Wednesday, February 24, 2010

About pastels

In the last post I raved about a piece of software I found to help me with my little doodles, and I believe I mentioned that the final image was to be a pastel painting. About that...

There was a time when I was serious enough about the art thing to make a reasonable income from it. I'd like to get back to that now, since it's one of those things a fellow can do without having to be reliable, meet deadlines, or even be capable of speech and locomotion every day. Anyway, on of the media I most enjoyed working in was soft pastels. And one of the media I least enjoyed working in was soft pastels. I'm fussy. I like sharp relief and a lot of detail. Pastels are fragile, crumbly, dusty, messy and hate sharp relief or even so much as a hint of the idea of detail. That being said, the colours are and remain what you originally put down on paper or board. They are essentially pure pigment with just enough binder to keep them from being nothing but dust (thus their fragility and abhorrence of detail).

In this image, for instance (and I apologize for the quality of the photo, the paper texture takes over in a way it doesn't when you see the work in person), you can see that there's really only the slightest suggestion of detail. The picture is far from finished at this point—the edges of what has been drawn so far are not what they will be after the background is laid in, the ears are just blobs, and so forth—but there are some areas that are pretty much as they will be when the work is complete. There is apparent detail in the mouth, for instance, that isn't actually there, and the facial contours are as close as I'm going to be able to get. It was a genuine battle getting to this point, though, and that's because I'd completely forgotten how to work with pastels.

There is a trick to it, and that's what had slipped my mind during the ten years I'd spent time with pixels instead of pastels. Painting with pastels (as opposed to drawing with them) is largely a process of creating large piles of multicoloured sticky dust, then cleaning up the dust so you can make another mess to clean up (repeat as necessary). A picture comes together gradually, layering colours, scrubbing them together, worrying areas of tone together until they agree upon an edge. That's particularly true when one works with the small number of sticks I have at my disposal (there are only nine colours in use here; back in the day I would have had closer to fifty to cover the same range of tones). Once I let go of the picture and started to concentrate on the dust cycle, there was a lot less swearing involved.

Another thing I forgot was that little pictures are a waste of time. If you think about the picture as a computer graphic, you'd have to keep in mind that a "pixel" is a lot closer to an eighth of an inch than to an eightieth. This picture will matte at 18 by 24 inches when done, but if I were to start again it would be a lot more like 27 by 36, or perhaps larger. As it is, I'll have to remember to keep my expectations in check, but I think I can achieve what I'd set out to do—put someone who is very important to someone who, in turn, has been important to me, into a Rockwellian Saturday Evening Post cover illustration.

That leaves only one hard part to go (apart from finishing the painting, I mean): I had completely forgotten what a pain in the butt it is to transport a pastel work. That'll take some package engineering for sure, and I hope I'm up to that task.


Anonymous said...

Wow, what an amazing portrait! If you ever do get around to selling your artwork on the Net (and can ship to Australia), count me in.

I hadn't checked your blog for a couple of months, it's so great to see you (as far as I can tell from this distance) happier and healthier than you've been for a long, long time. All the best, Stan.


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