One of the most important lessons I teach in my workshops is to find the shadows first. It is almost a guarantee that if you find interesting shadows then the rest of your drawing or painting will work!
The hard part is that looking for shadows (cast, core shadows of the thing, and areas of dark) is counter intuitive, most people look for the color and a beautiful thing. Trust me, without the shadows it is a lot of work with little to show for it. In my pastels below you will probably notice the light and color, but what set up each one were the blocks of shadows.
The process starts with a dark paper, compose with any dark medium color playing special attention to main shadow areas. In cases with shadows of a yellow or white building, I lighten the shadow, but only one or two tones up from the paper. The rest is a lot of fun, leaving the shadow areas alone, the focus is not the light and color areas, adding light by subtle gradations until I finish with the brightest light.
I took an extra week in France after my pastel workshop to draw for myself. I spent a day on the grounds of Van Gogh’s Asylum in St Remy. Then I was profoundly happy to be there and just drew without thinking; just experiencing. But today, I looked over these and added a little light. And I uploaded them to the studio collection of pastels on my archive.
Find the Shadows and Bring Out the Light a Few Examples from Our Provence Art Experience Workshop
St. Paul Asylum in St. Remy
Our first morning was a bright windy day as we drove to St. Remy guided by Mathieu to visit and draw at the St. Paul Asylum where Van Gogh was a patient around 1888-9. It was also the period when he did many wonderful works. Incidentally, I did my final art history paper on Van Gogh’s painting of the asylum. We saw the VG bedroom and then we started with our first pastel drawing lesson directly underneath its window.
The students under the shadow of Van Gogh’s ghost and unfamiliar with plein air painting/drawing and with each other, and jet lagged they bravely listened to their first instructions. The concern on their faces was apparent.
I have noticed lots of artists including myself are drawn into drawing abandoned places, scruffy landscapes, weathered shacks, and stone ruins. While a manicured lawn or polished mahogany conference table inspire a blau reaction. There is something visually exciting about the chaos of ruins but what is it that is triggering our vision? And why are paintings or drawings so boring when they are of pristine subjects? Vision scientists Jan Koenderink and Andrea van Doorn (a link to their abstract on pictorial space) talked with me over beers in Glasgow pub about how the eye goes blind if it cannot move about and compare and contrast tones and hues. Using my artist’s logic it makes sense that on the opposite end of the spectrum the eye becomes excited when each hue and tone is varied. My pastel of a rickety courtyard gate in Rhodes, Greece illustrates this.
Notice the gate is drawn with all kinds of unrepeated colors. The plastered gold side of the wall has countless hues ochre, and medieval stones are equally varied with its shifts between brown and gray. It seems like a lot to try to do in a 50-minute drawing, but I was helped along by all the setting’s details were all extremely varied. If you are an artist looking for something interesting to draw look for differences in everything. That will keep your eye busy and excited and the viewers’ too.
There is a smoky quality to dark pastel paper that has a depth and softness of the infinite. I am surprised that some conceptual artist hasn’t done a show using store bought pastel paper with nothing drawn on them. Nonetheless the paper calls for light, and I try to leave much of the original paper to give a depth and mystery to the shadows. The bowl’s cast shadow on the left and background right are almost pure paper. If I draw careful gradations of light from a smidgen lighter than the paper to the brightest lemon-white I create a hierarchy of tones which in turn is a part of giving the feeling of light. An equally important but overlooked part of drawing/painting light is to place the marks through space, like stepping stones from beneath our feet that extend off in the horizon. Combining the dusky shadows, light, and depth transforms flat paper into an alternative reality. This bridge is what I find magical about art.
Pastel on Dark Paper – Just Add Light by Michael Newberry
Pure Colored Light
I love working pastel on dark paper for one important reason: the pastel being lighter than the paper directly creates a pure colored light.
The paper is dark brown Canson, 19 x 26″.
You can start with any color you like, but it is important that the tone of the pastel is only one notch lighter than the paper–just enough so that you can see your marks. The blue outlines here are Prussian Blue, one of the darker blues
Warmer or Cooler
In this image, I am beginning to block out the entire paper. The background walls, in reality, are white and the floor is a wood floor. When I work with pastel, one of the things I ask myself is whether the color is warmer or cooler. The white of the wall is cool and the orange of the floor is warm. Then taking a cool dark color, almost any kind of blue or green, which is one step lighter than the paper, I blocked out the background wall. Then, with the same idea, yet with a warm color, a dark burnt orange, I did the floor, her body, and the shadow of the cloth.