Pastel Q&A | How to Paint En Plein Air with Pastels

Q. I enjoy the ability to draw with pastels, but my work ends up too tight and detailed. I like the way other artists get a more painterly look with pastel. Any suggestions as to how I can accomplish this?

A. It’s tempting to treat your pastel sticks like pencils, but doing so means you can end up with a very tight painting. Instead of thinking of pastels as a drawing medium, think of them as a painting medium. Approach your subject with the goal of creating the subject using big shapes, rather than drawing with lines.

One way to employ this art technique is to use the sides of your pastels instead of the ends. If your sticks have wrappers, remove them. Then break the sticks into segments at least an inch long. Using the sticks held on the sides, block in the large shapes and values of your composition. Don’t worry about small shapes at this point; just squint at your subject and look for big shapes.

I like to think of this process as working with a big brush instead of a small one. As you become more comfortable using the sides of the sticks, you’ll rely less on using the point. As your painting progresses, you may need to use a smaller piece of pastel, and at the very end you might use the point for the sharpest detail. Remember to keep that detail in the focal point, and see how little detail you can use elsewhere. A painterly look implies detail instead of actually painting it.


Q. When I go out to paint en plein air, I have a hard time starting a painting. Everything is so beautiful that I don’t know what to put down on the paper. How do you approach your plein-air paintings?

A. It certainly can be hard to focus on a small area when you’re surrounded by the great outdoors, but I’ve settled on a couple of ways to do that. First, I use my camera viewfinder to help me frame a possible subject. I like the camera viewfinder because looking through it eliminates everything else from sight. I make sure to zoom in a little so I’m not looking at an artificially large field created by a wide-angle lens. Sometimes I zoom in even further to isolate a smaller subject. While it’s tempting to paint the grand vista, in a short plein-air session it’s better to choose only a segment of the great expanse.

Once I’ve decided on my subject, I take a quick photo to remind myself later of where I started. This is in case I can’t finish the piece on location—for example, if rain comes, or clouds move in and all the shadows disappear. Then I use a viewfinder, which is easier to hold than a camera, to look through while I begin my initial sketch.

Early in my outdoor painting days, my favorite viewfinder was an empty slide mount—it’s small and fits in my pocket and works well. Then, as I became more committed to painting outdoors as often as possible, I cut a viewfinder out of matboard, with the open area scaled proportionately to my 9×12 paper (a 3×4-inch opening) and surrounded by 2 inches of mat. This helped me cut extraneous objects out of my view.

Recently I’ve been using a viewfinder made by Picture Perfect Products. I like it because the transparent plastic window has a grid on it, which helps me keep my focal point off center, and a red overlay, which helps me see values accurately.

No matter which viewfinder I use, I always begin my sketch by noting the focal point quickly on the paper, then indicating the placement of “edge” objects–that point where a tree line or rock formation or something else touches the edges. That way, once I lay the viewfinder down, I can remind myself of the frame of my composition: The left side of the painting ends at that tree, and right just beside that rock and so on.


Q. Where and how should you sign your painting?

A. Every artist has a preference on this subject, so I can only offer my opinion. I believe your signature should be visible but unobtrusive; it shouldn’t interfere with the painting or call excessive attention to itself.

If the signature is to be placed in a light-colored area, you can use an ordinary graphite pencil to sign your name. If you don’t like the appearance of graphite, or you need to sign it in an area where that would not show up well, a sharpened pastel pencil works. If the area where you wish to place your signature has no tooth remaining, cover the rest of the painting with a piece of paper and apply a quick, light shot of fixative to the spot where you want your signature.


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