Street Scenes / Markets in Pastel

Posted on Jul 4, 1999


What is it that makes me want to paint, standing in a busy street or market place?

On the negative side there can be large vans that obscure the view, adverse weather conditions, an ever changing scene and the interruptions by people who are not content with watching in silence.

However, on the positive side there is the exciting hustle and bustle of the place, colour, movement and a scene alive with people. All the ingredients that make for an exciting composition with it’s array of visually interesting elements. Counterchange, perspective, texture, tone and contrast, all interplay and create dynamics before your very eyes!

Making a start, a common comment often made by those wishing to engage on such a task is, ” I wouldn’t know where to start? ” Well, like all painting, it starts by using the head, the heart and the eyes.

For me, capturing the ‘spirit’ or ‘feeling’ of a scene is essential.

I love to be out there, looking, experiencing and being part of the live performance that gets played out each day.

Now, how to convey this. In the case of a market scene , I do like to spend some time initially, just looking and noticing all the things happening around me. Paying close attention to the light source and how it creates shadows, form, highlights and alters the colours within the composition.

Usually a thumbnail, or small sketchbook sketch, helps me see and organise my thoughts. These being- What is essential? What might be omitted? What, in particular, might present a problem and how might I resolve these problems?

Once I have established ( via a small sketch ) the composition in simple terms, I use natural charcoal to put in the dark areas as quickly as possible.Then working loosely without applying very much pressure, I try to create an ‘all over’ effect of dark masses, a suggestion of recession where it occurs, a mere indication of architectural form and put in constructional lines, which will start to hold the composition together.

After an hour of working quickly, freely and with a light touch using the side of the pastel to avoid any hard edged marks, I hope to have created a general overall feeling of the subject. This will allow me to not only be able to work into it with stronger colour, tone and texture, but to have the work in such a state that any alterations, at this stage, can be carried out easily and naturally as the painting evolves.

I find it important to avoid steaming ahead with any one part of the painting and therefore leaving other areas still in their initial stages with lots of work left to do. To me, it’s a little like bringing all the sheep in ‘together’, working on all areas of the painting at the same time, slowly letting it take shape and allowing it to have a life of its own. This enables me to keep the overall effect fairly resolved at all times.

Like many painters, the biggest problem for me is knowing when a painting is ‘finished’. I’ve always said that if I ever win the lottery, I will employ someone full-time to stand behind me with a large rubber mallet and when that person says, “Thats it, stop!”,( and of course I probably wont ) for them to hit me firmly on top of my head if I dont at least stop and consider what I have done at that stage.

Including figures Pastels, by their very nature, do not easily lend themselves to drawing and painting details. They are however, particularly effective at suggesting details.

Putting people into your painting can be a traumatic thing to attempt. Drawing figures in your sketchbook of two and five minute duration and practising over and over again, will help you gain the essential confidence needed.

Having said that, when out on location people walk, talk, turn around, stop, sit down and rarely keep still. I find this movement stimulating and need to observe carefully where a person’s weight is distributed. Is it the left leg or the right? Are they leaning, stooping turning their head, lifting their shopping bag or gesturing as they talk
to someone.

Once I have absorbed this information, I quickly try and capture it with as few strokes as possible. Sometimes someone will sit on a bench, as in Autumn Days, Norwich Market . I’ll grab the essential colours but by the time I have drawn their top half they’ve jumped up and left! Usually I then go to work on another part of the painting. If I really need a model to ‘finish’ off the figure, I wait for someone else to sit down. In fact quite a few of the figures in the paintings illustrated are made up of more than one person!

On closer inspection of some of my original paintings, you might see one armed, one legged, even no headed people, but unless it really looks out of place it’s better to leave someone, or something, half finished than over worked.

It is so important to treat all areas of the painting in a similar fashion, for to try and carefully include a person’s features when you have treated the tree’s foliage loosely, would cause your work to look quite disjointed.

Working from direct experiences I do like to paint when the sun is shining. Light can cause a scene to go into unpredictable dimensions. Colour immediately loses it’s local hue, shadows mute and carve out deep tonal areas of the composition and highlights can enrich, enliven and create that ‘It’s good to be alive’ feeling, allowing the viewer to travel around and through the picture with fresh eyes.

It may be because I have been living and painting in Australia, on and off, for the best part of nineteen years, that I do come alive when the sun shines, which in turn makes me receptive to the effects of sunlight on my subject matter.

For me, painting in ‘plein air’ is essential in order to obtain that light, rapid, delicacy of touch that the pastel medium affords the artist so readily.

To quote the great french painter Eugene Boudin, “Three brushstrokes made in the open air, on location, are worth more than two days work at the easel in the studio”.

10 Top Tips

Here are some tips, which you may find useful, when working with
pastels on location.

1. Choose a coloured sheet of pastel paper, or card, to suit your
2. Start ‘lean’ and ‘loose’.
3. Try and work as quickly as possible.
4. Don’t press too heavily and allow for a build up of layers.
5. Use a hogs hair brush, or stencil brush, to clear away mistakes.
6. Keep your initial concept clearly in your head.
7. Be receptive to accidents and incidents, if they contribute to what
you are trying to achieve.
8. Use fixative for a good reason; creating a barrier, darkening an
area, holding a heavy build up of pastel in place, etc..
9. Tap the back of your work with your fingers for at least a minute, to
remove any loose particles.
10. Turn your work face down against your support board with masking
tape, or bulldog clips, and hold it in place, avoiding lateral movement.

In next month’s issue, John Patchett will again be discussing his approach to ‘plein air’ pastel painting, but this time he will be looking at ‘Coastal Scenes and Boats’.

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