Begin. Again.

The past several months have certainly presented us all with challenges, but they’ve also offered surprising opportunities to draw and paint with artists who are generously teaching on their websites and other online platforms. Many are offering free sample lessons as a way to attract new paying students and that seems a very fair exchange to me. A few have led me to try new subjects or materials that I’d not been attracted to before.

For example, I’ve never been much interested in pencil drawing or depicting animals. But I produced this graphite image of a sheep from a Drawing Together session, using the instructor’s reference photo. I rather like the texture of the wool and grasses. Especially the grasses.

Peggy Willett’s version of a Drawing Together topic

As I try to find my own creative style or vision, I’ve also been working in pastel and watercolor, using my own reference photos and sketches. An ascending road in wooded hillside near my home intrigues me but my paintings of it, so far, have been a struggle. So after the sheep drawing worked out so well, I carried some of the same techniques into the sketch below. Having drawn it like this, I know this place better and think any future paintings of the same location will be stronger.

Up California Avenue – graphite on paper – Peggy Willett 2021

I’ve also set myself the following 2021 goals:

  1. To develop a more disciplined and regular creative practice.
  2. To overcome my “blank page anxiety’ which I allow to keep me from marring that first perfect page in a sketchbook.
  3. To stop worrying about wrecking a piece of expensive watercolor or pastel paper. It’s just paper.
  4. To USE the (almost) embarrassing amount of art supplies I’ve acquired in recent months.

And I’ve found a new resource that I think will help me progress. “How to Pastel” a blog by Gail Sibley, has been a great resource in recent months, and I’ve joined her art-making membership community, “Ignite!” Having titled my own blog “Artfuel”, the word “ignite” resonates with me and I’m hoping the program structure will provide some much needed kindling to fire up my efforts this year.

So after a long dry spell, I begin. Again. Maybe that’s the point. To keep beginning.

An image continues to inspire

Long ago when I was making cloisonné enameled jewelry,  I made a series of reversible pendants that featured a waterlily on one side and an abstract design on the other.

My inspiration for the waterlily was a watercolor painted by John La Farge in the 1880’s, which is now housed at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.  In recent years this lovely image has been licensed to appear as framed prints, on greeting cards and likely many other media. You’ve likely seen it somewhere, too.

Using his work as my own starting point, I simplified and changed it in many ways to suit my pendant format which was usually a rounded rectangle about and inch by an inch and a half. I created and sold many variations over several years and I hope they’ve held up well and continue to give their owners pleasure. For me, the waterlilies and their more abstract  ‘other sides’ were a joy to make with up to 6 layers of various transparent colors on each side of the fine (pure .999) silver surface. The white metal base allowed light to reflect through the glassy layers, each fired separately in a super hot kiln, creating jewel-like colors that remind one of stained glass.  In addition to layering pure colors, I did a lot of blending and shading of colors in the leaves, flower petals and watery surface, making each piece unique.

Waterlily pendant
One of my waterlily pendants framed with a sterling silver bezel – made in the early 1980’s. I’ll show you the other side – an abstract design – another time.

I no longer make jewelry. I have mixed feelings about this. But I gave most of my tools and supplies to various artists and friends as my business career became my main focus for many years. However, I kept my sketches and a few photos and have recently begun to review them to see which might provide ideas or themes to carry forward.

A few months ago, I found a greeting card bearing John La Farge’s original water lily, which was like seeing an old friend. At about that same time I had signed up to study for a day with an amazing pastel artist, Barbara Benedetti Newton. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I took a few recent sketches and the La Farge card with me to her studio, to use as reference images. I decided to use the water lily for my project that day, in hopes that my being so familiar with his image would allow me to focus more on learning how to handle pastels with panache.

Barbara was generous with her expertise and even let me use a few of her own gorgeous colors to supplement my small pastel supplies. She also showed me how to use a toned pastel paper as a complement to my main colors and as one of the mid values I’d need in the painting. Barbara even gave me samples of other substrates for pastels – a whole new array of materials to consider. And her indoor dust capture system makes it possible to use pastels without breathing in their dust. Genius!

The following series of photos shows the steps Barbara helped me take to create in this medium.

