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Pastel Tree Painting En Plein Air
by L. Diane Johnson

I recently had a private student study with me here in NC. She came to learn how to paint en plein air in soft pastel after creating portraits in the studio. At a nearby lake, a tree which she had been painting of great interest to her. She requested that I use the tree as a painting demonstration subject so she could observe how I would approach painting it. This is just one way I would begin a painting. Normally, I would block-in the large areas first. With this subject, I began a bit differently. She took photos as I developed a simple rendering of the scene. Here are her photos of that demonstration:

The painting surface & setup:
I used a medium green-gray Pastelboard that I had with me. I usually use this as a backing board but this day it became my painting surface. A cooler color would have been better, but as you'll see it worked fine.

"Roughing in" the painting:
I roughly sketched-in the tree with a dark violet pastel, moving quickly to indicate where major features were to be placed. The sun was going in and out, so I had to work very quickly. (The total demo took a half hour.)

Painting from dark to light:
The order of applying the colors in soft pastel is generally from dark to light. That way, the colors will stay fresh and clean and prevent getting "muddy." Since pastel is an opaque medium changes can be made easily. To begin, I apply the darkest darks observed in the shadow areas. I started a bit too dark, however, this will be lightened some later.

Building the painting:
I put in a few lighter colors to give me an idea of the range between the light and dark areas, saving the very lightest colors for later.

I work all around the painting, not just in one spot. This allows me to keep the painting balanced the entire time. I build up the tree surface indicating the warm and cool tones. (Notice that there are no details yet!) If I put them in too soon or incorrectly it will be more difficult to make changes. I want to be free to make changes during every step in the process. I also stop frequently to step back to take a look at my work, then redefine areas that have become lost while working.

Building form and volume:
At this point the painting usually begins to take shape and have a personality of it's own. It "tells" me what it needs. "Reshape here, work on the mid-tones there, too much green, etc."...many decisions to make and actions to take. This will remain a loose rendering to the end, as I don't want to get lost in details for this demonstration. Just starting a painting is a challenge. If there's pressure to include every leaf, the student will have an even more difficult time.

Being positive about the "negative":
While painting all over the place, I "cut-in" to the negative areas to indicate sky and to define the masses of leaves. Next, I come back in with the leaf colors of greens and oranges being very aware of where the light source is. I work back and forth with sky color and leaf colors until the masses work across the tree. Be careful to use a lower-value sky color for these areas or they will "pop" out unnaturally.

I also indicate the lake water. I don't develop this very much in the painting as it is still diffused by the early morning atmosphere.

This is as far as I will go for this demonstration. There was still much to do, but another half-hour or full-session would be required to make corrections, changes and additions. It was time for the student to continue with her own painting!

All the Best,


Also see
Sunset Demonstration in Soft Pastel",
Building" Your Plein Air Painting"
Landscape Composition"
Soft Pastel Technique for a Still Life

L. Diane Johnson NAPA PSA NAPPAP, is an fine artist and instructor with over 30 years experience. Visit her online gallery for more information or reach her via email.

©1996-2003 L. Diane Johnson

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