Is it my last piece of 2020, or my first of 2021?
Starting in September, my latest oil pastel piece has kicked my butt, challenging every technical skill I’ve learned so far. It required the use of over 45 different pastels, multiple tools and untold hours of tweaking details. References included 142 photos of casement windows and locks, sunsets, suburban lawns, fences, storms and wagons, some of which I took myself.
This artwork is a departure from my nature glamour-portrait series, but by no means a departure from my style. A quick history:
The first artwork I really put effort into as a kid was fantasy-themed, usually centered around magical creatures.
It provided a creative outlet and a haven from the drama of my teen years, and the difficulties of a family under pressure. Over time, I drifted from fantasy toward surrealism and concept illustrations, which I still favor along with natural subjects.
This most recent piece came to me in a dream. Most of my dreams are varying flavors of bizarre, but this vivid scene through an open window stuck in my imagination. I didn’t feel quite skilled enough to capture it, but I was compelled to try anyway.
This one needed to be large–large enough to help create the illusion of looking through a real window. A canvas I had prepped with grey gesso was large enough, but super rough-textured. I had just about given up on finding a smoother, nearly 4-foot wide sheet of paper.
While I was at a hobby shop on my way to get the canvas dry-mounted, a shelf of framing supplies caught my eye. I found a huge piece of grey matboard.
This unconventional surface had the perfect texture and tone and needed no mounting. Best of all, it fit my huge thrift-store frame perfectly. I prepped it with an isolation coat of workable fixative spray, then brushed on a layer of matte medium, and voila–ready for pastel.
First came a composition rough draft on paper and a color draft on cardboard. Since the image is from a dream, all the references were real-life approximations of imaginary elements and I had no good example of how the sky should look. I had been taking and collecting reference photos for months. I worked from several different photos of sunsets and storms.
The next step was the placement of the supporting elements in the picture.
There was supposed to be a red crayon on the windowsill, and a red wagon and ball that sit on the lawn. Since I couldn’t recall exactly how things looked in my dream, I took reference photos of my daughter’s wagon and ball in several different arrangements. To ensure I got the lighting right, I put a color filter over my photos in a free editing program. Filters skew how we see individual colors, so I used a sheet of white paper with a piece cut from the center to isolate each element of the photos and color-match correctly to my oil pastels.
I roughed in the background first. Then I traced the wagon photo on my computer screen onto paper, cut it and a ball out and placed them in different spots on the background. I used a red pastel to stand in for the red crayon. I took a photo of each option before choosing a final arrangement.
For this piece I worked dark to light, setting up the lights to blend into the darks. My next challenge was working with different pastel brands and textures. I put down the cheaper, more opaque colors first, adding the softer and more transparent colors on top. The sap green I used was definitely the pickiest, with a lustrous color but an off-putting grainy texture.
At the midpoint of this piece, I gave up keeping organized track of my pastels at this point and just separated them into cool colors (mostly greens and greys) and warm colors (yellows, reds, browns). It’s probably best to store these messy, sticky tools in a disposable or lined container—lesson learned!
When pursuing a project this size, I always run the risk of losing momentum partway through and getting exhausted with it. Large projects have a more distant finish line, which can be discouraging to me. What usually helps me is stop for a few days and make a totally unrelated small project from start to finish.
This gives me a refreshing dose of motivation and proof that yes, I can finish a project.
Evidence of how long this project took me: I managed to make two scarves, some jointed dolls, an elaborate Christmas ornament, multiple wreaths, a batch of sauerkraut, and an entirely separate piece in soft pastel…during the time it took me to finish this one work. (I needed a lot of breaks!)
Some of it is displayed below:
Another way to refresh yourself during a long project is to get a change of scenery, if at all possible. I was lucky enough to be able to take my work to a small socially-distanced artist’s retreat in the fall. If you can’t take your work to another location, you could try working outdoors or in another room, using a different light to work under, anything that will help you get a fresh perspective.
Transporting a medium like oil pastel which never truly “dries” (and also softens in heat) is a unique struggle. I used light plastic drop-cloth which I draped over the piece and tied loosely in the back.
While normally this works really well to prevent lint build-up in short term storage, the work did “melt” a bit onto the drop-cloth in the heat of my car. So I would do well to avoid covering it in heat.
The sky being the most dynamic part of the picture and the source of the lighting, I finished it first. To get the colors I needed for the sky, I actually cut pieces from the bottoms of the pastels that I needed to blend, mashed them up a bit to soften and mix them, then used a rubber shaper brush to paint them on. My palette was a little aluminum piece from the bottom of a cinnamon roll tube, which I just threw away when I was done.
After three months of work and a busy holiday season, this painting was shaping up to be complete soon. The window frame was the simplest but by far the most frustrating part yet–if you’ve never tried to make a straight edge in oil pastel, I wouldn’t recommend attempting a dozen of them in one piece!
Once I had reworked the frame edges as much as I had patience for, I was ready to put finishing touches on. All that remained would be highlights and possibly adding a reflection on the open window–something that could make the piece or break it if I didn’t get it just right.
I avoided finishing the painting for days so I wouldn’t have to face potentially messing up months of work. I finally had to draw the line when I realized I was approaching the new year with a piece I started in September, and I couldn’t avoid making a decision due to fear of failure. I took a deep breath and worked a reflection over the sky I had spent hours on weeks previously…
and it actually turned out better than I thought it would.
I also got to portray textures that I haven’t had much experience with yet, like brass, lawn, and wooden fence. All in all, I’m very pleased with the result and I’m also pleased to be done. The piece is tentatively titled “Finally” (which has nothing to do with what I felt like when I finally finished it). It’s a striking piece, and its interpretation I will enjoy leaving to the viewer.
I’m ready to take a needed breather from large works for awhile.
Normally I have my work photographed for print-making (shout-out to my pro photographer brother!). However, this piece is awkwardly large and quite glossy. I opted instead to have it scanned by a nearby printing company, where their impressive industrial scanner can make contact-free captures of art up to 6′ wide. Here is a low-resolution version of the scan.