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Guest ARTicle: Pastels in the Time of Corona

by Sara Johnson

SAGE Administrative & Marketing Coordinator

As you may already know, SAGE has been encouraging people to join the ARTbreak Challenge during the coronavirus pandemic. Each week, we offer a new challenge prompt and invite anyone (even those who don't normally self-identify as "artists") to break out their pencils and paints to create art while we're all stuck at home.

The Week #2 Challenge that we suggested was called "Learning by Doing." The prompt was to find an art video or tutorial online, or find a lesson in an art book (you know, the kind with paper pages in it), and follow along (or at least just be inspired by) the tutorial to create some art. I watch art tutorials and demos on YouTube and Instagram all the time, so I was particularly excited about this challenge.

What I didn't account for was how difficult it would be to create something in the midst of the global crisis we're living through during COVID-19. Since I'm working from home (and stay home when I'm not working), it feels like I should be incredibly productive because, "what else is there to do?" It's easy to fall into a pattern of guilt and depression if you spend your time binge watching a show while a blank canvas sits on your easel for days on end. "I have no excuse; I'm home all the time with no real obligations!"

But this coronavirus crisis is affecting us all emotionally in ways that we can't comprehend or understand fully. Last week, in particular, I was constantly overwhelmed by the news, social media, people arguing, death stories, and fear that we're all bombarded with 24/7. Even when I chose to turn off the news and take long breaks from Facebook, it still took a lot of effort for me to do anything, much less pour myself out into creating a piece of art.

Last week, I was in an irritable slump, but was determined to participate in the #ARTbreakSAGE challenge. It took several days, and a lot of brow-furrowing, but I finally completed it. Here is a little log of my experience.

1. I had been wanting to play with my soft pastels (that I bought 9 years ago but only used once) for a while, having been inspired by several SAGE members who use pastels frequently (I would name names, but I'm bound to forget someone and I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings). I had also discovered a YouTube pastel artist named Karen Margulis a few months ago, and thought it would be a good excuse to try one of her demos out. I found a video I really liked, somehow talked myself out of doing that one, and then watched about 7 more of her videos (and about 15 videos by other artists) before finally settling back on the first one I picked. This took some time.

2. The video I chose is called "Landscape in Pastel Painting Demo with Karen Margulis". In it, she demos the process of using a photo reference to compose a landscape in pastels. Now I had to choose my own reference. I went through all of my study abroad photos (which are really the only decent photos I have), found a photo I liked pretty quickly, talked myself out of it, and then scrolled through 1,000 more photos until going back to the first one I picked. I sensed a pattern in my methods.

This is the photo I chose, which was one I snapped while on a canal boat in northern Oxfordshire with some family friends. The canals mainly run through farmland, so I liked these little buildings contrasted with the overgrowth.

3. Here is my setup:

My laptop has a handy feature where I can bend the monitor backwards to become a tablet, or I can just create a tent with it, like I've done here. I've found this feature endlessly useful for looking at references or following along with videos. I used my set of 72 Faber-Castell soft pastels. I don't own any pastel paper, but I had some Canson "Papercraft" Mi-Teintes paper in various colors. I chose a buckskin tan.

The way I have the paper taped down is something that Karen does in her videos. She tapes the back of the pastel paper, and then takes another piece of tape to adhere the first tape piece to the drawing board. While I thought it was a great idea, it did not work for me in the end. I'm not sure if this is because my paper was thinner than normal pastel paper, or if my artist tape was stronger somehow, but it was really difficult to remove and wasted a lot of my tape.

I also was not able to get a clear tape border by doing it this way, which I would have liked. As I was creating the painting, it was hard to see the lines I had drawn to mark an 8 x 10 work area, so when I eventually popped it into my standard size Walmart frame, some of the details I had really loved were hidden behind the matte.

