Pastel Pointers | Recording the Stages of a Pastel Painting

The emotional roller-coaster ride of painting, with its thrills and chills, can often cloud an artist’s memories of the stages involved in an individual pastel painting. Since the initial block-in and underpainting stages are covered with subsequent layers of pigment, it’s easy to mistake or forget our recollections of how they appeared and how we responded to them unless we save a photographic record of them for later evaluation. In the past, this wasn’t easy, due to the processing and lighting requirements for film. With the advent of digital photography, artists now have an instantaneous means of recording the stages of a painting, making the digital camera a valuable tool beyond its capabilities of recording reference material.

One of the recommendations I give to students during a workshop is to digitally record the initial block-in of their painting, whether or not it involves an underpainting technique, and to frequently record its subsequent progression. Since it’s impossible for me as a teacher to be at every pupil’s side all the time, the snapshots provide a visual resource for evaluation, allowing me to impart more pertinent advice. As useful as these snapshots are to me as an instructor, they’re even more valuable as a learning tool for the student, providing a historical record of their progress. Even if the final painting isn’t a keeper, a review of the stages will often provide the answers as to why it didn’t work, or did for that matter.

The physics of painting relies on a visual action/reaction within the confines of the painting’s border. We respond to the situation and bring our experience to bear. With each attempt, more experience is gained, as is (hopefully) better painting intuition. Memory, and the nostalgia often associated with it, can prove to be a tricky thing, often impeding our progress if left unchecked. It’s common for artists to feel that what they’ve done in the past is superior to today’s work. Or that the beginning or middle stage of the painting was stronger than the finished product. Whenever I feel this emotion, I go back and review the digital stages of the pastel techniques used in the current painting or previous paintings (I have approximately 10 years of painting stages saved). Frequently, the current works are of equal strength or even better; it’s my expectations that have grown. When I recognize a decline, I evaluate the stage of the painting when it first appears and implement a strategic plan to avert the situation. Just like writing down the moves of a chess game, digitally recording the stages of our paintings for later review can make us better players. While the next game may require a slightly different strategy, being able to study previous games will lead to better strategic intuition and a higher chance of final victory.

Here are three stages of my plein air pastel landscape, Cascade Color:


pastel landscape, initial drawing | pastel painting

Stage 1: the initial drawing on the pastel surface


pastel landscape, watercolor underpainting | pastel painting

Stage 2: the watercolor underpainting before any pastel application


pastel landscape, finished pastel | pastel painting

Cascade Color, finished pastel painting






Learn new ways to paint with pastel in an upcoming online class with pastel artist Stan Sperlak! Click here to find out more information about the artist, the course, and registration at Artists Network University! Sign up now; the course starts November 27!

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