Want to take your work from the realm of “potential” to “prizewinner”? Master pastelist, Albert Handell, shares how sometimes a little distance and a new perspective on an unresolved painting can help take your work to a new level. Enjoy!
How to Find Your Painting ‘Resolve’
I painted a special moment en plein air while on a trip around Bend, Oregon, more than a decade ago. And then it remained on the painting rack in my studio until January 2017. I sensed that while I had something really good, something was amiss or still missing. But what?
The work just wasn’t fully “resolved,” or finished, to my satisfaction. It languished on the rack for all those years.
An Unresolved Painting, Resolved
Periodically, I will review an unresolved painting. And when I finally looked at A Special Moment again more than 10 years later, I realized immediately what was needed to give it a stronger sense of place. I simply needed to add the flutter of some light green foliage to round out and pull together the composition.
I made a point to use much lighter, brighter yellow-greens, so that they’d stand out in front of the darker, colder green tones of the background stream. Here’s why.
The logs in the stream are placed in front of the rich, cool greens of the background stream. However, to prevent the viewer’s eye from focusing any further on the details of the logs or the stream, I obfuscated and married together the two areas by adding the slight, rhythmical flutter of the bright green foliage (see the painting detail, above). This eliminated the risk of having too much attention on the logs and background stream.
I originally had painted the rocks on the right side of the painting using just a few brisk strokes in the correct value and color. I didn’t want to add too much detail or finish to that secondary area of the painting, which could complicate what I view as the essence of the pastel — the energy and movement of the water.
Because of this, I left that side of the stream as is. And I resolved the area with the suggestion of foliage (see painting detail, below).
What was the secret to determining these final touches for A Special Moment? Patience, the clarity of a fresh view and then, once I had clarity, acting immediately on what was needed. With just a few strokes, the painting was resolved.
The nucleus of the painting had been there all along, but without the additional pastel work, I wouldn’t have framed or exhibited it. It would have lingered, unresolved, in my studio.
A Closer Look
Sometimes it’s just as important to understand why some areas of a piece weren’t touched as it is to understand why others were. For example, I elected not to touch the lower left of the painting, which dramatically highlights the watercolor underpainting (see the detail, below), because I didn’t want to hide it under layers of pastel.
I knew the exposed watercolor would add interest and complement the opacity of the pastel. In fact, I begin all of my pastel paintings with a watercolor underpainting for this textural contrast.
Another reason I avoided that section is a compositional one: I didn’t want to distract the viewer’s eye from the center of interest. I wanted the viewer to focus on the energy of the moving water and its surroundings, because that energy is the most important element. I tried to convey that by slightly panning in and playing down the peripheral areas — especially eliminating strong cast shadows from cutting across the water.
Seeing With Fresh Eyes
It’s easy to become emotionally involved in many ways while painting. Just think of the experience: You begin work on a blank surface, and three hours or so later, you’ve got a finished, or practically finished, work … perhaps.
If you find you’ve got an unresolved painting on your hands, my best advice is to avoid fiddling with it. Instead, put it aside and come back to it with fresh eyes. You’ll know intuitively when the time is right to return. It may be the next day — or it may be more than a decade later.
About the Artist
During the summer months, master pastelist Albert Handell paints almost exclusively en plein air using pastels or a combination of pastel over a watercolor underpainting. During the winter months, he prefers to work in his studio, painting larger works in oil.
The artist demonstrates all of these painting processes in his workshops and Paint-a-Long mentoring programs. He’s represented by the Ventana Fine Art Gallery, in Santa Fe, N.M., which stages an annual solo exhibition of his work.
This article by Albert Handell on resolving unresolved paintings first appeared in Pastel Journal. Subscribe today.
Showcase Your Art
Now that you know how to take your unresolved painting to a prizewinning work of art, consider entering your work into this year’s Pastel 100 competition. Not only do you have the chance for your work to be featured in an issue of Pastel Journal, but this annual competition offers cash, prizes and publicity! So what are you waiting for? Learn more and enter your art here.