Cactus Painting Demo in Succulent Pastels

Artist Lori White Brings the Prickly Desert “Bloom” to Life

Pastels are an outstanding medium to choose for your next cactus painting. The color punch from pastels really stands out. Pastels let their color shine unobstructed, reflecting every light ray with which the pigment comes in contact.

Cactus painting can be challenging because there is so much green to deal with! That becomes even more of an issue if there is other green vegetation in the painting. This can be overcome with a complementary underpainting (scroll through the demo and you’ll see how I start with reds and pinks!) and careful attention to the direction of light (creating cool vs. warm greens), color variation within a value, and use of a color like purple to break up some of monotony of the greens.

Materials and Surface

– A wide assortment of pastels, sorted generally by color and value. Mine include Blick, Rembrandt, Sennellier, NuPastel, Girault, Terry Ludwig, Great American Artworks, Art Spectrum, and Mount Vision, and Diane Townsend

-A cheap synthetic 3/4”-wide brush

-Holbein Artists’ gouache

– White sanded pastel paper mounted to board

1. The Reference Photo

Here is the photograph from which I am working. It is a large prickly pear cactus in Crystal Cove, California. Notice the play of light and shadow on the cactus pads.

Cactus painting demo reference photo

 

2. The Drawing

I started with a drawing on the pastel board with light blue for the outlines of the pads and burnt sienna for the tubercles (the bumps where the spines emerge). Though I often use a toned surface for pastel paintings, I started with white for this painting since I planned to do a complementary underpainting in gouache.

At this point I didn’t include any of the spines in the drawing (I will do no spines before their time!). In selecting the section of photograph to use for the painting, I considered how the foreground shadows could help to lead the viewers eyes up into the tangle of cactus pads.

My recommendation at this stage is to vary the shapes of the of the pad, even if they are very consistent. Some of the pads are always at various stages of growth and decline.

Cactus painting demo drawing

 

3. The Underpainting Begins

This is the start of the loose underpainting done using Holbein gouache with a cheap synthetic brush (since no detail is needed and the rough surface destroys brushes very quickly). Since the cactus and background vegetation are mostly green, the gouache underpainting was mostly red.

cactus painting demo--underpainting

 

4. The Finished Underpainting

The completed gouache underpainting has warm and cool reds for the greens, orange for the blue distant vegetation (upper right corner), green for the red cactus flowers, and some purples in the shadow areas (some of which will stay purple as a foil to all the greens).

Instead of painting brown and gray shades in the photo, I recommend adding some purples and blues.

I used a warmer, more saturated red under the greens in the warm mid-ground bushes and a cooler, less saturated red under the pads that will be a cool green due to receiving direct cool light from the sky.

As I was working, I tried to remember that it’s interesting and varied shapes I wanted to create, not the actual cactus pads. You can add a few random stalks of other plants, even if they’re not there, to add some variety.

cactus demo finished underpainting

5. Bringing in the Greens

I then started experimenting with some of the greens I would be using for the cactus pads and bushes. This was a trial and error stage, where I tested various greens and chose the ones I would include in the painting.

The greens in the scene had a wide range of value, chroma, and local color – all of which need to be controlled. As I selected the pastel sticks from my full collection, I pulled them from their boxes and put them in a butcher tray lined with paper towels to isolate the sticks into the “palette” to be used for this pastel painting.

cactus demo bringing in the greens

6. Getting Zen with More Green

Early into the pastel application process, I worked pad by pad, with the realization that I would go back to each pad, making adjustments as I saw the colors and shapes in the context of the whole painting.

Some might consider painting pad by pad tedious, but with the right mind-set, it can be a zen experience. Note the obvious difference between the warmer greens of the mid-ground bushes and the cooler greens of the pads getting direct sunlight.

Vary the colors of the cacti, even if they don’t vary much in the photograph, to get away from monotonous greens.

Cactus demo more greens

7. Tip of Stick Application

Further along in the pastel application, I moved around a bit, not completing one section of the painting before moving on to the next. I used mostly the tips of the pastel sticks for applying the colors, but with larger shapes I used the sides of small sticks.

I put some dark blues at the base of some of the pads to ultimately get a darker green. Good to know: I did not blend with my fingers at all, since I was seeking a looser look for the painting.

color application in cactus painting demo

8. Starting on the Details and Wholesome Viewing

The pads and mid-ground bushes had their first application of pastel, and I started to restate the tubercles in rich browns that were often obliterated in painting the pads.

I also began to add a little detail to the flowers, and then carefully viewed the picture as a whole and made decisions regarding adjustments to the colors.

cactus painting demo details begin

9. Adding the Spines

The painting was nearing completion I began adding the spines (which are modified leaves). As with the pads, I was careful to not make them too uniform in color and size.

Only some of the spines were hit with direct light, and therefore bright. The others were less visible and about the same value as the shaded pads.

I didn’t paint every spine, leaving some for the viewer to fill in. I worked on the shadows in the foreground. Take note that I deviated from the photograph to optimize the composition. At this stage I let the painting sit for a few days, to be able to view it with fresh eyes.

cactus painting demo: final
As I completed the painting, I added the rest of the spines, and then made adjustments to some of the colors and shapes throughout.

About the Artist

Lori White is a signature member of the Pastel Society of America and an exhibiting member of the Oil Painters of American. She is also an active environmentalist, having transitioned from a career as an environmental scientist.

Here Lori's pastel easel, with the completed painting and the pastels used.
Here Lori’s pastel easel, with the completed cactus painting and the pastels she used.

Her work has been published in Painting North Carolina – A Visual Journey and Painting North Carolina – Impressions en Plein Air. She was recognized in Fine Art Connoisseur in their Three to Watch feature.

Lori is represented by Ambleside Gallery, Baxter’s Fine Art, and Local Color Gallery. Learn more about Lori and her work on her website.

Even More Art-Making

Celebrate your creativity with even more art resources that will give you the skills and inspiration to make any artwork you want come true. Want beginner style instruction? Check out Pastel for Beginners Course with Christine Ivers. Looking to channel your inner Degas?  Desmond O’Hagan offers a two series course: Decoding Degas: Pastel Drawing Series followed by Decoding Degas: Pastel Painting Master Copy. Enjoy!

 

One thought on “Cactus Painting Demo in Succulent Pastels

  1. Anonymous says:

    I live in the desert community now having moved from a Pacific Coast area. The vegetation, or lack thereof, is so different than the plein air work I did in Southern California. I very much enjoyed your presentation of the cacti and your use of Gouache along with the pastels. The result is very impressive. I am looking forward to the challenge of capturing parts of the Arizona I was born in and have returned to not too long ago after many years away. Because my new community is devoid of the many artistic opportunities I came to love, I am looking forward to contact with fellow artists via the internet right in my own home studio.
    Thank you so much for sharing your demo. I am looking forward to more of your work.

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