In this step-by-step demo, learn how to capture the effects of summer light in water through color complements.
By John A. Parks
Adventures in Abstraction
In her underwater scenes in pastel, Michele Poirier-Mozzone produces a series of work that’s a joyous presentation of bodies in motion. It’s also a feast of dazzling color and light. Her underwater series came about because of a failed adventure in abstract painting. “Shortly after I started using pastel, I felt I needed a new direction,” explains Poirier-Mozzone. So she painted completely abstracted works for a few months without any planning.
“It was one of the most difficult, frustrating periods for me,” recalls Poirier-Mozzone. “I came away with many mediocre paintings and the feeling that maybe it was all a waste of time. Unfortunately, I still hadn’t hit upon anything that I felt could lead me into a series of successful paintings. I was in a creative rut.”
It was in this frame of mind that Poirier-Mozzone found herself watching one of her daughters swim in the pool on a summer day. “I was struck by the ribbons of sunlight and interesting distortions affecting my daughter through the moving water,” she says. “And I was also keenly aware of catching this lovely, brief moment before it flickered by.” Poirier-Mozzone continues, “Grabbing my camera, I took numerous photos in hopes of using them in a painting. Then it hit me: What if I tried to include an image of the figure in water into my abstract paintings? That was the beginning of an exploration that still fascinates me today.”
A Sketch to Start
Poirier-Mozzone’s working process begins with sketches from her selected video frames. She uses a GoPro camera, which are video cameras designed for use in a sports environment, providing high-quality, moving images even in difficult and dynamic situations. Poirier-Mozzone found that by going through her captured video footage frame by frame, she was able to select precisely the moment that interested her. Putting the frame up on a computer screen, she makes rough drawings in ballpoint pen in her sketchbook. “I’m a big believer in doing thumbnail drawings to work out composition and value before starting a painting,” she says.
Having developed an image in her sketchbook by simply blocking in the values with some rough crosshatching, the artist then begins working, usually on a sheet of UART paper. “I sketch in the composition in pastel pencil,” says the artist, “and then lay in an underpainting in colors I think will complement the subsequent layers of pastel.” For her underpainting, Poirier-Mozzone usually uses watercolor or oil paint brushed on thinly, a choice allowed by the remarkable properties of the synthetic paper she uses.
Once the underpainting has dried, Poirier-Mozzone begins to lay down pastel in broad, open strokes. “The initial layers are light and gestural,” she says, “and I’m trying to maintain values.” At this stage, the artist also leaves a great deal of the underpainting showing. “I want to keep that color action for later in the work,” she says.
It’s also at this stage that she begins to incorporate words and phrases into the image. “I write things that come to me as I paint,” she says. “I keep it loose and playful, but it also helps me focus on what the work is about.” Gradually, as she carries on, much of this writing becomes covered, so that, at the finish, only a smattering of fragments remain, a kind of poetic record of the artist’s working and thinking progress.
Refining Color to Finish
Having established her painting in broad strokes, Poirier-Mozzone now goes back through the image, enriching the color and working the figures with more care. Sometimes she’ll “push” color, exaggerating values that she may later pull back. “The truth is that underwater photographs are very blue,” she says. “I find that if I add in a greater value range during the process, I wind up, at the end, with a more satisfying sense of light and depth.” In the skin of her swimmers, for instance, the artist sometimes will add stronger ochres and reds before adding the greens and blues of the reflected underwater light back in.
While she’s refining and adjusting the rendering of the figures, Poirier-Mozzone may use a slightly harder pastel, generally Nupastel, on top of her soft pastels. “I find it helpful when a lot of pastel is already on the paper, and I want to add a hint of color and do a little blending,” she says. “The Nupastels are perfect because they’re hard and allow me to apply just a little color but not too much.”
Edge to Finish
The artist also is working on the quality of edges in the late stages of painting. “I really try to think about edges a lot,” she says, “softening them toward the end. It can make such a difference, even if the changes are sometimes only very small.” Like many artists before her, Poirier-Mozzone has discovered that a variety of edges can help to create a more coherent and atmospheric space in the work.
Finally, Poirier-Mozzone must decide when to stop painting and finds that she leaves different paintings at different levels of finish. “I’m perfectly OK with areas of the surface showing, and leaving large passages of under- painting and portions of the composition less fully rendered than others,” she says. “In fact, I prefer it that way. Some paintings, however, just seem to require more refinement before I feel they’re complete.”
