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Water to Dust - How I made the change from Watercolor to Pastel

I was interviewed recently for an article and one of the questions I was asked was, how did I make the transition from watercolor to pastel?

To provide some background, I began my pursuit of being a professional artist by painting in watercolor. My road to painting in watercolor is an entirely different story, so for now let’s just acknowledge the fact that I was a watercolor artist for many years.

Plein air equipment

As part of my graduate level studies required for my job as a high school art teacher, I took a class in plein air painting. ‘Plein air’ refers to painting on location in the ‘open air’. For this particular class we were transported by bus to rural farm every day for 2 weeks to paint. It was an extremely hot and humid Pennsylvania summer. We could paint in the medium of our choice, so I naturally chose to paint with the medium with which I had the most familiarity, watercolor. I was new to plein air painting, so I really didn’t know to downsize my usual supplies, so I lugged a gallon of water, my paper, my large plastic palette, paint tubes and anything else that I thought I might need. That was mistake number one! I have since learned that working small and with fewer supplies is the way to go when traipsing through a corn field to paint!

The bigger problem I encountered was the weather! I just wasn’t accustomed to painting in such intense heat and humidity. (If you are reading this and you have never been to Pennsylvania during a hot August, trust me the humidity can be intense!) My paints and paper suddenly seemed foreign to me. Paint and paper were drying differently than I was used to, if at all. The outcome was that I was not getting the results I was used to, and I was very unhappy with all my paintings at the end of that first week.

As part of the class supply list, we were told to purchase a specific set of pastels. I had never worked in pastel, but had purchased them, not sure I would even use them. At this point in the class, I was so frustrated, I thought, Why not? So, for the second week of class, I decide to give pastels a try. I don’t recall how quickly it happened, but with my first painting, I was hooked.

Chicken Feed, pastel

Since pastel was a totally new medium for me, I had no preconceived approach to working with it. I found myself being bolder in my use of color and in my application of the pastel to paper. Unlike watercolor, if I put down a color or mark that I didn’t like, I could erase it. I also was working on colored paper, which I really found interesting. (To this day, I never start a pastel on pure white paper.) The results at the end of that second week startled me. I loved the pieces that I had created. I had produced paintings with strong color, interesting marks and I felt I had successfully captured the strong light and shadow of a sunny summer day.

That was it. Sure, I continued my studio watercolors for some time, while I would use pastel on location. Over time, pastels crept into my studio work, until one day I realized that I had not painted a watercolor in over a year. The transition was complete. I have enjoyed much professional success in pastel and although I still love watercolors, I consider myself a pastel artist. Really glad I bought that box of pastels!

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