Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to questions that people frequently ask me about pastels and how I paint with them. You can also visit the My Process page to learn how I develop a painting, examples of paintings in progress, and a video interview in which I talk about my work.
Are pastels chalk?
No. High quality pastels are soft sticks of color made from ground-up pigments, often minerals like ochre, cadmium and cobalt. They’re held together with a tiny bit of binder, yielding vibrant colors and a buttery texture you can “paint” with easily. Chalk is mostly limestone with a tiny bit of color added– hence the term chalky – good for blackboards and hopscotch, not a painting.
Why is the surface of the painting textured?
A textured surface (not quite sandpaper, but similar) grabs little crystals of pigment when I run the soft pastel stick over it. For some areas, like the sky, I might deliberately press harder to fill in and smooth the surface. For other areas, such as old buildings, waves and cobblestone streets, the texture helps describe the subject, so I let it show. With a gentle touch, I can avoid filling in the texture – or breaking the pastel stick – so I can use multiple colors in the same area.
Why do you use multiple colors in the same area?
Each color catches the light differently, contributing to the vibrancy of the painting. Lighter and darker shades of the same color help show distance or volume. Complementary colors (opposites on the color wheel, like blue and orange) cause vibrations for your eyes, creating a sense of energy and movement in the painting. I also use multiple colors to create really dark or light areas, since I don’t paint with black, white or brown.
Why don’t you use black, white or brown?
In a nutshell, I don’t use them because they dull the painting. Black is essentially the absence of color and energy – think black holes. This is the opposite of what I’m trying to achieve. White tends to give paintings a “chalky” look, which is exactly what I don’t want people to mistakenly think about pastels. Brown is what you get if you blend too many colors together while pressing too hard – mud, basically, whereas my goal is vibrancy.
Then how do you get really dark and light areas?
If you look closely, you’ll see that the light areas are really very pale blue, yellow, peach and lavender. Similarly, for dark areas I use my deepest blues, violets, greens and reds. Your brain understands what you see as shadows and tree trunks, or white clothing and clouds, but the painting stays vibrant and more interesting.
Do you work from photographs?
Yes, but I don’t try to duplicate photos. I personally find little creativity in copying, and everybody can take photos with their phones these days. Besides, cameras tend to flatten things and are easily fooled by bright light, so photos lose a lot of what your eyes see. The hundreds of photos I take when traveling are used for reference in my studio, to remind me about what inspired me. They provide information about shapes and details, but I paint expressionistically, showing how it felt to be there. I want you to see what it was that made me stop in my tracks and say “wow!”