Themes Within Series
While concentrating on the swimming pool as subject matter, Poirier-Mozzone has managed to explore a number of narrative themes. Some paintings feature pairs of swimmers, usually her daughters, whose interactions seem to speak to some basic ideas about human relationships and companionship. “ The image I captured for Alliance (shown in the demo below) struck me, not only with a great sense of light and dazzling reflections, but with the beautiful psychological and physical bond between the subjects,” she says. “The emotional relationships are what the narrative is about.”
Other paintings, like Unbound (above), feature single swimmers who often seem lost in their own worlds as they float, sometimes with eyes closed, while the sun blazes down from above. In another series, which the artist calls “These Changes,” she features images of a more mature female form, perhaps the artist herself, standing in a pool, as in These Changes III (below). The viewer’s vantage point is from beneath the water. The figure appears extremely distorted, the body fragmented and twisted.
“This series was done in the winter of 2015 to 2016,” recalls the artist. “It was a time when I was having issues with getting older, and I just internalized this series and made it about self-image and body issues. The distortion plays into this idea. I weaved into the fabric of these pieces what was on my mind at the time. In some ways, it was cathartic.” These images are also among the most adventurous the artist has produced, with their extreme distortions and passages of more or less abstract painting in the fragmented shimmer of the water.
Whatever her theme, Poirier-Mozzone maintains a lively surface with fresh strokes, broken color, and considerable verve in her marks and gestures. “Uniform marks of the same size aren’t exciting to me, so I try to vary my strokes as best I can.”
In the end, after all the work and struggle to make a painting, Poirier-Mozzone is thrilled when she has made a connection with an audience. “It’s fulfilling when someone sees something in my work that speaks to them,” she says. “I’m reminded of a buyer who told me she hung my painting up where she’d see it every day. As she walks by, she’s inspired by the deeper meaning that she associates with it.
“Art is something so personal — we’re alone in our studios creating something from deep within us. To have someone connect with our work like that is thrilling.”
Pastel Demo: Creating Alliance
If you are wondering how exactly Poirier-Mozzone creates underwater scenes in pastel, then you are in luck. Read on for quick step-by-step demonstration on how to capture the effects of summer light in water through color complements. Enjoy!
1. Thumbnail Sketching
Poirier-Mozzone makes a thumbnail sketch with references from underwater photography. She works from a still video frame displayed on a computer screen.
Her work begins on UART paper with a light sketch of the composition in pastel pencil. The underpainting is a wash of oil paint. For each area, she underpaints a near complement to the final color. Thus, areas of water that are going to be green/blue are painted red/orange. The artist underpaints areas of skin with a dull olive green.
3. Blocking in Color
The major areas of color are blocked in gently using soft pastel. “I try to keep a light hand at this stage,” says Poirier-Mozzone. Plenty of the underpainting is left showing. She also writes on the paper as she works, a process that she says helps her to register what she’s feeling about the painting. A few of the words included are “sisters,” “special,” “sisterly” and “bond.”
4. Building the Figures
At this stage, Poirier-Mozzone builds more carefully into the figures, working her strokes across and along the form. “I begin to refine contrast and detail in and around my focal point [the figure in red] at this stage,” she says. “I add greens and blues to the skin tone for reflected underwater light, letting them mingle with previous layers of warm color.”
5. Pushing Colors
With the painting almost done, Poirier-Mozzone is still pushing the color a little, particularly the gold ochre on the lower swimmer’s leg. She’s also still struggling to get the patch of light on the bottom of the pool to read properly.
6. Adding Final Touches
The pushed color in the leg of the lower swimmer is adjusted and toned down. The patch of light on the bottom of the pool is reading properly, and yellow is added with a cool white highlight playing over the top. The water and figures are further enriched with thousands of small strokes. The writing is all but obliterated, although a few fragments remain, most noticeably on the floor of the pool.
A version of this article written by John A. Parks first appeared in Pastel Journal.
Create Summer Waves in Pastel
Enjoyed learning how to create underwater scenes in pastel? Then watch the preview below from Liz Haywood-Sullivan’s video workshop, Landscape Painting in Pastel: Summer Waves, to learn even more pastel tips for creating water effects. In this trailer, follow along as Haywood-Sullivan establishes a brilliant underpainting with expressive marks and brushwork.