Oil Pastels - A Demo of "Toccoa River Reflections"
Carly Clements Shares her Techniques Using Oil Pastels in "Toccoa River Reflections"
In this demonstration I'll share several of the techniques I use when creating an oil pastel painting and give some options for supports and applications which can be used for any style or subject. The subject will be a landscape from a photo that I took on the Toccoa River in North Georgia. I often paint plein aire in this area and rely on photos to jog my memory of the scene. The photo cannot record the light or color as accurately as the eye, but it can give me a replication of the subject. Using the photo as a reference only, I "remember" the scene more vividly through my painting as it evolves.
I work at a draftsman's table with a raised surface so that I can stand and paint. I also elevate the gator board at the point where it attaches to my painting surface. This gives me the flexibility to rotate my painting and change the direction of my stroke without touching the surface. A French Mistress easel tray makes a perfect holder for my oil pastels. I use foamboard dividers to create rows and, as I use a color, I place it on the ledge of the foamboard, making it easy to remember the colors used in the painting. Opened, the lid makes a nice holder for my tools and anchors my hand towel.
For this painting I used Art Spectrum Sanded Board in a cream color, but then decided I wanted my underpainting to be a bright red. Using a stick of Sennelier Soft Pastel on the side, I laid several streaks of color across the support and using a one-inch brush dipped in Turpenoid, washed the color over the surface. The Turpenoid dried quickly, leaving a rich bright red, toned surface. When using turp for blending, be sure to use a surface that has a barrier protecting the substrate. Wallis sanded paper, gessoed museum board, watercolor paper or canvas are a few choices. Oil pastels can be used on almost any surface but, as with the selection of your oil pastel, choose a surface of archival quality.
The Painting Process
After toning the Art Spectrum paper, I selected a color to sketch with that would blend into my other colors. Squinting at the photo, I determined three to five large shapes or masses of color. The trees and rocks to the right of the painting become one shadow shape. The water area, the mass of trees on the left, and the sky with the upper portion of the trees are the other shapes. At this point, I often create a thumbnail sketch of the abstract shapes showing the pattern of light, but in this situation, I'm using the photo as my thumbnail sketch of values.
After establishing the major shapes, I sketched in more elements, including the rock masses because I wanted to check the proportions and create distance. Once the initial sketch was complete, I began to paint in my lightest lights. These were along the distant path of the river through the trees, where I began working a white into the sky at the lowest point. After laying on the white I blended it into the surface lightly with the stencil brush, which picked up enough of the red underpainting to create a pale pink tone. I worked up into the sky and added an Ash Blue, blending it lightly with my one-inch brush moistened with Turpenoid.
Image 3 shows the painting with one layer of paint worked into the large shapes. I kept squinting at my reference to make sure I kept the values within those shapes consistent with the photo. I allowed the underpainting to become my medium ground and keyed the value relationships in order to create form.
Using a Variety of Strokes
In the tree areas, image 4, I scumbled color into the shapes, layering different colors of the same value to create a rich shadow effect. Likewise, in the light areas, I began by scumbling color over the surface. Just as I began with large shapes, I began with broad strokes of color. I laid the oil stick on its side and dragged the color down the surface to indicate the reflections in the water. Later I dragged other colors across the reflections to attain the motion and reflective quality of the watery surface. Cross-hatching is one of my favorite strokes using the same color, because it leaves tiny flecks of the underpainting showing through. What I call "jabs" of color indicate tree leaves without creating details.
For the rocks and ledges, I laid on swatches of color, then used a razor blade to scrape the color off. This gives a rocky texture with the stained colors left behind. Then I added more color into the lighter areas and shadows to solidify the rocks. If you get an area that has heavy texture and it's out of context with the rest of the painting, use the palette knife or razor blade to scrape back the paint. I changed the shapes of several of my rocks after painting by scraping out chunks of color in this way.
Once I achieved an overall layer of color, I used the one-inch brush moistened with Turpenoid to soften and blend any areas where I wanted a smoother finish, such as the sky, water, some tops of the rocks, and some of the shadow shapes. Besided blending with the turp, I also blend using a plastic sculpturing tool shaped like a spoon on one end and a scraper on the other. Some blend with their fingers, but I like to move the color together with more control. The large blending stump, image 6, is one of my favorite tools, but you'll need several for different colors.
My style of painting, although representational, is very abstract with detail. The close up image shows overlapping strokes of color that blend into one another without a lot of work. Tree trunks and branches are mere scratches (sgraffito) created with the cuticle tool and strokes of color. The rocks become small masses that reflect the colors around them along with the water. I usually work from light to dark, but with the Senneliers, it's possible to lay lighter colors over the darks. However, I am careful to keep my values true to the lights and shadows within the painting.
In image 5, I've added white into the river to create a pattern of light. Color from the trees will be layered over the white and lightly blended to create the reflections from the trees. Throughout the painting process, I critique myself by asking:
1. Are any areas too strong, too bright, too dull or too weak?
2. Do all areas lead me into the focal area? Have I made a strong statement?
3. Are colors harmonious? The lighting dramatic? Shapes balanced?
4. Do I have three-dimensional depth and vibrant surface texture?
5. Have I solved all the problems?
6. Most important for me, did I tell the viewer why I painted this?
When I critique, I mat the image in white to define the edges. This helps to keep the eye focused on the painting. Now I can add any final details...the dots and dashes, not new paragraphs...to the painting.
About the Author
My love for putting paint to canvas began in 1976, when a friend coerced me into taking an oil painting workshop. With the first brushstroke, I knew that becoming an artist was one of my heart's desires. Although I consider myself self-taught, the past 28 years of workshops, classes with international instructors, my own pursuit of study, and the plein air landscape has served as professional training and art education. Studying with Susan Sarback opened my eyes to color and challenged me to paint full-time in plein air. Alan Flattmann and Marsha Savage inspired me to work in pastels; Terry Ludwig made me believe I could paint the figure; and Elsie Dresch gave me the confidence to push through the struggle and take my work even further.
My art career began with oils, but my abstract representational style quickly lead to other mediums, including watercolors and acrylics. Pastels are now my medium of choice for their rich color, spontaneous approach and similarity in appearance to oil paintings.
Milner Studio and Gallery, Blue Ridge, Georgia
Oil Pastel Society
Southeast Pastel Society
Southern Colours Art Group
Plein Air Georgia
Plein Air Florida