4. Karen begins by taking her reference photo and creating a very small thumbnail of the composition and where all of the darks are. She likes to create patterns of darkness that help move the eye through the painting. She also creates a very small (about 3" x 2.5") full-color pastel thumbnail to figure out her color palette.

I decided to skip these steps since I had already wasted so much time to even get to the point where I could start putting marks on the paper. But now that my painting is finished, I wish I would have done them, or at least spent more time working on the composition and accuracy of my drawing. I wasn't happy with the angle of the canal bank on the left side, but I was trying to rush through it and didn't stop to make sure the foundation of my painting was sound. The composition now seems to me to be really compact; I can tell that I was trying to force-fit my favorite details of the photo into the image. If I were to do it again, I would probably make the buildings a lot smaller.

5. After the drawing is done, you can start putting marks on the paper with pastels. Karen recommends starting with your darks first, and using a color that contrasts in some way with the main colors in your painting. My main color was eventually going to be green for all the grass and foliage, so I probably would have used a dark red/brown had my paper been white or grey. Since my paper was buckskin, I decided to go with a dark purple/burgundy combo. After you do your darkest darks, you then put in your lightest lights, according to Karen.

6. You then continue to build up your values and block in details, and then introduce more "accurate" colors. Something that I thought was interesting was that after Karen blocks in her values and the basic layout of her details, she stops looking at the reference photo and just looks at the full-color thumbnails that she worked on before she started painting.

Before I got rid of my reference photo, I was getting more and more frustrated because I realized pretty quickly that I should have spent more time on my drawing because it "didn't look right" compared to the photo. But once I put my laptop away, it was much easier to just make decisions about color and detail based on what I thought would look good in the painting itself. At this point I also stopped talking photos of my work all the time and just "went to town" on making marks.

7. I worked on this over the next couple of days. Sometimes my "work" would just be me standing over the painting, utterly hating it while trying to use logic to figure out why I hated it. Sometimes my "work" would be playing a video game and glancing back toward my art table, hoping that the painting would just fix itself. And sometimes, my work actually consisted of mark-making and trying out new things to see if they would look right.

I especially had trouble with the trees over the buildings; in the photo, the tree closest to the camera has autumn foliage, but has really sparse leaves, while the tree behind it is green and more lush. I couldn't figure out how to make it look like the orange tree was not only in front of the green one, but that the leaves were falling off. I also realized that the reflection of the birch trees in the water made absolutely no sense, so I pushed them down and added a reflection of the overhanging fern-bush-thing instead.

8. At some point, I decided that I was done. I had pushed and pulled values, added and subtracted details, made a mess, and somehow managed to completely lose one of my pastel sticks, which I still cannot find anywhere. I also took the painting outside a few times during the process to spray it down with workable fixative. The image below is roughly what it looked like at the end (not the best photo).

9. I had some Walmart frames lying around, so I popped it the gold one before I decided it was too washed out, so I settled on a brown frame.

Overall, I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. The act of creating something during a pandemic felt more like a victory than other art I've done before. I don't, however, feel so inspired that I can suddenly make a whole bunch of other pieces in a burst of creativity. I no longer feel guilty and stressed about not making a large body of work during social distancing.

What is so important during this time, whether you consider yourself an artist or do not, is to be kind to yourself, and do what you can. Don't try to force yourself to make art out of guilt that you're not taking advantage of all the time spent at home. If you feel inspired, or just want to channel some anxiety or stress into creating, go for it! Don't feel pressured to create a masterpiece. Try finger painting, or painting with your kids.

Next week, we are going to be doing something a little different with our ARTbreak challenge prompt. Our challenge is going to encourage you to take a break to fill yourself back up. It might be through meditation, going for a hike, reading a good book, yoga, listening to a podcast you love, cooking your favorite meal, or whatever else fills you up and makes you happy (including making art, as long as it doesn't make you feel guilty or stressed)!

I'm not sure yet what I'll be doing for next week's challenge, but I now have a new pastel painting on my wall to look at while I do it.


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