Thinking Outside The Box in Pastel

The importance of thinking “outside the box” with pastel.

Currently on my easel is a small portrait that I am working on in pastel.  It measures 11×14″, on wood panel treated with my marble dust and gesso mixture. The portrait is close to life size ( one side note, when painting the portrait it is always best to scale the artwork life size or smaller when at all possible.

As I am painting this portrait I come across some instances when the medium of pastel does need a little help from other mediums, to get the clarity and vision in the contrasts between the light and the dark. I am unable to get the intensity that I am striving for to key in the values. If the dark is not dark enough, even by one value on the value scale, it will effect all the other values in the portrait.

My dilemma is, how do I get this rich color dark value with pastel, while not overloading the surface with excess pigment. The only answer is the airbrush. I approach the painting with the airbrush applying light passes of that rich dark color ( as always you will need to do all that you can to avoid the dreaded over spray). This method does two wonderful things. The first is that it achieves the wonderful dark color while maintaining the textured marble dust surface of the board. The second advantage is that the airbrush, the use of free hand shields and/or frisket film, will create and reinforce marvelous edge variation. This will be almost impossible to achieve without this technique.

The artist is able to go back and forth between the airbrush and the pastel pigment to push and pull the edges until they are pleased with that particular passage. As long as the marble dust surface is not overloaded, this could be done many times. Why live with the limitations of a medium? I do not feel the painting becomes “mixed media” because the artist finds solutions to make a better painting.

This reminds me of Bruce Lee’s fighting style of Jeet Kune Do. This is said the be a defensive fighting style of martial arts without any set form. Bruce felt that if one adhered to one fighting style that the martial artist would be too rigid in their approach. In an interview found in the DVD, Little, John (1973). Bruce Lee: In His Own Words. Bruce stated:

To obtain victory, therefore, it is essential not to be rigid, but to be fluid and able to adapt to any situation. He compared it to being like water: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. That water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” Lee’s theory behind this was that one must be able to function in any scenario one is thrown into and should react accordingly. One should know when to speed up or slow down, when to expand and when to contract, and when to remain flowing and when to crash. It is the awareness that both life and fighting can be shapeless and ever changing that allows one to be able to adapt to those changes instantaneously and bring forth the appropriate solution. Lee did not believe in “styles” and felt that every person and every situation is different and not everyone fits into a mold; one must remain flexible in order to obtain new knowledge and victory in both life and combat. One must never become stagnant in the mind or method, always evolving and moving towards improving oneself.

I feel that Bruce, was onto something that also applies to the fine arts. If we are not looking for new solutions to both old and new problems in painting and drawing, we are in danger of repeating ourselves, becoming derivative and predictable. Be like water and we will be able to respond to the subject and the painting or drawing as we are working on it. Each painting is a moment in time and this one moment is just as special as the creation of the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.