The demo: how I paint

Although I have been teaching pastels for about three years, and have more than thirty years of teaching experience, the thought of completing a complete demo for my students was still daunting! I wasn't sure I could articulate what I was doing and why I was doing it ( a "left brain" analytical kind of task) at the same time as actually painting (definitely right brain!).  However, my students had asked, saying they felt they learned a lot by simply watching me, so I took a deep breath and agreed. In the weeks up to the demo date, I tried to think clearly about what I actually DO as I'm preparing to paint.  It may look as if I simply dive right in, but in fact a great deal of thought goes on behind the scenes before the pastel touches the paper.  So, I developed a step-by-step talk to precede the actual demonstration of painting.

First, I scrolled through a file of photos taken this summer, and talked about how I carry a camera in my car at all times, and constantly watch for promising scenes and light effects as I'm driving anywhere at all.  I am fortunate to live in the country, and my daily commute takes me through lovely rural landscapes, across streams, and beside marshes and lake edges.  My summer photos include myriad such scenes, snapped at all times of the day, but especially in early or late light, when the raking sun creates dramatic values and saturated colours.  I showed the students how I frame the possible scene in many different ways, turning the camera horizontally and then vertically, zooming in and out, stepping right and left.  An eventual painting may be any one of these shots, or a combination of several.



Then, I showed them how I play an on-screen slide show of a file of photos, while I stand across the room watching for a composition or light effect that jumps out at me.  Once I have several to consider, I start playing with the scenes in iphoto or photoshop.  I try various crops to experiment with placement of the focal point and various formats (rectangle? oblong? square? vertical?); saturating colours more to see what would happen if I pushed them one way or another (cooler? warmer? brighter? moodier?); changing the exposure to try increasing or decreasing the contrast; and, finally, I look at the scene in black & white or grayscale to assess the value range in the piece. Eventually one composition will be the winner, and I'll create a version with the desired cropping, saturation, and value scale.




I might also do two thumbnail sketches in ballpoint pen--one of the value pattern, looking for a pattern that is either mostly light with a smaller pattern of linked darks, or the opposite (mostly dark with a smaller linked pattern of lights), and one of the major shapes outlined by simple lines, to check that I have big shapes, middle sized shapes, and small shapes for variety and interest. I'll check that primary and secondary points of interest are falling near intersections of lines dividing my planned paper shape into thirds. As well, I spend a few moments thinking clearly about WHY I am choosing to paint this particular scene.  Often, I'll choose a title that encapsulates whatever that concept is--is it something about the light, the season, the place, the mood? If I am clear about what the concept is, I'm more likely to make decisions throughout the painting process that enhance the idea rather than obscuring or diluting it.

NOW, it's finally time to cut the piece of pastel paper and clip it to my board. With the final slide on my nearby computer screen, I sketch in the main shapes with a pastel pencil.  Then comes the pastel underpainting, an alcohol wash, and the actual painting.  I've detailed these steps in earlier posts, so I won't describe them here, but during the demo I tried to explain not only what I was doing, but why I was doing it. My rhythm is to paint until I feel myself slowing down because I'm not sure what to do that point, I step back, switch from right to left brain (from intuitive to analytical) and examine what needs to happen next.  Typically, the minute I step back, the next step is abundantly clear, as in "Yikes, that tree looks like a huge lump; I need some sky holes and to vary the edges more!" It was fun to see if the students agreed about what needed to happen next--after awhile, we were almost painting by committee! The main focal point tree, which I had underpainted in purples and oranges, intending it to be a late summer green, ended up being an early fall orange, which shifted the focus of the whole painting.  That was part of the lesson, of course--to stay alert to what is working in a painting, and let it speak to you along the way. In the same way, the cornfield became an amorphous "field of yellow"--grain? sunflowers?  it didn't matter, it just needed to be less identifiable, softer and less obtrusive in order to provide a stage for the main players (the tree and the reflection in the stream).

Once I got started, it was fun--my nerves settled and my confidence returned.  After the students left, I did some fine-tuning and corrected a logic problem in the reflection (it wasn't actually reflecting anything in the landscape above it!). I think the final painting, Summer's End (as named by Audrey) is quite successful, and I do believe the demo was worthwhile for the students.  Whew!

However, my students' satisfaction COULD have been because they got the chance to cuddle the studio kittens throughout the demo! :)