Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Imagine a River, 12" x 18"

Do you remember sitting before a blank piece of paper when you were a child, imagining what to put there? It was so easy to paint. Everything you put down meant something to you and it didn’t matter whether anyone else understood. Times have changed and now the strokes you put on the paper need to communicate clearly, but there are still some wonderful things you can derive from your imagination. You may be surprised to find out how much you already know.

Mount a piece of untouched pastel paper, place it on your easel and simply look at it. Don’t think of it as a potential painting but as a window. If I ask you to imagine something through your window, the chances are you’ll think, “I don’t know what to paint!” So start by bringing to mind the subjects you’ve already painted successfully. Do you like to paint mountains and skies? Maybe you paint dogs, or figures, or the ocean or flowers. Whatever it is you know and feel comfortable painting is fine. Find an interesting composition using a subject you know well. Recall a clear picture of your most successful or most recent painting to inspire you.

Spend some time imagining your painting in different formats. Most of us think of the horizontal landscape or vertical portrait formats, but how about a painting that’s quite wide and short, or tall and thin? Perhaps this painting could be relatively small, or you may use the whole page. Format and scale play a large part in the success of a painting. Mask off the format you’ve chosen, changing the shape of your window.

Before starting to paint, think about the value structure of your painting. Far more important than color is the arrangement of tones, which you should plot out in your mind. Whatever subject you plan to paint, think about how dark or light the colors will be and locate key elements. Where do the darkest and lightest areas come closest together? Where will you place a calming neutral? Is there an interesting massing of dark, medium and light colors, as well as smaller and larger shapes? Imagine all kinds of shapes and values together.

Now think about the palette of colors you want to use. When painting a familiar subject you’ll have a suggested color scheme -- sunflowers are yellow and black, for instance. Certain color choices appeal to us, so we frequently repeat the same palette. This may not be the time to try something new but to rely on what you’ve found pleasing and successful. However, you don’t necessarily need to think of this painting as a slavish rendition of reality. You may want to make your sunflowers orange and purple, or gold and blue. The point is to summon up colors that please you, whether true to the actual subject or a departure from reality. Plan the color scheme for all the local areas in your painting, not just the subject. Decide what color the background and foreground will be, filling in the blanks in your mind like puzzle pieces. Consider how the color of the paper might factor in the finished painting. Painting on a bright color or a very dark one will change the overall look. If you plan to tone the paper, take that color choice into consideration as well.

At this point you might feel ready to begin painting, but take one more step before putting pastel to paper. Identify the movement you use in your paintings most often. Movement is the energy of a painting, the motivating factor in shifting the viewer’s eye from place to place. We tend to repeat movements that please us. Think about the successful paintings you’ve completed already and determine whether you can find connecting threads of movement. For instance, you may be inclined to use a centered and circular motif in your still life compositions. Perhaps you use strong zigzagging diagonals in your figures, or calm horizontal movement in your landscapes. Knowing your habits will allow you to either use this inclination to its best advantage or go against the flow in your imagined painting. Plan the movement in your imagined painting by visualizing where the eye will start and the direction it will travel around the subject.

Try to visualize the painting fully, seeing it in your mind’s eye before starting. Be sure to use this mental picture only as the starting point -- an aid to help you reach a goal that’s not set in stone. Do a few thumbnail sketches to help you pinpoint the location of key elements, map the values you plan to use and find the movement that interests you. Limit these sketches to less than a minute to begin with, gradually lengthening the time until you have a small, satisfying composition.

The painting should begin to flow as a result of your visualization and planning, slowly taking shape as you paint. Be responsive to what begins to happen, allowing those pleasing incidental marks that occur to lead you. Occasionally close your eyes to envision your goal, and then refer back to your thumbnail sketch so that you don’t lose sight of that goal. Be flexible, but don’t allow the painting to overwhelm you. The excitement and energy of painting can sometimes become so absorbing that you’ll find yourself heading too far from the envisioned outcome, which can often result in a mess of colorful, fun marks that don’t communicate anything. As a child you could get away with spontaneity in place of communication, but now you must be in control, disciplining your mark-making and choosing successful, though lose and painterly strokes, that tell the story. Don’t let the joy of painting fool you into losing touch with what you’re trying to say.

Take frequent breaks to step back from your painting and look at it, remembering the vision you imagined so that you can compare the results. You may need to punch up the contrast, or change the size or scale of an element. Perhaps some accidental stroke or color combination will inspire you to change things. Whatever you see is legitimate since there’s no photograph or other record confining you. The goal, aside from a few thumbnail sketches, is all in your mind. Try several of these paintings, allowing yourself to come to trust that you are able to paint without a net, utilizing the spontaneity of a child and the discipline of an artist.


  1. Dear Deb,
    Wonderful teaching stuff that helps me a lot!! After this email, I'll have fun like my young days. Thank you for sharing such lovely tips with us. Look forward to the next.
    Best wishes,

  2. This is fantastic! I started doing it as you described it, remembering paintings and drawings I've done in the past, also remembering paintings I meant to do but never got around to. I often get ideas for ambitious paintings that I don't have the skill to complete yet. Or large ones that I don't have the space to have a go at it yet.

    Either way, I love the structure you gave this as an exercise - the different things to consider once I decide on a subject. I'm going to have to do it more than once though, because I got more than one idea even sticking to my comfort zone. Landscapes, animals, fantasy and prehistoric animals all come to mind.

    I'll definitely start working on these because I already have. Thank you for an inspiring chapter!

  3. Hi Deb,

    Thank you for sharing your book with us, it is so generous of you! I have been benefiting from your teaching, I will certainly try this new exercise.

  4. I now prefer doing it this way --- not working from a photograph. I can feel my composition skill developing. Thanks for the nudge.


Thanks for your comment on Painting the Landscape in Pastels ~Deborah