BBN open studio value study phase 1
Step one, a rough sketch with a pastel pencil on an orange toned pastel paper. Above the tape you can see color tests. Then we blocked in the darkest and lightest points. Note the open wire grid below the panel, where a vacuum system captures any falling dust.

With pastels, colors are not mixed on a palette. Variations in color and texture are achieved by layering them in various light or heavy strokes.

BBN open studio lights on
Next I applied more lights and mid tones, leaving some paper showing to provide contrast.

BBN value check phase 2
At this point we took a photo and used the black and white filter to consider whether the values were on target to achieve what I wanted.  Once corrections were made I added final details below.

BBN open studio v3 cropped close
Finished.

The still visible marks and strokes and those final darks and lights make me happy. And it’s not overworked, thanks to Barbara saying “STOP!”  My time with her was a treat and I love knowing that she lives close enough to Seattle for me to consider her a neighbor. Do visit Barbara’s blog for more about her and to see her stunning work. She’s a treasure and her pastel ‘answer book’ is a goldmine for anyone considering this medium.

Back to dustless media

I’m struck with the vivid colors and immediacy of drawing and painting with pastels, but their dust creates an issue for me, at least for now.

I’ve taken some steps to avoid breathing the dust, such as wearing a mask and tilting my easel so the top of the paper is slightly toward me, allowing the dust to fall away from the surface into a collection bin. I’m also using the harder types of pastel, NuPastel and pastel pencils, which shed less dust than softer brands.  Between layers, I’ve also spritzed my drawings with an alcohol or water mist to ‘set’ them on the paper.

But last weekend when I was working on a new piece, the light was just right when the furnace kicked on and I began to see faint, smokey-looking wisps of very fine dust rising from the paper into the air and toward the cold air returns. Yikes!

Because most pigment colors come primarily from minerals and metals, it can’t be good for the fine dust to fly through our air ducts and be distributed throughout the house for us to breathe.

I clearly need to learn more about how pastel artists deal with this issue. And I’m researching dust management methods at various websites to see what other steps I can take.

This medium, for me, may best be used outside or in a separate studio; not my home. It will soon be warm enough to work outside and I’ll try them again then. For now, however, I’m returning to other tools – including dyes, ink, watercolor pencils and paints.  I used them all to interpret this reference photo of some red and white tulips against a dark background.

Tulip reference image
photo copyright by Peggy Willett, December, 2017 – please ask for permission to use

After drawing my composition lightly on some 140 pound hot press watercolor paper, I used an Inktense dye pencil to create a dark, soft background texture around the leaves and flowers. Painting clear water over pencil marks ‘melts’ them into a wash, just once, before becoming permanent. This ensured the background won’t leak into the lighter leaves and petals as I dampen the paper and paint them in with watercolor.

Step 1 Tulip watermedia

Next, I added some detail to the blossoms and leaves with watercolor pencil and softened these with water, too.

Step 2 tulips

I then added transparent watercolor paint to the leaves and some areas of the white blossom. I was slightly terrified to add the reds!

Step 3 tulips

Finally, I added darks and more vivid reds with Tombow pens, which are also water soluble.

Step 4 - final tulips

As soon as the weather warms, I look forward to trying a pastel version of this composition. Outside.

If you have any tips on containing pastel dust, I’d be grateful for your comments.

 

 

 

Pastel practice

Taking a break from watercolor and pencil drawing, last month I dove into an online beginner’s course for pastels at Artist’s Network. The instructor, Chris Ivers, offered the opportunity to follow her step-by-step demonstrations from her own reference photo. Here is my first effort to work along with her:

Pastel practice cropped

Next, I worked from my own photo taken on a walk in my neighborhood last fall.  I like this stand of bamboo and think the strong directional angle of the sidewalk makes an interesting composition.

Bamboo walk pastel

I like the immediacy of the soft pastels and the ability to layer and blend them. Even to brush off any mistakes and work over areas, building up rich color and texture.

Taking this online course also gave me the confidence to sign up for a one day workshop with a very well known pastel artist, who, I recently learned, lives near Seattle. I have long admired Barbara Newton’s pastels, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to study with her next month.

Now, back to more practice.