Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined with pain
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hands.
~ Don McLean, "Vincent"1
This morning I went outside my comfort zone and took a pastel class. I’ve never been any good at pastels. (SPOILER: I’m still not.)
Here’s how it came about. I bought this print from Duane Keiser, and had it framed at Michael’s. When I picked it up, the woman at the register raved about the picture, so we discussed painting-a-day folks and how hard it is to make oneself DO something. I told her I hope to retire in a couple of years, at which point I might turn my dining room – with its north-facing picture window – into a studio.2
Upon inquiry, I told her, “I studied art, but I haven’t done anything since, and I feel like I need to start all over again.” She told me she hears that all the time. It turns out she teaches art classes at Michael’s.
Snob that I am, until I talked to Christy, I would never have considered classes at Michael’s. That’s CRAFT work, not ART, says my insufferable inner voice – the one that thinks “proper training” is required for any kind of "serious art." (This was encouraged by my painting teacher, Jack, who didn’t paint his own canvases; he did the design work, but actually putting pigment on canvas was beneath him.) (What a jerk that guy was.)
But Christy seemed very warm and genuine, especially because – instead of her own watercolor classes – she recommended this pastel class. “It’s held at the Green Door Gallery in Webster Groves,” she said, “and you get to use professional-quality paper and all of Michele’s professional-grade pastels. In other words, you don’t have to go out and buy a set of pastels to find out whether you like them.”
So, the next time the class was offered, I signed up. And that’s how I found myself at the Green Door Gallery on a beautiful Sunday morning, facing an array of pastels and a simple assignment, which Michele took us through, step by step.
There were five people in the class. Michele offered us aprons. I declined, because I was dressed for bike riding later. Christy asked, “Are you going to ride over here?” (on the Missouri side of the river). I replied, “I don’t know.” She exclaimed happily, “That’s wonderful! Today is a perfect day for ‘I don’t know.’” I liked her even more.
We were each given a sheet of black pastel card taped to a foam core backer board. The pastel card has a coating that’s sort of like a really fine sandpaper – a good “tooth” for holding the pigment. But Michele warned that we mustn’t spill, spit or drool any liquid on it; and if we did, we should under no circumstances try to wipe it up. What results – she showed us – is a big, bare, shiny patch to which nothing will stick.
Except for Christy, who did her own thing, we would all be working on “the farm scene,” and we were given both color and black-and-white photos. If we felt adventurous, we could make up our own color schemes and wok with the black-and-white photo. Some people find this too daunting, and need to copy the colors exactly. Either way was fine.
I decided on blues for the rutted field and background, but I could not get past the golds and rusts of the original photo for the standing grain. Dammit, that's what color grain IS! Such limited imagination I have. So my color scheme ended up being sort of a hybrid of "what I'm looking at" and "the colors I want to use." Others went different directions. My favorite was Jillian's, which used a purple/green palette.
DIGRESSION: Jillian spoke with a heavy Yorkshire accent, which reminds me that the class started with two Canadians - Michele and one of the students - discussing the merits of the Butchart Gardens botanical garden in Victoria, B.C. Seriously, CLICK ON THE LINK. Michele had recently visited and posted photos online, which will inspire paintings later. She said it's best in April, but even in August it was breathtaking. I need to start planning a springtime Canada trip!
Back to the class. Michelle walked us through sketching the major shapes with a hard pastel crayon, then laying in values with the color palette we had selected in softer sticks. Most of us kept screwing up, using too light a color where it needed to be darker. She lectured us on "referential values"3 - how a color seems much lighter when you put it next to a dark color, so you have to use a darker color than you think. What's wrong with using the light color? Well, it pops out and that's where your eye goes, distracting from the overall composition.
Here is my finished farm scene. I ran out of things to do to it long before the others were finished, so I figured I was pretty primitive.
I'm not very excited about it But Michele had that wonderful quality of teachers: she was able to find something to praise in everyone's work. I apparently added some features that made the composition work, leading the eye back to where it needed to be. Go me!
We were given instructions on how to sign our work - in pencil, not too close to the edge, to leave room for a mat - and tracing paper to protect it. Then some folks went to lunch with the artist/teacher, but I begged off because "I don't know." (I did go for a bike ride, but on the familiar Illinois trails.)
Maybe I'll take another class, sometime. It was fun, even if I'm not happy with the end result. Michele has a class on painting clouds with pastels in October, but I don't think I'm advanced enough for clouds. However ... On the drive back to Illinois, I kept noticing values and hues in the scenery, so I think I learned something. I don't think I'll want to do much with pastels, although they might be a good way to relearn color lessons before jumping back into painting.
(When I interviewed for a place at the Hartford Art School, I never intended to pound the pavement to find gallery representation and live with the uncertainty of art buyers. I told the dean, "I just want to learn about color." He smiled and declared, gently: "You want to study the unknowable.")
1If you google the lyrics to "Vincent," your first results credit the song to Josh Groban. DO NOT TRUST GOOGLE.
2This is probably as futile as buying exercise equipment. I'll just end up throwing clothes on the easel.
3Sort of like situational ethics