Overwhelmed by all the pastels in your box? Pastelist and workshop instructor Michael Chesley Johnson recommends trying a limited pastel palette to streamline your painting options.
“Many pastel manufacturers offer several hundred colors in their product lines; a few offer well over a thousand hues,” he says. “With so many different colors at hand, color harmony becomes a difficult discipline to learn and apply. If you limit your pastel palette, however, it becomes worlds easier to achieve success.”
Limiting your palette works best with forethought. A little color analysis before choosing your palette and making the first mark gets you started in the right direction.
Here are two basic limited color palette options to try: the monochromatic palette and the warm/cool palette.
The Monochromatic Pastel Palette
The most harmonious palette is also the most limiting. Still, you can’t get into trouble with a palette consisting of just one color, because color harmony is guaranteed. Sanguine, or red chalk, has been a popular sketching medium since Leonardo da Vinci’s day, but any neutral color, even gray, will do. “It’s not always exciting, but no one will criticize your color sense,” explains Johnson.
For this illustration, Johnson pulled analogous colors of different values. “Basically, I filled in the outlines of the shapes, using value to model the form,” he says. This is very similar to approaches used by artists of the Renaissance, who used red or sepia chalk for sketching.
The Warm/Cool Pastel Palette
We can expand a limited palette to two colors. Back in the golden age of illustration, most magazine printing used only black and orange. “I refer to this as a warm/cool palette, since orange is warm, and black is comparatively cooler,” states Johnson. “A warm/cool palette is more effective in creating a sense of light and shadow than mere value alone.” To make this temperature contrast even more effective, consider swapping out black with blue.
One would think that, as with the monochromatic palette, the two-color palette would be trouble-free in terms of color harmony, but blue and orange are complements, and if used with equal intensity, they could be quite jarring together, notes Johnson.
Using a range of intensities, from muted versions to higher-chroma ones, helps. Another option that Johnson recommends is to ensure the blue is dulled down by scumbling on a little orange and vice versa.
Johnson supplemented the monochromatic palette (above) with cool blues (below). “I used the warm colors in illuminated areas, and blues in both form shadow and cast shadow,” says Johnson. “I scumbled a little dark warm color into any transition area, to both soften the transition and to make it richer in color.”
The Warm/Cool Pastel Palette in Action
Johnson shows how a very limited warm/cool palette can give you a painting filled with rich, beautiful color.
The artist uses mostly hard pastels and sanded paper when he’s working with a limited palette. He believes he has finer control when scumbling to mix color than he does with softer pastels. Johnson does include soft pastels, though. “Given the fact that hard pastels don’t have the value range of softer pastels, I often pull a few lights and darks from the softer sets to expand the value range,” he explains.
For the block-in on UART 500 9×12 paper, Johnson wants to make maximum use of the warm/cool palette. With this in mind, he uses mid-value cool blues for all shadow areas, but warm reds or oranges for everything in sunlight.
After completing the block-in, he deepens the shadow under the wharf buildings with the darkest blue and black. “I add bits of this to other shadow areas where needed,” says Johnson, “all the while maintaining the warm/cool division to represent light and shadow.”
To modify color, he begins to add cool colors into warm passages and warm colors into cool passages. For example, on the roofs of the wharf buildings and on the beach, he works the lightest blue into the orange to get a pale greenish note.
“To achieve this, I scumble the blue over the orange rather than blend it,” explains Johnson. “I’m still thinking about the warm/cool division, so I hold back from making sunlit areas too cool or shadowed areas too warm.”
“I modify color further, cooling and lightening the most distant shadows, especially under the wharf at the far right,” states Johnson, “but I also start working warmth into the shadow closer to the viewer with my darkest orange.”
The artist continues, “Although the shadow seems cool, in real life they have some small warm areas due to bounced light from the warm sunlit beach.”
Johnson adds more warm colors to the beach to make the color richer.
And now it’s time for the big reveal:
Want to see more from Michael Chesley Johnson? You can stream his pastel video workshops art ArtistsNetwork.tv. Enjoy!
You can find more remarkable works of pastel art, expert tips, step-by-steps, interviews with top artists and more by perusing through past issues of Pastel Journal. And, be sure to never miss an issue. Subscribe here.
Bonus: Your Guide to Pastel Color
Ready to explore pastel color more in depth? Watch the preview trailer of Pastel Painting Master Class: Color for Landscapes, below, for a sneak peek at award-winning pastelist Aaron Schuerr’s pastel-centric color wheel, as well as four inspiring color exercises.
Intrigued? Stream his full-length video workshop now to learn how to make bold, confident color choices in your own work.