Still Life Workshop

I was lucky enough to attend a pastel Still Life Workshop over 3 days with Grace Paleg at the South Coast. It was a new way of working with pastels for me: using mainly soft pastel sticks and applying them lightly with fingers and the side of the fist. I’ve also never really done a Still Life Before, especially not one with a reflective surface, so it was a steep learning curve.

I normally work from a reference photo and use a proportional divider to make sure everything fits on the page (which is a real struggle for me without one!). Grace wouldn’t let me chicken-out, so I surprised myself by actually being able to see shapes and proportions pretty accurately on my own with taking a photo to make it 2D and fixed in one plane.

Seeing colours accurately on the other hand was torturous! I just could not see the colours Grace was seeing with all of her years of experience. A green pear is not green everywhere – it depends on the colour of the light hitting it and the reflected light from the surfaces around it. I had to stop seeing the pear and influencing my perception by attaching all my preconceptions around its “pearness”. I had to just see an object and all its different colours, shades and tints.

On the second day of struggling with this I had a bit of a melt-down, but at the end of that day I finally got it! Taking my glasses off and seeing the blob only was the real turning point. When I got home and had to work from my reference photo on the tablet, I just blew-up the image so large you could only see sections of the whole – and it’s true colour. Unfortunately, I later realised that I hadn’t fixed the white balance* on the reference photo: the photo had cooler light than the original set-up. Grace spotted that – she could still see my set up in her studio to compare the final image with. But I did most of the painting based on the photo, so it’s consistent and I’ll live with the cooler colours.

I only managed to finish the pear at Grace’s, which would never have worked out so well without her expert mentoring! Thankfully I learned (and remembered) enough to apply her techniques to the rest of the Still Life. Here’s the final product after several more days of working at home:

I will never show anyone the actual reference photo of the Still Life set-up though – it looks better if you don’t see the real thing!

What I learned:

  • The reflections of an object overlap with its shadow (just a small, darker triangular bit).
  • To apply pastel with your fingers and hands you need a VERY light touch and VERY soft pastels.
  • Looking at your set-up reflected in black perspex (even an iPad turned off) helps to identify the brightest brights.
  • If you’re short-sighted, take your glasses off to see the shapes and colours without polluting your perceptions with pre-conceptions. If you’re blessed with perfect eye-sight, squint or put someone else’s glasses on.
  • The reflections show you the bottom-up view of the object, so don’t just replicate the upright object in the surface. If you turn the painting upside-down, the reflection needs to seem like you’re looking at the object upside-down.
  • Between the brightest bright and the mid-tone you get the pure, high-chroma colour (no tint or shade).
  • Make sure your reference photo is correctly white-balanced!

* White balance is determined in a photo-processing program by selecting the whitest white in your image. For my reference photos of final artworks I use a second photo with a white balance card in front of the work (up against the work at the same angle if I can). I use the white-point from the card and synchronize the white-balance from that photo with the photo of the artwork. That gives you a more accurate representation of the colours in the real thing. Some people use colour cards instead, but I find it a bit of overkill.

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