Pastel Tutorial for “Look At That Squirrel!”

Our cat, Moose, is an indoor cat. He loves to sit at the back door and watch the squirrels. The reflection provided the perfect balance to the composition and made the glass visible to help tell the story. My favorite principle of design is contrast. here I used textural contrast pretty heavily, but also temperature, chroma, value, and the other elements of design in varying degrees.

I chose pastel as the medium for this painting because it lends itself so well to soft edges and high contrast paintings. A finished pastel painting also has a sort of glow that other media don’t.

I took photos at different stages of the painting to help illustrate my working process on a painting like this. I frequently use different methods, because there are many different answers to the same questions in art.

You can watch the tutorial as a slideshow, or click through it at your own pace using the dots at the bottom. My notes for each stage are displayed alongside the images.

I started by priming a panel with neutral tone gesso mixed with pumice. This rough tooth grips the pastel and is a joy to work on. I masked the edges for a clean border. I am using the plein air easel I designed.

This is my pastel palette. I have NuPastel, Rembrandt, Terry Ludwig, Mount Vision, various other brands, and some handmade pastels. I will use about 15-20 in a single painting, but it is nice to have a wide selection of hue, value, and chroma in hard and soft pastels. My pastel box is filled with soft foam and is set up for plein air portability.

 

This is my initial sketch. I try to resolve any composition questions at this stage. I drew with umber, white, and black charcoal pencils. They do not stick like pastel and are easy to wipe away. I love to draw, but I try not to spend too much time on this stage.

 

I started adding pastel, beginning with my darkest darks and lightest lights. The surface provides my mid-tone. I can quickly set my value range for the painting. I also added a bit of my highest chroma colors on the left.

 

I continue blocking in colors, starting with large shapes by using the side of the pastel. I do not worry about detail or precision at this stage because this will become my underpainting and will be blurred.

 

I begin blending the background, using my fingers. I am careful to switch fingers when working in areas of different value and chroma. I also make sure to soften edges. I will make slight adjustments to the background as I go.

 

Then I blend Moose (the cat’s name). I want this underpainting to be slightly darker and lower in chroma than the final. It works much better if you cover your surface with pastel like this and then blend everything once. From now on I will be using pastel strokes.

 

Next I start to define my edges between Moose and the background, using strokes of different tints of hard pastels crossing his contour. Surfaces like hair and fur should seldom be hard-edged. I also added strokes of different colors, but similar value to his eye.

 

I continue adding light hairs across the edges and add the whiskers in the reflection. I start to add the dark spots and stripes in his fur. I add light hairs in his ears, being sure to keep the strokes the right length and slightly random.

 

I continued adding texture using small light strokes and dark strokes over his fur, making sure not to add too much texture in the areas of shadow. Texture is most visible where light breaks across a surface. I added whiskers over the completed areas.I decided to soften the hairs on the other side of his head to add depth.

 

I added more texture to the transitional areas. I felt like the lower part of the dark shape in the background needed to be broken up so I added a few lighter strokes. I removed the masking tape from the edges and signed the painting.

 

The finished painting. Unlike most media, pastel can be photographed with a flash, but I still prefer natural light, so I took it outside. I loaded the photo on my MacBook and used photoshop to correct the colors so they looked exactly like the painting in front of me. I cropped out the edges so only the painting was visible. Painting complete 🙂