Techniques and Tips

Pastel Landscape Demo with Michael Chesley Johnson

Pastel Landscape Demo with Michael Chesley Johnson

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In Magazine‘s September issue, Maureen Bloomfield writes about Michael Chesley Johnson’s landscapes in the feature article Poetry of Earth. Here is an bonus demo that Chesley Johnson shared with us on how to paint a pastel landscape.

Point Lobos Sublime Demo
by Michael Chesley Johnson

For my studio painting Point Lobos Sublime, I will use a couple of photos, several plein air sketches for color reference, and also a studio oil painting in which I have already worked out some of the color problems. I want to recreate the feeling of the monumental rocks and the cool water, both shot with warm highlights, but I also want to play with the rock and water textures in a different medium.

After drawing a simple grid on my photograph with a fine-point Sharpie, I draw a similar grid on my surface with a light blue pastel pencil in preparation for transferring the design. I use light blue because it is a cool color that will work well with the other cool colors I’ll use in the painting. The surface is white professional grade Wallis Sanded Pastel Paper, 11×22.

1. Transfer Design: Using the same pastel pencil, I transfer the design from photo to my chosen surface freehand.

2. Darken the Outlines: Now I use a thin stick of vine charcoal to darken the outlines. The vine charcoal is “compatible” with pastel, in that it is soft and will vanish as I add color.

3. Block in Color: Once the initial sketch is complete, I block in the major shapes with my “first best guess” at the color. For the shadowed side of the rocks, I push the color a bit more toward the intense, favoring a cool red to start; later, some of this intense color will show through the more muted colors and make the painting “sparkle.”

4. Scrub and Spray: Because I didn’t tone the paper before starting, some of the white of the Wallis paper still shows through, so I use a large bristle brush to gently massage the pastel into any white areas. (They are only small spots, but would be distracting if they are still revealed in the final painting.) I take care to remove as little pastel as possible. Next, I use a spray bottle of 91% isopropyl alcohol and gently spray the entire painting. This basically “fixes” the pastel in place. It also gives a nice, rough texture to the surface which will help suggest a rocky texture. I also like the way it speckles the water. I prefer spraying to brushing since it’s too easy to make the color muddy with a brush.

5. Alcohol Spray: Here is the painting after spraying with alcohol. You can the speckled, rougher texture the spray creates.

6. Color Properties Adjustments: Here I’ve made my major adjustments to the color properties of each shape. I’ve made the shadowed rocks more muted; made the shadowed grasses on the right rock not so garishly blue; added warmth to the sunlit passages; and also have begun to layer more color onto the water. For the water, I am paying particular attention to the area that has a shadow cast over it by the right rock mass – I want to make it “read” as shadow, so I keep the colors within that area cooler. The reflections of the leftmost rocks are kept subtle and dark. Additionally, I’ve reinforced the lines of the rocks – outlines, crevices – with a dark brown hard pastel.

7. Scumble: In this stage, I’ve scumbled that same dark brown hard pastel over the shadowed rocks. This adds variety to the shadows as well as texture. I’ve begun to deepen the darks in the foreground water within the shadowed area and the reflections. In the distance, toward the top of the painting, I’ve begun to indicate a line of shore with some more darks and some warm passages to indicate sunlight in the distance.

8. Closeup: Here’s a closeup of what I’m doing in the foreground water. I vary color, staying with warms in the sunlit passages and cools in the shadows, all the while maintaining a fairly distinct border where the edge of the shadow falls. I’ve also indicated, with a light blue pastel, where I want the water to break along the base of the rocks. Finally, I’ve added a suggestion of harder, deeper reflections for the cracks and shadows from the rock mass.

9. Alcohol Spray: The “tooth” is beginning to fill on my surface, so I sprayed another round of alcohol on the painting. I concentrated the spray a bit more directly in the shadowed water to deepen the darks. I like the spotty effect of the spray, as it adds texture and interest.

10. Small Adjustments: I am now moving beyond applying color in a heavy-handed way, since I want to make small, delicate adjustments in color and temperature. In the rock shadows, I use more cool green and a bit of light grey-blue to cool off the reds even more. I refine the dark cracks and add a dark, cool red in with the dark brown. In the foreground water, I’ve begun to use strokes that indicate slightly-disturbed water. I’m thinking about how the sky color is reflected in both shadowed water and water in full sunlight; the same light blue can be used in both. Finally, I begin to refine the shape of the reflections in the more distant water and add “sparkle” to where the water meets rock with a light, dull yellow pastel.

11. Refinements: I refine the shadows of the rocks more and play with the patterning of cracks.

12. Finalize the Water: I play more with ripples and reflections. I like to paint water from bottom to top; that is, I paint the bottom first (if I can see it), then add the color of the water itself; then reflections; and finally, surface treatments such as ripples and sunspots. For this painting, I am particularly interested in the warm patch of sunlit bottom in the bottom left corner, so I make sure that I preserve it, but not make it so bright that it pulls the eye away too quickly from the rocks.

13. Finished painting: Point Lobos Sublime (pastel, 11×22). Before making this final photograph, I felt the shadowed rock on the right was still too red, so I scumbled a mid-value, raw umber over it to tone it down even more.

Here are all the pastels I used in the making of this painting – only 34 sticks! Students are always amazed at how much color you can get from so few sticks.

To read the full feature article, pick up a copy of our September issue, or subscribe to Magazine!

Michael Chesley Johnson was awarded Master Pastelist status by Pastel Artists Canada in 2008, and he is a signature member of the Pastel Society of America and a juried member of Oil Painters of America and the American Impressionist Society. His paintings have appeared in Magazine, Pastel Journal, American Artist, and Fine Art Connoisseur (PleinAir Magazine) and are part of both corporate and private collections.

He has been an invited artist at the Sedona Plein Air Festival (2006–2011) and in 2011 also participated in the Plein Air Southwest, Grand Canyon National Park “Celebration of Art,” and Zion National Park “In the Footsteps of Thomas Moran” invitationals. In 2012, he was an invited artist in PleinAir Magazine’s First Annual Plein Air Convention Expo and again at the Grand Canyon event.

A contributing editor for Magazine, he writes regularly, as well, for Pastel Journal. He is the author of several books, including Through a Painter’s Brush: A Year on Campobello Island, Through a Painter’s Brush: The American Southwest, and Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Oil Pastel (all available through his website).


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Watch the video: Plein Air Workshops with Doug Dawson, Master Pastellist (August 2022).