Outside my comfort zone: revisiting pastels

In art school, I knew about colored pencils, but they took too long.  Art class projects typically had to be completed in three weeks or less.  So I got my color jollies with pastels.  Armed only with Canson Mi Teintes paper, a small box of 30 assorted Rembrandt pastels, and my fingers as blending tools, I managed to do several pieces I’m still pleased with today, more than 30 years later.

One piece in particular I remember starting at 3:30 am and finishing at 7:30 am, in my dorm room while my roommate slept.  It was a project due the next day.  I’m not a procrastinator, I was simply overloaded studying for a calculus midterm and an art history midterm, finishing programming projects and participating in extracurricular activities all at the same time.  I hadn’t even had time to think about a subject for the drawing.  I gathered some cosmetics together under a spotlight on a blue cloth bag, propped my drawing board across my lap, and laser-focued on the scene for four hours, non-stop.  As I worked, the title for it came to me: “The Face You Want to See”.  When I finally stopped and stood up, I was surprised at how well it turned out, considering my stressed-out, sleep-deprived state.  I turned it in, and got an ‘A’.  But it gets better:  the annual All-Student Art Show–open to any student at the university, not just art majors–was coming up, so I entered it, and to my surprise and delight, it took 3rd place and won me $50!

Flash forward more than 30 years.  Other than one small experiment a couple of years ago, I haven’t worked with pastels since college.  I still have that small box of 30 assorted Rembrandt pastels–it has moved with me all over the country.  I’ve bought a larger box–60 “landscape” colors–and a set of NuPastels, and some pastel pencils, and I recently acquired a set of 20 Caran D’Ache pastels and pastel pencils in landscape colors.  I even have an easel that’s made for working with pastels.  But I’ve been very caught up in working with colored pencils, so they’ve all languished in my supply drawer.

Then something happened.  I was asked by Creative Art Materials, the North American distributor of Caran D’Ache products, to demonstrate their pastels at an upcoming event.  “You can do pastels, too, right?”  Well, yes, but, um…it’s been a long time…uh, sure!  That was the kick in the pants I needed.  I couldn’t show up to do the demo without a refresher.

So this week I reviewed a book on pastel techniques, set up my easel, pulled out all my pastels, selected a reference photo that I’ve wanted to do for a long time but that isn’t practical as a colored pencil subject, and dug in.  Although it progressed quickly, I felt way outside my comfort zone and even caught myself holding my breath several times.  What if I couldn’t remember how to use pastels?  What if I picked the wrong color to blend in?  What if it all started turning to mud?  What if I accidentally smudged it?  What if the crumbs and dust escaped my paper “tray” and stained the carpet?  What if get it on my clothes?  Breathe!

I used both the Caran D’Ache pastels and the Rembrandts.  The former are a little harder, the latter softer.  As in other media, it’s perfectly fine to combine brands to achieve the color or characterstic you need in the moment.  As a local pastel artist once said in her demo, “You can own the biggest set made of every known brand, and you still won’t have the exact color you need in the moment.”

I’m pretty happy with the result..

"San Benito Hills #1", 19"x25", pastels on Mi Teintes paper.

“San Benito Hills #1″, 19″x25”, pastels on Mi Teintes paper.

It was refreshing to be able to start and finish such a large area in only a couple of days!  Now I’m excited to try another one!  I think I’ll work smaller next time, though, so I can finish even quicker.  There’s something about blending with your fingertips, the direct tactile connection with the medium, that’s very satisfying.  But it’s also very messy, quite the opposite of working with colored pencils.  So I’ve bought a big old denim shirt for $5 at Goodwill to wear as a sacrifice to the smudges.

Vive la difference!  Getting out of my comfort zone was a good thing.

When are you going to start painting in oils?

“When are you going to start painting in oils?” I’ve actually been asked this question, more than once.  The first time I was asked, I was speechless; I couldn’t believe this was a real question, so I couldn’t even respond.  The second time I was asked, I was also speechless; I couldn’t believe it was happening again.  Well I’m ready for the next time!

The implication of the question is that surely drawing with colored pencils is only a stepping stone to the real challenge of painting with oils, a “serious” art medium. Here’s my answer:  “I’ve already successfully painted with oils, and I like colored pencils better!”

In art school I had the opportunity to work with many media:  watercolor, pastel, acrylic, oil, pen and ink, charcoal, airbrush.  I also learned several types of printmaking: silkscreen, intaglio, lithography, wood block, linoleum block.  I achieved some success with all except watercolor–probably because I was taught that you need to let watercolor do its own thing to some extent, and I wasn’t willing to do that, I wanted total control.

