Improving Reality

Joan Polzin’s The Sand Pile is a charming pastel painting of two children playing at the beach. Her drawing is outstanding and the overall composition is unusual and interesting. I especially enjoyed the tiny spot of light on the boy’s nose. Polzin makes it easy for us to see why the subject of children on beaches has captivated artists for generations. I’ve done several of these paintings myself, and I know they’re not easy to do.

Areas to Work On
Polzin composed The Sand Pile from two photographs, helping her capture the poses and gesture of these active children. Photos can be great reference material—even Edgar Degas and Thomas Eakins used the camera—but as artists we must learn to interpret and edit the photograph. The main difference between seeing something with our own eyes and looking at a photographic interpretation is in the shadows. The camera sees them as nearly black; an artist looks into the shadows and sees color.

Principles At Work
Casting shadows. This painting shows us a brilliant sunny day, perfect for a beach scene. But even though there must be very strong light bouncing around from the sand and the sky, Polzin has allowed herself to rely too much on what the camera is showing her, particularly in the shadows. For instance, the distinct shadow of the girl’s hand on her knee, though exquisitely painted, would never be seen if the child were actually running past you. In addition, the shadow cast by the girl’s arm on her dress is as dark as that on her legs, which also wouldn’t appear like that.

Polzin is missing a wonderful opportunity here to express the feeling of light, air and movement by making these shadows too dark and too rigid. She could use some blues and some oranges in the shadows to brighten the entire painting. In addition, she could soften or lose some of the hard edges on the shadows. These would all be easy to do in pastel.

Coloring the world. One of painting’s advantages over photography is that we have more control over how color is used to lead the eye around a painting or to help unify the piece. The colors Polzin used in The Sand Pile were probably what she saw in her references. But some questions come to mind as I look at it: Is the pattern in the boy’s shirt helping the painting? Why not give him a sparkling white shirt instead? How about a yellow, light blue or white sand pail with a red handle? These colors would provide a great touch right in the center of interest and would tie in with the colors in the girl’s dress, for instance. Also, changing the color of the bucket would take care of the fact that it’s similar in value to the surrounding sand.

A color thumbnail is a great tool for making sure these questions are considered up front. With pastel, it’s hard to change colors midpainting, so I’d recommend that Polzin make some quick drawings and play with various color combinations until she’s satisfied that the values and the potential for color unity are what she wants—rather than what’s there.

On another color note, the sand where the boy is digging is darker than the sand near the water. But the sand by the water would naturally be wet and, thus, darker than the foreground sand. I think it would be better if the sand where the boy and girl are were closer in color and value to the lighter sand in the middle ground. This would put the children on the same plane as the beach, and thus they wouldn’t seem to be on a high dune.

Editing a story. Polzin has captured a moment in these children’s lives. But she also has the opportunity to tell a story. For instance, rather than having the girl run off to fill her bucket with water, what if she were running toward her brother? The two interacting in their play would convey a different story. Changing the direction of the girl would also help keep the viewers’ eyes in the image, rather than running off the edge of the painting.

Learning from the masters. Studying the children-at-the-beach paintings by Joaquin Sorolla, John Singer Sargent and Edward H. Potthast would be extremely helpful for anyone wishing to take on a project like this. All were exceptional at portraying the brilliant, sometimes glaring light at the shore and the way the light and the wind have a tendency to blur and blend shapes together. Martha Walter is another great artist to check out. She did very fresh and free paintings of groups of women and children at the beach.

Lessons Learned
It’s not unusual for a developing artist to paint too literally from photographs. As you gain experience, you can better trust your own ideas of color and design, and use photos for information only. But so far I think that Polzin has remarkable drawing skills and that she’s genuinely interested in painting people. I have no doubt she’ll be a great success as a portrait painter.

About the Artist
Joan Polzin of Brookfield, Connecticut, works in pastels, oils and gouache, but prefers pastels because of the ease of choosing the colors rather than having to mix them. She currently works as a social worker but plans to make art full time in the near future. “In the meantime,” she says, “my goals are to learn as much as I can about pastels and oils, develop my drawing and composition skills, and learn how to bring beauty into my art.”

Tera Leigh is a writer and artist living near San Francisco. Her passion is creativity and she writes columns for Decorative Artist’s Workbook and PaintWorks magazines. Her design work has been published in such magazines as Romantic Homes, ToleWorld and 101 Decorating Ideas. She’s also a contributor to Artist’s Sketchbook (from the editors of The Artist’s Magazine). Look for her new book, The Complete Guide to Decorative Painting (Northlight Books) in October. Her Web site is

You may also like these articles: