Let It Snow and the Pastel Flow

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Sapphire Afternoon (pastel, 18x12) by Richard McKinley.

As February begins in Oregon we find ourselves experiencing yet another storm. The words “cold,” “damp” and “gray” are often associated with the Pacific Northwest. Luckily, here in the southern portion of the state, we have had snow, creating quite a bit of excitement for the landscape artists. Since it melts rather quickly, and pastel is vulnerable to dampness (its binder being water-soluble), I choose to work quickly in oil or sketch on location, bringing these studies back to the studio as reference for pastel paintings.

Photographing these fleeting scenes is also useful, preserving many locations and lighting conditions, while allowing for minimal exposure to the elements. What the camera produces should always be suspect, however, to the trained eye of the painter. Often the value range in the photograph is lacking, either exposed for the shadows or the lights, and thus leaving the opposite void of detail. Color is only as true as the film and processing, or the technical ability of the digital photographer (I will explore taking better reference photos in a future blog).

One tip when photographing snow in brightly lit situations is to over-expose by at least one stop. The light meter built into the camera doesn’t understand the scene is made up of a majority of white, highly reflective surfaces, so it under-exposes the scene, producing an overly dark photograph. Even with digital it’s advisable to compensate by exposing one under-stop. Example: Camera meter reads shutter speed 250, aperture f11—set the shutter speed to 125, or the aperture to f8.
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Since snow is so reflective it’s more prone to reflecting color. Our mind associates white to snow and often overlooks the subtle color tendencies. As an artist friend said: “Our minds have a built in white balance feature” (referencing the setting in digital photography that adjusts the camera for a neutral color balance). In general, the light sunlit areas will be warmer (towards yellow, orange and red) and the shadows will be cooler (towards blue-green, blue and blue-violet). Since most snow paintings will have a dominance of cool tones, it’s advisable to work on a warmer, toned paper or an underpainting with warmer tones to establish a harmonic bias towards warm (this is true for most landscape painting). As pastel is applied on top of this warm underpainting, it will appear cool to our eye and we will naturally adjust our pastel choices to better relate to the undertone, producing a warmer harmony that feels more natural (to read more about this, see my blog entry on simultaneous contrast). Even when the finished painting is dominated by the cooler side of the color wheel, a warm underpainting serves us well. My underpainting, shown above, for my finished winter landscape in pastel (at top) was done in watercolor on mounted Wallis paper.

I know some of you living in more extreme winter areas have found ways of working on location in frigid conditions. I applaud you. For me, a nice visit to the location for inspiration, followed by an afternoon in the studio with a hot cup of coffee and Vivaldi on the stereo, makes for a perfect winter pastel experience. By the way, I can’t wait for spring!

Richard McKinley is a regular columnist for The Pastel Journal. See his column in the current issue of the magazine.

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