I always enjoy the high mountains. Something about altitude just works for me. It might have something to do with having grown up in the Ecuadorian Andes, shuffling between towns at 7,000, 9,000 and 10,600 feet. Whatever the reason, I feel the mountains calling me all the time.
I’ve been fortunate to hang out with these huge peaks in several countries. Painting them brings me back. Here are three recent paintings of views I’ve enjoyed over the years, all done in soft pastels on Strathmore Artagain charcoal black paper.
Thanks to so many who helped us get here, my wife and I are back in the Pacific Northwest. We landed on Monday, and by Wednesday, we were out in the woods. It’s not hard to get to a forest around here. Many of the parks are so densely wooded you hardly know you’re near a town. Noble Park is new to us, so we have some nice exploring to do close to where we live. This scene was just a short walk from the parking lot via one of several trails.
I started the painting onsite. About 45 minutes into the session, it started to do that Oregon drizzle thing, so I quickly packed up the pastels and we headed back. (Only after I was mostly packed did I see the owl perched about 15 feet over my head, graciously refraining from anointing/bombing me down below!) A few hours later, I sat outside the place we’re staying and painted for another half hour…until it started raining for real. I finished painting in the dining room.
What a delight to be out in the cool woods once again! I love it.
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“Remembering the Chief” – Wallowa Mts. OR – Pastel on MingART, 7.1×4.4″/18×11.1 cm
After I posted this painting of Chief Joseph Mountain, I was asked how I go about painting snow texture. Well, the texture has a lot to do with two factors, in this case: 1) the finely sanded surface of the MingART “Finest” paper, and 2) the ability to lightly, evenly drag a pastel pencil point across that surface.
Of course, between those two factors lie several steps that add realism to the snow. In a nutshell, though, I paint the most colorful parts first, which are the mid-value shadows, and then I work the highlights and darks, alternating between them. Most of the darks on the snowy mountain were done with deep Indigo. Virtually all of the highlights were done using Chinese White on top of the shadows. Texture is achieved by varying the pressure on the pastel pencil when painting the highlights. Most of the time, I’m using very subtle strokes.
Here are all the geeky details.
Lightly (very lightly) lay down the varying hues that make up the sky and snow shadows. I completely ignore all details, focusing on the midrange values only. At this point, I don’t really differentiate between the snow, the clouds and the sky, except where the colors shift.
Smooth the color transitions with finger blending. MingART Finest allows for blending without too much loss of skin! I add a little color where needed, again, paying no attention to the highlights or deep darks. Some of it rubs off, and that’s okay because I want to put down as little pastel as possible an still have some color. I actually rub my fingertip on a soft pastel and paint with my finger rather than applying the pastel directly. In some places, where the sun strikes, I leave the light gray paper showing through the color haze.
Using a deep Indigo pastel pencil, faintly outline the left ridge and the upper shadows. Again, this is all about subtlety. Lay another line down to generally demarcate the middle ridge. Don’t finalize any of these lines.
With a Chinese White pastel pencil, leave little tick marks to show where the uppermost highlights are, and then lightly establish the line of the brightly lit snow slope. I used less pressure to show where the clouds obscure the view.
Using only Chinese White and varying amounts of pressure, establish only the brightest highlights on the upper third of the mountain. Now the drawing is sent and I can start working the details.
Using deep Indigo, paint the exposed rocks and deepest shadows. With an image this small, I literally poke at the area I’m painting, hardly scratching the surface. The tip of a lightly held pastel pencil skidding across the sanded surface is sufficient to represent the rock bands on the upper right. I’m still saving the darkest darks for later, when the whole range of values is clear.
Using the lights tint of Indigo, Ultramarine Blue and Dark Violet (Derwent’s names), I start working the snow highlights within the shadowed areas on the upper part of the mountain. I’m going for luminosity here, so I put warm and cool temperatures next to each other. The sanded paper allows for lots of layering without creating mud, so if I watch my pressure, I can put a warm violet over a cool blue and get a nice mix without blending. I can even paint the negative space between the exposed rocks, showing where the snow drifts and collects.
