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How to Create a Classical Still Life in Pastel

by Eric Bossik
A work of art created with soft pastel might look somewhat similar to an oil painting, but there are differences in the overall appearance. Pastels differ from oils, but have their own unique quality that you will appreciate when you master the techniques of using them. I found that the naturalistic feel and appearance of subject matter executed with soft pastels is very appealing. Pastels offer the opportunity to work directly with color when a drawing is complete.

Some people believe that a completed work in pastel is considered a painting, but I believe it is different and stands on it's own merits. Even if a painting is executed using a dry brush method, you're still using wet paint. Pastel is dry pigment laid down in masses and line, and is similar to form drawing with charcoal. A pastel work may be full color and the finished work may resemble a finished oil painting in many ways, but the methods of executing a painting is much different. Form drawing does not make the finished work any less important than a work finished in oil paint, and the results can be quite beautiful. I used pastels to create my "Still life with Apples, Red Onion, Grapes and Shallot". I found pastel to be a great medium for creating a beautiful naturalistic look and feel to my subject matter.

The application of pastel is much different than oil paint or wet paint media. You can use pastel sticks to block in large areas of value and color much like you might handle large brushes with oil paint. You would use your fingers to model value transitions and soften edges. You can also hatch and cross hatch using pastel sticks. Pastel pencils are very useful for fine details. With oil paints you would use brushes to model value transitions and soften edges. You would work with big brushes for large areas and smaller brushes for finer details.

Here is a step-by-step description of how to create a classical still life using pastels.
I used the following materials for my "Still Life with Apples, Red Onion, Grapes and Shallot".
  • Pastel paper - grey toned paper (I used the smooth side of the paper.)
  • Foam core board - for mounting pastel paper.
  • Pastel sticks - soft pastel wrapped in paper with various colors in the set.
  • Pastel pencils - various colors.
  • Sturdy easel - to hold and position the artwork.
  • Barrier cream lotion - for skin protection.
  • Mahl stick - to lean your hand and avoid smudging your work.
  • Chamois cloth - for erasing and shaping lines.
  • Kneaded eraser - for erasing and shaping lines.

Step 1 - How to arrange and light still life objects
I chose to use a variety of objects with a range in local values (average values), light objects, middle value objects and dark objects. This range in values creates interest and allows the opportunity to create a more dramatic picture. I first light the surface I'm working on using a flood light with a 12 inch hood and a 150 watt daylight balanced light bulb. I set the light lower, and on a 45 degree angle in order to get longer cast shadows. I then add the objects I intend to use in this still life, which happens to be fruits, vegetables and a small sugar bowl. I add and subtract these objects and move them around on the surface to see how the light is affecting them. I also want the objects illuminated with three quarter lighting (form or Rembrandt lighting) so that 70% to 75% of an object is illuminated while 25% to 30% of that object remains in shadow. I want to arrange something that has a strong focal point, so I focus on arranging my light objects first, then I start adding the darker and middle value objects around the lighter ones. I want every object in my picture to contribute and relate or lead to my focal point objects (center of interest). Every object added to the arrangement should contribute to the picture and lead your eye to the focal point. You should remove all objects that don't contribute and lead your eye towards the center of interest.
Step 2 - The initial drawing and composition of the still life using vine charcoal

Initial drawing and composition

Once I'm satisfied with my still life arrangement, I begin my drawing. I use a soft or extra soft vine charcoal stick. The vine is very forgiving and I can easily make corrections without damaging the paper. Vine also completely disappears when wiped away with a chamois cloth. I like using a chamois cloth instead of an eraser since it has little to no effect on the quality of the paper. I make several initial marks (land marks) on the paper to indicate the placement of my still life objects. Once I have a good idea of the placement or overall gesture of the arrangement, I begin the drawing. I may draw one object at a time or mass several objects together, depending on the objects I'm working with. As you can see from the image above, I use lines to connect one object to another. It's very important to show movement and relationships between your objects, and everything in a picture is relative. Look for ways to make connections between different objects so that the objects flow together.

I use a lot of geometric line work to establish the objects. Geometric lines allow me to capture angles accurately. Objects that may appear round have many angles as well, and you may miss these unique angles by attempting to draw all the rounded curves in the beginning. At this beginning stage in the drawing, I'm also focusing on measurements, simple shadow (core shadow) and cast shadow shapes. I keep my line work pretty light at this stage. When you keep your line work light, you're keeping the drawing open so that you can make changes and corrections. You can darken, soften and sharpen lines where needed as the drawing progresses.
Step 3 - Refining the drawing using pastel pencils

Refined drawing

At this stage in the process, I refine my lines and round out my shapes. I make sure all measurements are very accurate. I decided to exaggerate the shape of the grapes by rounding them out more than they are in reality. I make sure to strongly indicate the core shadows (terminator lines). Terminator lines let me know where the light ends or terminates and the shadow begins. I used pastel pencils to refine my lines, as I'm now more confident in what I have down on paper from the initial stage of the drawing. I used both a cooler sepia and warmer burnt umber pastel pencil for this stage of the drawing.
Drawing and still life setup

Here you can see how my drawing is positioned in relationship to the still life setup. I usually shift my easel at an angle so that I can view my drawing and still life setup at the same time. I set my drawing on the easel at a straight 90 degree angle so there is no visual perspective or distortion to contend with. I also mount the pastel paper on a rigid foam core board.
Step 4 - Blocking in the simple shadow shapes

Simple shadow block-in

Now that my drawing is refined, I can begin blocking in the core and cast shadows. The core shadows in this case make up about 25% of the objects, as approximately 75% of my objects are illuminated with light. The cast shadows are those that are cast by the objects sitting on the surface of the table. There are also shadows that are cast by one object onto another object. Cast shadows are usually darker than core shadows, but not always. A dark object, or object with a dark local value, might have a core shadow that's darker than the cast shadow if that dark object is sitting on a much lighter surface.

I used my soft pastel sticks to block in the shadows. I wanted to start by using more neutral colors for these shadows so I used raw umber for the core shadows on the apples, and a combination of raw and burnt umber for the shadows the apples are casting on the table surface. I used some raw umber and burnt sienna for the core shadow on the shallot, and alizarin crimson and burnt umber for the shadow on the red onion. I layered one color over another until I got what I was looking for. I was careful to keep the terminator lines intact for now. I used my finger to soften the pastel I laid out onto the paper.
Step 5 - Massing dark objects

Shadow block-in finished and massing of darker objects

I finish blocking in my core and cast shadows and then mass in the dark grapes as a single shape. Massing in the grapes as a single shape meant that I would lose the lines in my drawing, but I had already drawn them in so I could still visualize the drawing of the shapes. This type of massing helps me simplify the forms and lose edges that don't need to be defined. The shadows also help to design and structure the picture. This is the finished block-in.
Step 6 - Beginning of background lay-in; massing local value and local color of still life objects

Local value and color block-in

At this stage, I begin blocking in the local value and local color (average color and value) of the still life objects. I also lay-in some background color and value around the objects in order to create accurate relationships. As you can see from the picture above, I blocked in a simple local color value on the apples. I massed together this one big color value the same way I massed in the simple shadow values. I'll adjust the colors and make them more like the objects I see from nature once I finish blocking everything in. At this stage I also take the time to start finishing the grapes since they're the most perishable objects in my still life. In most cases it's best to work on the center of interest objects and complete them before the other objects. The center of interest objects in this still life are the apples. The reason for finishing center of interest objects first is so that you can assess how much work is really necessary to make the entire picture look complete.
Step 7 - Modeling the big shapes; developing forms and softening edges

