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.

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