stint in Sun Valley, Idaho, I’ve lived in California my whole life. I grew up in Pacific Palisades, Malibu, where my father built sailboats and I spent a lot of time on the water, sailing or surfing. I went to college in Santa Monica, where I studied piano. I was an ice skater, too, and Holiday on Ice invited me to join the troupe, but I got married and moved to Ventura and played in Guys & Dolls.

Leadbetter Beach pastel landscape painting by Jannene Behl artist

This beach is an accident, a consequence of the creation of Santa Barbara Harbor. 'Leadbetter Beach' (pastel, 16x20) shows how Behl starts with simple shapes, then applies many layers of pastel to create atmospheric passages of subtle light.

How did you switch from performance—acting, piano and ice skating—to painting?

I never knew I was a visual artist until I read Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (Tarcher, 1992). She writes about getting in touch with the child within. I decided—because I’d always loved horseback riding and had drawn horses, like all the girls in sixth grade—to take drawing lessons. In Ojai there’s an Art in the Park show every year, and I entered 14 charcoal and pastel drawings of horses, and all 14 were accepted into the show. At the opening, I met Bert Collins, who said, “That’s exactly how I started—drawing Tennessee walkers!” She invited me to her studio. When I looked at her paintings—they were all of nature—I said, ‘I want (to do) that.’ I started going to her classes at the Ojai Art Center, and she pushed me to enter shows. Then the artists at Ventura County Pastel Society invited me to join—that was 15 years ago. Now I teach classes in pastel.

Clouds Over Carpinteria pastel landscape painting by Jannene Behl artist

The Spanish named this beach, located south of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria because the original inhabitants, the Chumash Indians, had a carpentry shop where they made canoes. In this beautifully tonal work, 'Clouds Over Carpinteria' (pastel, 19x25), Behl uses strokes of an ochre that’s warm in temperature to unite the land and sky.

Your pictures are beautiful and filled with light, but they’re not dramatic. The color modulations are subtle. Can you tell me about your process and how you teach your process?

A lot of it has to do with the paper. I use LaCarte, UArt and Wallis sanded paper, but I find the Wallis sanded paper ideal for teaching; I start the students out on black sheets. In pastel you go from dark to light, and with the black paper, the dark is already there. I still have them use charcoal on the black paper so they can see the main shapes. The black surface helps students learn about negative space.

Carmel Wildflowers pastel landscape painting by Jannene Behl artist

Carmel-by-the-Sea has attracted artists for generations. Its landscape contains a city within a forest, as well as a long, sandy beach. 'Carmel Wildflowers' (pastel, 12x16) shows a succession of planes of color—from the subtle blue and rose of the sky and the muted line of mountains in the background, to a row of brush, and then the several waves of flowers, indicated by subdued roses and yellows in warm temperatures.

With a black-on-black surface, how do you teach them to discern negative and positive shapes?

I keep drumming into my students’ heads that they shouldn’t be looking for reality when they paint. They have to learn to see abstractly. I do a demo in each class. I take a photograph and have copies made, so they each have a copy at the easel. They paint as I paint. The first thing I have them do is turn the photo upside down. They can’t see reality—which helps them stay in the negative spaces. I show them that a grouping of trees, for instance, would be a positive shape and possibly the center of interest if everything around it were negative space.

The students start drawing while the photo is upside down. I have them draw everything—the entire shape and all the interior shapes—in charcoal. They flip the photo right side up and back again once they start painting. They learn that you can make anything you want into a negative space. They learn to carve out a shape and then fill in a shape. I have them do the sky at the very end. Using the black surface also helps them because the dark is already there and they avoid what happens when you put light over dark pastel—the result is mud.

Maureen Bloomfield is the editor of The Artist’s Magazine. Read the full feature article, “California Dreaming: Jannene Behl considers color temperature when working with value to evoke the halcyon landscape of California in soft pastel” from the March 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.


Bold Underpaintings for Lively Pastel Landscapes with Richard McKinley
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Click here to watch a preview of the video “Bold Underpaintings for Lively Pastel Landscapes with Richard McKinley.”


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