Strength in Numbers: Pastel Paintings in a Series

By painting in series, Singapore artist Isabelle V. Lim experiments with color and composition to create masterful visual statements.

Exploring a theme through a series allows for “unlimited experimentation in perspective, design and color,” according to pastel artist Isabelle V. Lim. In this article excerpt from Pastel Journal written by master pastelist, author and exhibitions juror Robert K. Carsten, find out how this focus allows Lim to “think in color” and spurs her imagination to come alive in pastel paintings.

Commitment to Expression

Growing up in Bangkok, Thailand, Isabelle V. Lim had the pleasure of being surrounded by the arts. Both of her parents were keen on music, art, crafts and photography. From an early age, Lim studied piano, sometimes practicing up to four hours a day, often repeating stanzas more than 100 times to achieve the expression she wanted to convey.

Discovery, No. 12 (21 x 29 1⁄2) by Isabelle V. Lim

At age 12, though, her parents decided to discontinue the lessons so that Lim could concentrate more on academic studies. At first devastated, she found solace in drawing and painting, and has never looked back. Her dedication and commitment to expression, honed at a young age, have translated to a love of exploring subjects in-depth by painting in series.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

While living in Jakarta, Indonesia, from 1995 to 2001, Lim found a mentor in artist and author Nanthapa Cooper, who furthered Lim’s understanding of painting concepts and techniques. They worked together on various subjects, mostly in watercolor, but Lim recalls, “One day, she brought me out to paint en plein air and suggested that I use pastels. It was then that I discovered the soft sparkles of the pastel pigment dancing under Indonesia’s strong sunlight. From then on, I began using pastels with my watercolors.” The artist found it encouraging that many of her paintings sold at charity fundraisers. With that encouragement, she went on to complete formal training at the Open College of the Arts, a fine arts correspondence institution based in the United Kingdom.

Discovery, No. 31 (22 x 29) by Isabelle V. Lim

After working a job as a trade show exhibitions organizer for several years, Lim made a pivotal decision to retire from that work in 2006. “I had been looking after my mom in the last few months of her life,” she says, “and I realized that there were so many things she had wanted to do but didn’t get the opportunity to follow through on. First and foremost, she wanted to paint, but didn’t have a chance to really do that.”

Village Boys No. 2 (45.7 x 58 1/2) by Isabelle V. Lim

After her mother passed away, Lim made the decision to dedicate herself full-time to pastel painting. Lim would try many brands of pastels, but now prefers Mungyo “because they’re very bright.” Girault, Rembrandt and Sennelier—the latter which she uses toward the end of a painting—also complement her creative process, which is based on pigment layering without workable or final fixative.

The Value of a Series

Both Lim’s mentor and her tutor taught her that working in series gives an artist a great deal of confidence in painting. “I find this to be true, and I believe a series gives an artist her individual identity,” she says. “ The chronology in titles and numbers reinforces the strength of the artist, showing an organized mind. I don’t find any frustration or boredom in repetition of a theme.

Village Boys, No. 43 (21 1/2 x 29 1/2) by Isabelle V. Lim

“Instead, a series cultivates control of a meaningful process, allowing for unlimited experimentation in perspective, design and color,” Lim continues. “What the artist wants to express becomes far more articulate and clear when works have closer relationships to one another. Also, those who view the art can see the artist’s sincerity in studying a subject thoroughly, and they can more easily see growth and development. Plus, I think it’s much less jarring for a viewer to see a group of related works than if each painting is radically different from others.”

Exploring a Theme

Hong Kong Residents, No. 16 (16 1⁄2 x 18 1⁄2) by Isabelle V. Lim

Typically, Lim concentrates on one series of pastel paintings at a time; however, she may add works to a previous series, interspersing them among current works. Several series have come to the forefront. In her “Hong Kong Residents” series, for example, Lim adeptly and playfully employs koi as stand-ins for residents of the crowded urban environment. Attracted to a local aquarium market, Hong Kong Residents, No. 16 (above) originated from numerous trips to study the action and responses of the fish to one another, and to observers. “I equate those plastic bags of koi to the living conditions here,” she says. “The fish represent Hong Kong people. Perhaps it’s a bit childish, but I added expressions and smiles to their faces to make them even more like the locals.”

Hong Kong Residents, No. 20 (17 x 22) by Isabelle V. Lim

On one occasion at the market, Lim tilted her camera upward at the fish and was fascinated with the result, which reminded her of office towers and high-rise apartments. She recollects, “I kept taking pictures this way, maybe hundreds, and then I combined some of them in a sketch. It came out well, so I proceeded to paint Hong Kong Residents, No. 20 (above). I was afraid that the colors of the many fish would appear gaudy, so I limited my palette primarily to blue and orange, placing a few color highlights here and there for added interest.”

Village Boys, No. 55 (13 1⁄2 x 21) by Isabelle V. Lim

In another series of pastel paintings featuring fish—“Village Boys”— their movement and color take center stage. In yet another series—her exquisite “Discovery” series—quiet, meditative reflection on ephemeral natural beauty predominates.

Color Correction

To become accustomed to her subject and formulate ideas, Lim sometimes visits a site a hundred times or more, closely observing and taking multiple photos from different angles. Back in the studio, she selects a few photos and converts them to black and white. “I don’t want to be overly influenced by the local colors,” she says. “I love trying something new, to be explorative and inventive when it comes to color.”

Discovery, No 22 (21 x 29 1/2) by Isabelle V. Lim

Lim then works out complicated compositions for her pastel paintings using pencil on sketch paper. Next, selecting either UART 280 or 400, or the Chinese paper Yi Cai, she sketches the major forms in charcoal. With hard pastels and light pressure, Lim applies a range of complementary and near-complementary colors. “I have in my mind the final colors I want, but the result is much more exciting when I have other color temperatures coming through those top layers,” she says. “The colors vibrate against one another. They activate the surface, causing it to come alive with excitement.”

Thinking in Color

Lim steps up the interaction of colors in Discovery, No. 24 (below), part of a series of pastel paintings inspired by the weeping willows and lotus flowers abundant in the environs of Suzhou, China. Using the rough texture of UART 280, Lim developed a system of tiny dots, dashes and strokes, like pointillism, to create the shapes. “Sometimes I just roll the end of a pastel which skips over the rough surface naturally. It creates a wonderful, broken color effect,” she says.

Discovery, No. 24 (21 x 27) by Isabelle V. Lim

The dry underpainting for the atmospheric and watery background was in gradations of pink. Then she added some red and a layer of orange, completely shifting the trajectory of the painting, which she had planned to be green. “It just popped,” she says, “so I made the willows blue to play against that warm background, and I avoided making the tree trunk brown. It’s just the way I think in color.”


About the Artist

Hong Kong-based artist Isabelle V. Lim is a Master Pastelist in both the Pastel Society of America (PSA) and the Société des Pastellistes de France, and a member of the Masters Circle of the International Association of Pastel Societies (IAPS), for which she was judge of awards for the 11th Biennial Exhibition. She was awarded the Silver Medal at the 25th IAPS exhibition; the Bronze Award at the 42nd PSA Annual Exhibition; and the Yang Family Award at the 45th PSA Annual Exhibition. She was the Invitee of Honor at the International Salon du Pastellistes in Montluçon, France, in 2014. In 2018, Lim exhibited as the Invitee of Honor at the International Pastel d’Opale in St. Leonard, Boulougne sur Mer, France.

For the full article and to see more of Lim’s pastel paintings, check out Pastel Journal, June 2018 issue.

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