Poetry in Pastels

“About 15 years ago I started working in pastels and just fell in love with it,” says Deborah Christensen. The Sandia Park, New Mexico, artist now works exclusively in pastels for many reasons. “First of all, the color is incredible. I love the purity of the colors and the fact you can really get a lot of subtlety&#151that you can overlap, you can texture, you can mix,” she says.

Mad Red Sunset by Deborah Christensen (pastel, 23×33) is a 2000 Art Competition finalist.

The color and the versatility of pastels isn?t the only reason Christensen chooses to work with them. “I love all that, but I also love the forgiving quality of the medium,” she says. “I love being able to change things. I like to work loose and fast, and though I love the incidental marks that occur, usually they need to be changed.”

Christensen concentrates mostly on painting landscapes. For years she?s been working from photographs, and recently she?s tried her hand at creating color sketches en plein air to use as references. But she maintains that some of her best work doesn?t come from the stunning landscapes of New Mexico, but from somewhere closer to her&#151her head.

“?Mad Red Sunset? was really done out of my imagination,” she says. “I like to sort of turn myself loose so I can envision something, and this painting in particular was one of those. I was thinking about a sunset, but it looks almost volcanic. I really think there?s something about having the confidence of knowing what?s there and just letting your hand find it.”

That confidence and intuition may in part be owed to Christensen?s studies with Albert Handell, the internationally renowned pastel artist. “He asked me some of the really hard questions that a good mentor will ask, and I learned a lot from him,” she says of Handell. “He really pushed me and took me to places I was ready to go, but I needed someone to take me there.”

Working with a master can have it?s negative consequences, though. “I went through sort of a period of mimicking him,” she says. “I think most of us, when we work with someone who?s as masterful as Albert Handell, tend to do their work for a while. I remember being at my shows and having people walk up to me and say, ?Have you worked with Albert Handell?? It was showing too much.”

Eventually, however, Christensen found a style all her own. “I?d say about four years ago I broke out. I had learned the craft of the landscape and&#151it?s as if I had learned my ABCs, and I knew how to write words, and I even knew how to make sentences, but suddenly I was writing my own poetry with the painting,” she says. Instead of using someone else?s language, I was using my own.”

This unique vision is still growing and Christensen has many plans for its development. Though she foresees no change in medium, and has no plans to give up landscapes altogether, new subject matter will be added to her repertoire. “I?m fascinated by draped figures, so I?ve started doing some of those, but I?m much more interested in the relationship of one person to another. How people relate and how their hands move and what their bodies tell you ? I?m looking at the very beginnings of that.” Whatever she chooses, she?ll go her own way.

Catherine Anderson is a Signature Member of the American Watercolor Society and the author of Basic Watercolor Answer Book. Her DVD, Creating Multiple Glazes in Your Watercolors, is available now on her web site www.catherineanderson.net.

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