With medium tints of the same three colors, I make sure the subtleties in the shadows are correct. To make certain shadows more luminous, I’ll add some Spectrum Blue and go over it subtly with a medium tint of Dark Violet to keep it from being too intense.
Going back to Chinese White, I paint the lower highlights. With very delicate, even pressure, I paint the sunlit snowfields in the middle of the mountain, letting the texture of the paper catch just the slightest hint of white. These strokes are painted in the same direction as the slope, so we can see the curvature.
As I do the highlights on the bottom of the mountain, I draw a thin line for the top of that low, backlit ridge, and then paint feathery strokes off of it from right to left to show the spindrift. I set my fingertip on the line and lightly drag it off, from right to left to pull that white into the shadowed area. If it’s too strong, I buff it in the opposite direction, pushing the shadow toward the spindrift. When that’s close enough, I reestablish the sunlit ridge line.
Finish up the darkest darks, and then tweak the values throughout to ensure proper depth.
For reflected light in the uppermost summit dome shadow, I put just a little French Gray in the lightest tint, which gave that area some warmth.
In the middle ground, the shadowed snow is done by painting a middle tint of Ultramarine Blue in patches over a relatively heavier blended layer of Dark Gray (NuPastel) and deep Indigo (Derwent). I then reestablish the tree texture with the deep Indigo pastel pencil.
The foreground dusting of snow is made by painting the moraine with Umber blended on top of deep Indigo, and then dragging a light tint of Indigo over it in the direction of the slope. The paper texture does the work.
Hope it explains what I did this time around. How do you do snow texture? I’d love to hear about it.
Years ago when I first tried painting with pastels on sanded paper, my tools and techniques didn’t work. I couldn’t understand why everyone was so enthusiastic about these papers. After I saw pastelists Cuong Nguyen and Jude Tolar using a very (VERY!) light touch, I decided to try it again. I experimented first with plain old 600-grit black sandpaper from the hardware store, and was stunned! Colors went down and STAYED there! I was able to put colors over top of each other without just making “mud.” Sharp lines and atmospheric blends were both possible.
Nguyen had mentioned that he was using a new paper from China, and my interest was piqued. I was already in contact with fellow pastelist Isabelle V. Lim whose husband Alex is working on distribution, so I asked her about it. She recommended that I contact Alex directly. The paper was originally called “Yi Cai” but Alex told me it recently changed its name to MingART. He put me in contact with the representative here in Taiwan and I arranged to purchase a single sheet of their “Premium” paper in Dark Green.
I cut the 31.3×43.3″ sheet into smaller sizes, leaving one big enough for an 18×24″ painting, and another to accommodate 16×20″. That still left three at 8×10″, one at 6×9″ and a few smaller sizes.
My very first painting on MingART made me feel like I had leaped to another level! The sanded surface allowed for an even wider range of expression than I could get on the 600-grit sandpaper. I could place small dots of color with the tip of a pastel pencil, or lightly drag a stick for interesting textures. Soft and harder pastels were equally useful. I quickly painted another one, and it was just as exciting!
I let Alex know how much I enjoyed the paper, and he sent me a sample booklet with 5 small sheets of each of their 4 types of paper in a variety of colors. Isabelle had helped MingART develop two new colors for their Premium line, and Alex included an A4 (letter) size sheet of each: Midnight Blue and Payne’s Grey.
When they arrived in the mail, I immediately opened the package and changed my plans for the day! By the end of the day, I had painted an 8×10″ sunset on the Midnight Blue.
I’ve started painting on the small sample sheets (4.5×7.5″), just to see how they work for me. I’ll keep you posted on my experience!
“To Sweep the Sky” – SongShan, China – Pastel on Canson, 16×20″/41×51 cm
“To Sweep the Sky” – Pastel on Canson, 16×20″/41×51 cm
I often wonder what it felt like to be the first human being to set foot here. Some of these trails were blazed thousands of years ago by explorers who returned home to speak of legends. Here, the rocks rise up to sweep the sky. As I hike through the ravines and across cliffs guarded by lofty spires, I am accompanied by the spirits of the first visitors. The legends they told were true. I am witness. To me, such places speak of home.
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