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  • Writer's pictureLucy

Plein Air Pastel Painting - Round 1

This summer I intend to experiment with plein air pastel painting and yesterday was my "shake down" trip.

I packed up all my pastel gear in the backpack I've used for camping trips in the past and drove to the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge just outside of town. I hiked about 20 minutes through high plains dotted with scrubby bushes and framed with puffy clouds dodging cholla cactus and a small, thankfully harmless, ring-necked snake.

Soon I dropped down into a small ravine where there is a mini oasis / watering hole and, for the first time, set up my easel outdoors.

Mind you, I have set it up several times indoors to make sure everything worked but somehow things are different outside! It took me about 15 minutes to get it set up. Here's a short time lapse video that captures the struggle.

Once set up I realized I had forgotten some essentials--bug spray and sun screen! Thankfully I had a good hat and a smock for painting that covered some of my chest and arms but I still ended up a little sun burned and itchy.

Right! Finally I was ready to paint!

But...I have no idea how to paint landscape with pastels!

In the past I've done watercolor/ink sketches but pastels are a different animal.

So I started with the basics: use a viewfinder to narrow the field and find an interesting composition, identify my lightest lights and darkest darks, compare the color I'm seeing with the colors in my pastel box, then roughly paint some basic shapes.

It didn't look good.

Additionally the pastel board I was using was a new product so I wasn't sure how many layers of pastel it would hold. I kept layering in pastels to build up the color of what I saw. Pretty quickly I realized I wouldn't be able to layer as much as I do with the paper I use for my still life paintings which is rougher. This led to some frustration because I don't have a pastel for every color in nature! But I kept going.

Thankfully I gave myself two gifts, first: permission to play, be messy, and experiment. And secondly the gift of freedom from judging this very new process.

And something amazing happened, just for a moment, the painting looked interesting and seemed to have potential. But then I pushed on, because I wanted to refine the image, and I lost the potential.

It just started to look messy and dull.

The pastel board wasn't holding new application of pastel but I kept going, adding linear strokes mirroring the flow of the landscape, and put in a few grassy details.


I heard thunder.

Water is the arch enemy of pastels so I quickly finished up, broke down my easel, packed everything up, and started hiking back to the car. Thankfully the rain never made it to my location but I learned another valuable lesson--keep an eye on the weather!!!

Now that I've had my first foray into pastel plein air painting I want to do a lot more research before heading out again. I've pulled out several books from my art library:

"Painting the Landscape in Pastel" by Albert Handell and Anita Louise West

"Landscape Drawing" by Michael Woods

And a favorite that I read years ago, but obviously I need a refresher:

Honestly though, the biggest thing I need to figure out is the "why" of a landscape painting.

Sure it's new and challenging plus it's fun to be outside in nice weather instead of in my black box studio, but what do I possibly have to add to the world of landscape painting? What can I "say" that hasn't already been said?

I don't have any answers yet but I am looking forward to the search.

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