Big shape modeling

I completed the local color value block-in for most of my objects and also laid in larger areas of background value surrounding those objects. I now start modeling (creating value transitions) the shadow values into the light values in order to create dark, middle and lighter half tones. I do this by zigzagging my finger along the edge of the terminator line and breaking the harder edge that separates the core shadows from the big light or local values. I then softly pull or brush the end of my finger along the broken edge of the now broken terminator line to create a dark half tone. This also softens the edge between light and shadow. I continue to push some darker values into the lights in order to finish the major value transitions. I use both my fingers and pastel sticks to add values (light and dark) and model those values. I also start to soften outside edges of objects at this stage. Softening outside edges gives the illusion of form. Shadow side edges are usually the softest edges. I look to sharpen some edges as well (soft edges recede and sharp edges come forward.) I also start adding the bigger light values (the effect) and some highlights. At this stage I will start to see the illusion of three dimensional form and I will continue to develop these forms.
Step 8 - Adjusting colors and adding finishing details

Finishing details

At this stage I work on the finishing details. I adjust colors, model dark and light halftones and work out lost and found edges (the big blur and smaller edge transitions). The big blur is the largest area on an object that gets lost against surrounding objects, or background and foreground area that's close in value to that object. Once the big blur is established, you can then look for smaller outside edges of objects that can be lost as well (lost and found edges). This losing of edges gives your objects roots in the picture, as there should be a balance between more- and less-defined lines or edges. I also add to my drawing by exaggerating the shapes of the apples, adding some decay, color and more detail. I use pastel pencils for some of the smaller and more refined details.
Step 9 - The finished still life

Still Life with Apples, Red Onion, Grapes and Shallot
Pastel on paper; 13 1/4" x 18"

I left the least important objects and details for last. All along I made subtle value, edge and color adjustments. Even thought I may push certain objects (center of interest) along faster than other objects I continually make changes to the picture as a whole. Everything in a picture is relative, and I believe there's always some room for adjustment and improvement. Working from life is a process, and you can see and understand more about your subject matter over a period of time. It takes time to observe and absorb what you're seeing in front of you.

Always start with the big shapes and work your way down to the small shapes. The best homes are built with a strong foundation. Start with a strong drawing and composition and then mass in your big shadow shapes, which will also help you develop the design of your picture. Work out your big color values and lay them down as one big average value, adjusting half tone modeling as you progress. Always work on edges. Value and edges are the most important part of the picture after the drawing. Smaller details always come last.
The soft pastel medium
The soft or dry pastel medium is usually in stick form and is pure pigment held together with a binder such as gum arabic and gum tragacanth. Methyl cellulose is another binder that was introduced in the 20th century. Pastels are available in different degrees of hardness, and the softer pastel sticks are wrapped in paper. Harder pastels have more binder mixed with the pigment. Another form of dry pastel is pastel pencils, which are very useful for fine details. The pigments used in dry pastel are the same dry powdered pigments used for grinding with oils to create oil paint.
Great old masters who used pastels
The use of the pastel medium can be traced back to the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have used the pastel medium in some of his drawings and studies. Back then the pastel medium may have been known as colored chalk and was used in a method of drawing with dry color. The first 17th century artist known to have specialized in the pastel medium was Joseph Vivien. Vivien built his reputation by using pastels to create his portraits. The pastel medium became very fashionable with 17th, 18th and 19th century French artists. Jean-Baptiste Perronneau specialized in portraits executed in pastels, and Maurice Quentin de La Tour worked almost exclusively with pastels. Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin's pastel artwork has been admired for centuries. The great 19th century artists Eugène Delacroix, Jean- François Millet and Edgar Degas used pastels to create many masterpieces.

Erick Bossik's works have been exhibited in many locations including the Society of Illustrators, the Salamagundi Club, and others and his Historical Military Paintings have been featured on the covers of The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography and From Sea to Shining Sea.

To purchase Bossik's ebook How To Create an Underpainting Like the Old Masters - A Step by Step Guide, please visit the ARC Store or click the below image.
How to Create an Underpainting Like the Old Masters: A Step-By-Step Guide