Pastel Underwater Scenes: Creating Bodies in Motion

Adventures in Abstraction

In her pastel paintings of underwater scenes, Michele Poirier-Mozzone produces a series of work that’s a joyous presentation of bodies in motion. It’s also a feast of dazzling color and light.


Creating Underwater Painting Scenes in Pastel

Realization lI (pastel) by Michele Poirer-Mozzone


Her underwater series came about because of a failed adventure in abstract painting. “Shortly after I started using pastel, I felt I needed a new direction,” explains Poirier-Mozzone. So she painted completely abstracted works for a few months without any planning.

“It was one of the most difficult, frustrating periods for me,” recalls Poirier-Mozzone. “I came away with many mediocre paintings and the feeling that maybe it was all a waste of time. Unfortunately, I still hadn’t hit upon anything that I felt could lead me into a series of successful paintings. I was in a creative rut.”

It was in this frame of mind that Poirier-Mozzone found herself watching one of her daughters swim in the pool on a summer day. “I was struck by the ribbons of sunlight and interesting distortions affecting my daughter through the moving water,” she says. “I was also keenly aware of catching this lovely, brief moment before it flickered by.”

Poirier-Mozzone continues, “Grabbing my camera, I took numerous photos in hopes of using them in a painting. Then it hit me: What if I tried to include an image of the figure in water into my abstract paintings? That was the beginning of an exploration that still fascinates me today.”

6 Steps to Creating Underwater Scenes in Pastel

If you are wondering how Poirier-Mozzone creates her underwater scenes in pastel, then you are in luck. Read on for a step-by-step demonstration on how this artist captures the effects of summer light in water through color complements. Enjoy!

1. Thumbnail Sketching

Poirier-Mozzone makes a thumbnail sketch with references from underwater photography. She works from a still video frame displayed on a computer screen.



Step 1

2. Underpainting

Her work begins on UART paper with a light sketch of the composition in pastel pencil. The underpainting is a wash of oil paint.

For each area, she underpaints a near complement to the final color. Thus, areas of water that are going to be green/blue are painted red/orange. The artist underpaints areas of skin with a dull olive green.


Step 2

3. Blocking in Color

The major areas of color are blocked in gently using soft pastel. “I try to keep a light hand at this stage,” says Poirier-Mozzone. Plenty of the underpainting is left showing.

She also writes on the paper as she works, a process that she says helps her to register what she’s feeling about the painting. A few of the words included are “sisters,” “special,” “sisterly” and “bond.”



Step 3

4. Building the Figures

At this stage, Poirier-Mozzone builds more carefully into the figures, working her strokes across and along the form.

“I begin to refine contrast and detail in and around my focal point [the figure in red] at this stage,” she says. “I add greens and blues to the skin tone for reflected underwater light, letting them mingle with previous layers of warm color.”



Step 4

5.  Pushing Colors

With the painting almost done, Poirier-Mozzone is still pushing the color a little, particularly the gold ochre on the lower swimmer’s leg. She’s also still struggling to get the patch of light on the bottom of the pool to read properly.



Step 5

6. Adding Final Touches

The pushed color in the leg of the lower swimmer is adjusted and toned down. The patch of light on the bottom of the pool is reading properly, and yellow is added with a cool white highlight playing over the top.

The water and figures are further enriched with thousands of small strokes. The writing is all but obliterated, although a few fragments remain, most noticeably on the floor of the pool.



Alliance (pastel) by Michele Poirier-Mozzone


Learn more about Poirier-Mozzone’s process in the October 2017 issue of Pastel Journal, available at

Create Summer Waves in Pastel

If you want even more pastel tips on creating water effects in pastel, then watch the preview below from Liz Haywood-Sullivan’s video workshop, Landscape Painting in Pastel: Summer Waves.

In this trailer, follow along as Haywood-Sullivan establishes a brilliant underpainting with expressive marks and brushwork.

Enjoyed the trailer? Head on over to to start streaming the full-length version of Landscape Painting in Pastel: Summer Waves.


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