I love the smell of oil paints, turpentine and linseed oil, and I enjoyed building my own canvases with stretcher bars and priming the surface with gesso.  But boy is oil painting  expensive, space-consuming, messy and toxic.  You have to clean your brushes very thoroughly at the conclusion of every painting session.  If you want to paint over an already painted area, you may have to wait days for it to dry first.  Or maybe you had to end your previous session early and now the area you were still working is too dry to blend.  None of these have anything to do with skill or concept, they are simply drawbacks of the medium of oil painting.

With colored pencils, there is no cleanup.  You put down your pencils and walk away.  There is no mess, unless you are careless with your sharpener shavings.  They are very portable, and don’t upset the TSA at airport security lines, or burst.  They allow all the control of pencil, and all the color of paint.

The quality of the finished artwork is due to the artist’s skill and vision, not the medium he/she works in.  And an artist works in the medium that suits him/her best.  If that’s oil paints, great!  If it’s watercolor, great!  If it’s colored pencil, great!  It’s all good.

I’ll close with an anecdote that happened just last week.  I got a phone call from one of the organizers of a large juried exhibition I entered.  Judging for entry hadn’t started yet, but she wanted to confirm that I’d really meant “colored pencil” as the classification for my entry.  She said it looked like a painting to her so maybe I’d checked the wrong box on the form?  For half a second I was tempted to say “yes” just to see what would happen if it was grouped with oil paintings.  But the glass over it would’ve given it away when it arrived in real life, so I assured her that yes, it’s colored pencil.  I learned today that it was accepted.  The jurors for this exhibit will not be checking the medium before deciding the award winners.

One down, two to go

I’ve been working hard since January just to get ready for the month of May.  Having several hundred note cards printed and then folding and packaging them; printing almost 50 giclees of various sizes and matting, mounting and packaging them; having a banner designed and printed; buying a new canopy; doing more original artwork and framing it; the list goes on.  I have art events three out of the four weekends this month!

Last Sunday the culmination of all the work began, with the Saratoga Rotary Art Show.  This was the 56th year for the event, so they really have their act together.  Unlike other “festivals”, one has to be juried into this one, and 20% of all proceeds goes directly to charitable causes.  It’s claimed to be “the biggest one-day juried art show in the west”.

I’m glad it was only one day, because it took most of the previous day to set up and it was 85 degrees!  The day of the event was gusty; several exhibitors’ canopies had flipped over during the night, and several more calamities occurred during the day.  Thankfully, my booth was not one of them. 

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Inside my booth at the 2013 Saratoga Rotary Art Show

I sold only a few cards, but I got a lot of exposure and opened quite a few people’s eyes to what’s possible with colored pencil, so that was gratifying.

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Visitors to my booth in the afternoon

I was exhausted by the time I got home and everything was completely unloaded; I fell asleep on the sofa before 9:30 PM.  If I ever say “I’m going to start doing the art festival circuit”, you’ll know I’ve lost my mind!

Now this weekend is Silicon Valley Open Studios, from my own back yard.  I’m hosting another artist, Angelica Di Chiara, who is an oil painter.  I don’t have to pack up and go anywhere!  But I have to whip the deck into shape, because that’s where we’re going to set up.  The weekend after that is Silicon Valley Open Studios again, but from another artist’s back yard in Los Gatos.  Then, I get a weekend “off” before launching into June, which is chock full of art activities of other sorts.

Please don’t call it my “hobby”

If someone has a part-time job, do you refer to it as a “hobby”?  What if they also hold down a full-time job–does that make the part-time job a “hobby”?  If they aspire to make the part-time job their full-time job someday, is it still a “hobby”?

Probably your answer to all three of these is “No”.  Yet if the part-time job is making and selling art, many people dismiss it as a hobby.  This happened to me at my full-time job today.  I wanted to ask this person where they draw the line between “hobby” and “job”.

If a hobby is something you only do for enjoyment, then what about people who really love their job?  If a job is something you make money doing, then what about the fact that I have  sold originals, prints and cards, and done many commissioned works?  If a hobby is what one pursues on evenings and weekends, then what about people who work a second job on evenings and weekends to make ends meet?  How about aspiring actors and actresses who work part-time so they can pay the rent while they answer casting calls, hoping for their big break?

I take my art seriously.  I don’t call it a hobby; I call it my other career.  I’ve done a lot of research to plan how to advance myself in it, and am executing on it.  A business plan, goals, milestones, website, exposure opportunities, networking, social media.  Regarding it this way gives me the discipline to carve out the time to make art that is meaningful and will hopefully advance my career, not simply dally for personal amusement.  I enjoy the work very much, but I’ve had to sacrifice the time I used to spend on multiple interests–hobbies–to keep it up.

So please, don’t call it my “hobby”!