Autumn Fire

Over the Fall/Winter seasons, I spend a good deal of time cooped up indoors, with hectic holidays looming and an excess of craft supplies lying about. So I craft. My holiday-themed items are easy and quick to create, and selling them can be tremendously satisfying. Now, though…the craft fairs are done, I’ve had a nice long break from my art supplies, and I’m recharged and ready to go. February’s piece has begged to be created since this last Fall…

White Flannel Moth caterpillar. Don’t touch!

The subject: A vibrant caterpillar I had unluckily met some months ago. This particular variety has scores of tiny, toxic hairs along its back. Imagine the surprise of absentmindedly reaching into your back pocket, only to feel a sudden sting akin to 20 small wasps all jabbing you at once. After relocating the unwelcome “bug”, I captured his portrait (above) for later use.

A trip to the local office supply store yields a nice 11×17″ print, close to my planned size of 12×18″. Next, I trace a basic sketch for placement (is it really cheating if it’s my photo? Don’t answer that…!). Initially, I try and paint the caterpillar with acrylics. It’s been awhile since I’ve used these and I abort the failed effort early on, deciding on oil pastel instead. My last OP was on paper, but this time I’m trying pre-primed canvas from a 16×20 pad. Next, I attempt an underpainting in lavender for contrast, but this effort also quickly tanks.

If at first you don’t succeed…?

So, painfully, I toss that attempt. Having gotten quite good at sketching this caterpillar by now, I finally draw a draft ready for color. I did realize this time, that regardless of the actual artwork’s size, the canvas/paper needs to fill the frame (16×20″), rather than be cut down to the size of the actual artwork (12×18″). Sometimes I’m a slow learner, haha. I put masking tape over the wide margins of the working area, which will leave nice clean edges when I’m done.

My daughter coloring in one of my many sketches

As I work on what is only my third full-size piece in oil pastel, I’m still learning a lot of interesting quirks of this medium. Temperature makes a huge difference in how the pastel sticks to the canvas— cold pastel holds a hard edge a bit better, but warm pastel blends more smoothly. Keeping my hands warm helps. Working in winter is hard on my O.Ps, constantly circulating air dries them out if they are left out for very long, giving them an unpleasant “gummy” texture. Canvas is proving to be a wonderful surface to work on–though it wrinkles easily, it has a high-quality feel and nice weight, with plenty of even tooth for multiple layers of color.

Seen here is a brush for removing “crumbs”, my warm-toned palette, favorite pencil, a scraping tool for quick fixes, a print for reference and another for color matching. Not shown–some inspiration on TV by the late great Mr. Ross.

Frequently, I only find time to work in the evening or afternoon when the best natural light is failing. One of my favorite tools is a little full-spectrum desk lamp I bring over to get more color accuracy than from my overhead light.

A close-up of the texture in this piece. Loving these colors

One of the biggest challenges of this piece is determining the temperature of the light. I still can’t be sure I’ve chosen the appropriate colors, but I’m having fun regardless. I go for a duller, blurred background and a textured, contrasted foreground. I love finding uses for colors I thought I’d never need, like a greyish-dusty-rose. The background gives me fits as I try to find a balance between textured and blended. Blending with fingers does work fairly well but sometimes smears the colors and usually removes any texture. I’m learning I prefer to blend with the pastels themselves, applying very light pressure, almost none, where needed.

Before putting in the background, I laid a layer of white pastel around the caterpillar for a clear, bright base the subsequent colors can really shine on. A bit of sgraffito (scratching away the upper layer to reveal the white underneath) gives the caterpillar his stinging hairs. He is nearly complete.

The best part. Pulling off the masking tape for a crisp edge and a finished piece

I think this piece has turned out to my best yet, but certainly not my last. I’ve really enjoyed making it, and filed away the lessons I’ve learned for the next piece.

Autumn Fire, 12×18″, 2020

Final size: 12×18″, not including margins
Tools: oil pastel, primed canvas, fingers, scraper, pencil
Time: Many short sessions over roughly 3-4 weeks
Lessons learned:
-Leave a wide margin, and mask it well. You can trim it down to fit a frame but you can’t enlarge it.
-Keep pastels warm for best blending.
-Store pastels away from circulating air anytime they aren’t in use, and always leave unfinished work covered and protected from dust.
-Keep multiple sets or doubles of the OPs you use the most often so you don’t run out in the middle of a piece.

Ciao til next time!

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