Experiencing Color with Pastel Pencils

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Since most of year two at the atelier is grisaille painting (in black and white), I wont paint in color until about this time next year. The grisaille year is a big challenge for students because at times it can seem a long, tedious exercise. What you get from it is priceless — an understanding of value (light and dark) that will carry you the rest of your career. But that’s hard to remember when you leave the first year with completed drawings and move into grisaille which aren’t exactly complete paintings so students can end up feeling like they’ve practiced a lot of scales but haven’t played any music.

With nothing but grey on the horizon for another year, I was delighted when our assistant teacher David offered a one week workshop in pastels. He specified a couple dozen pencil colors to create a flesh palate that can accommodate a nice range of skin tones and we set to work experimenting in life room and tackling a master copy. More than anything this workshop reinforced how necessary that year of grisaille will be. Rendering is hard enough in black and white, but when you add hue and temperature to the mix, your brain starts to melt. Despite softened brains, I had so much fun playing around with color and getting a sense of where all this value training is leading.

Above is my pastel master copy of “Head of a Woman” by the Flemish painter Michael Sweerts, 1654. The original painting hangs in the Getty Museum in LA. I have this work hanging in a new show, Best of Gage, that will open tonight. I’ve never been to this annual show before but it’s supposed to be one of the biggest events of the year at the school. All the studios are open, all classrooms and ateliers, and attendance is supposed to be quite large. The walls are already covered with the pieces entered in the show and it looks crazy in the best way. All different kinds of art swimming together and curated as well as possible.

In addition to the master copy, I did two quicker drawings in pastel during morning life room sessions. The goal was to flood the figure with color. My instinct is to stick to what my brain tells me I see (use the peach pencil for the peach colored person) instead of what my eyes see (the nose gets pretty red and the shadows are a little purple). It’s a delicate balance between the conceptual and the perceptual, especially in realist art where sometimes it’s the surprising use of color that delivers the feeling of reality in a picture. Here are the life room sketches below:

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