Pastel Pointers | Learning from the Masters

pastel pointers corot

Homage to Corot (pastel, 11x14) by Richard McKinley

While I was painting the examples for last week’s blog, “The Power of the Poster,” I was struck by how the second, yellow-dominant example reminded me of paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Born in Paris, France, in 1796, Corot became a leading painter in the Barbizon school of landscape painting that favored realism from life versus the neoclassical romantic depictions of the landscape. These notions of painting en plein air were heavily influenced in the early 19th century by the works of Englishmen John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. Corot’s works are often highly refined and demonstrated the popular romanticism tendencies of the time period, but as he matured, his paintings became looser and demonstrated more of a poetic use of brushwork and tone, laying the foundations for the Tonalist Movement in American art. While Corot had an aversion to the shocking use of color, and the up-and-coming Impressionists would ultimately embrace its vivid use, his roots in working en plein air, his profound manipulation of tone, and his well-thought out compositions laid the groundwork for the subsequent movement. At the end of his life in 1875, he was heralded as one of the six greatest landscape painters the world had ever seen and regarded with great personal affection among artistic circles.

pastel pointers corot

Stage 1

Inspired by Corot, I decided to paint a pastel utilizing a more tonalist approach, using the yellow poster sketch as my major reference. When starting a pastel, I typically rely on a lighter pastel surface and a more vivid color underpainting to set the foundation. This produces a more impressionistic, serendipitous start that often leads to creative responses with pastel. To emphasize the importance of tonality for this painting, I instead choose Belgium Mist Wallis paper, which is a warm mid-value, and began with a light pastel application, utilizing harder pastels like Cretacolor and NuPastel brands. It was important to concentrate on major value relationships and rely on more neutralized (grayer colors) for this underpainting; otherwise, the Corot effect would be compromised (see Stage 1 image reference).

pastel pointers corot

Stage 2

Next, I wet the pastel layer with denatured alcohol to set it into the surface. Since alcohol will have a slight softening effect on Wallis paper, the pastel pigment will embed into the surface, providing a solid under-foundation once the alcohol evaporates. To better control the pastel, the initial application of alcohol can be sprayed onto the surface with a pump atomizer. For a more painterly effect, a brush and alcohol can be utilized. Additional pastel can be applied and re-wetted to effect. Keep the pastel thin. Otherwise the tooth of the surface may become filled, making subsequent pastel applications difficult (see Stage 2 image reference).

Over this tonalist underpainting, I applied layers of pastel. Minor compositional adjustments were made, like removing the small finger of land in the lower left hand corner of the water, and constant attention was given to not using gratuitous colors (see “Homage to Corot”, 11×14, the final painting image).
While I have no plans to abandon my current painting style—I love those colorful wet underpaintings—I learned a lot from this exercise. I may not have been painting with the physical techniques of Corot, but it certainly has made me more aware of the beauty of tonality. When you admire a master painter’s work, remember to emulate the underlying aesthetics of their work, not just how they applied the pigment to surface. There is often more to be learned there.

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11 thoughts on “Pastel Pointers | Learning from the Masters


    Richard, I don’t know how you do it: I am just planning a lesson for my students on the benefits and uses of neutrals–and here is the perfect starting point. Thank you!

    Love the painting posted. It is always tempting to use bravura (bright colour, bold composition etc.) to attract a juror’s or a buyer’s eye, but I remember Elizabeth Mowry noting that it is the subtle piece that will provide lasting joy, while the bold stroke may not reward long-term study as much. A discerning juror/buyer will find him/herself returning to that quiet piece again and again, exploring its nuances. Like the introverted friend, the more time you spend in its company, the more you find to appreciate.

    I have learned, however, that my own (rather quiet) works show best in their own company, rather than in a gallery full of bright contemporary pieces. Worth considering when choosing selling venues.

    Ruth Rodgers

    1. RMcKinley

      Great points Ruth! I’m glad you mentioned the Grand Lady of Pastel, Elizabeth Mowry. Her work is another good example of tonalism and demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be devoid of beautiful color.

  2. Janis

    Would you say that tonalist paintings are generally closer in value with less contrast? As I look at your painting, I am struck with how it evokes a sense of poetic calm, yet there is a vibration and movement within the painting. This has been a question in my mind for some time, does a painting need the high contrast of light against dark and saturated color to catch the eye of judges and potential collectors, or is the beauty of subtlety appreciated and esteemed? Your blog this weeks provokes a great discussion and lesson.

    1. RMcKinley

      Janis, Great question! It is hard to narrowly define tonalism. The high contrast used by American master George Inness in some of his later works would indicate that value contrast can be utilized in a tonalist painting. The definition of tonalism from various sources is: A stylistic trend in painting from the 1880’s to 1910’s that developed out of the Barbizon school of painting (Corot) and inspired such American artists as George Inness and James McNeill Whistler. It relied on an aesthetic of painting the landscape with an overall tone of atmosphere or mist. Neutral hues such as gray and brown usually dominated the composition. Tonalists tried to capture the mood of nature as well as how nature affected their mood. This often produces a calm portrayal, an effect nature often has. So it seems the manipulation in more with how color is utilized in a more subdued way and the sense of prevailing atmosphere. When it comes to catching the eye of a viewer, it is all happenstance. Some love Debussy and others Wagner.

  3. carolsvu

    Richard: Sometimes I feel that not only am I painting with a master, but also a master of art history. It seems that tonalism is the use of values to create interest.
    Carol Preston

  4. Willo Balfrey

    It is so worthwhile to learn what you were thinking and the direction you wanted to take in the painting. It is easy to admire artists from other eras but not to let ourselves “copy” their works .. yet, the influence can make us grow and explore other ways of approaching our painting. Thanks for connecting this work with your thoughts of Carot and the tonalist work he did.

  5. peter

    Richard, I think I know what “tonalism” is but not sure- are we attempting to work with values without worrying about color to achieve a realistic yet mystical effect as opposed to the vibrancy / light in impressionism? I’d appreciate your thoughts on how to achieve a tonalist “tone”, thanks Peter

    1. RMcKinley

      Peter, Corot said it best when responding to a critic, “What there is to see in painting, or rather what I am looking for, is the form, the whole, the value of the tones. that is why for me the color comes after, because I love more than anything else the overall effect, the harmony of the tones, while color gives you a kind of shock that I don’t like. Perhaps it is the excess of this principle that makes people say I have leaden tones (grayed)”. It is always difficult to isolate an artistic movement, but “tonalism” implies that color is not used as the star of the painting. It is not the first, nor last, impression a viewer gets. It is the quality of the tone they remember. A modern master of this in pastel was Glenna Hartmann.