Someone was searching on “how to achieve light

Degas pastel water
Edgar Degas

in pastel” and through some combination of key words found me.  This I learned from my stats.  Don’t know what post came up under this combination, or if the visitor found anything that resembled what he or she was looking for, but I am intrigued by the question.  It’s the kind of question one often hears addressed in artists’ manuals and in those few magazine publications devoted to technical aspects of art.


Jean-Francois Millet


I raise the topic now because I try to be helpful, but also because it is so opposite the way that I think about art.  I don’t know if I have ever wondered how one would achieve a quality of light in any medium, and so it prompts me to wonder how I would answer the person’s question were I asked — as well as to wonder what kinds of things I do try to achieve in my pictures.

Jennifer Bartlett pastel
Jennifer Bartlett


What I’ve sought since the beginning of my artist’s life was a way of understanding those works of art that I loved.  My desires began with individual pictures that I found compelling, and afterwards I found myself asking “how did the artist do that?”  Art always led the way for me, it led me into life, I think, rather than the other way around.  Or perhaps it disciplined life for me.

early Picasso pastel
Pablo Picasso


I had always found things in life that were beautiful and moving.  But in art, I found life represented a certain way, and afterwards I wondered “what living circumstance would recreate the painting?”  So different artists — and they were quite varied — affected me and made me visually curious and provoked me into looking for the life situation that they had depicted.  So in effect they taught me to see life.  Different artists teach you to see different corners of existence.  And afterwards the things themselves almost resemble styles.  A sunset might be Turner, Delacroix or Corot.  Rural scenes might be Winslow Homer or Andrew Wyeth (quite a stretch there).  A suburban scene with its sidewalks and green lawns might contain all the linear sinuousity of Diebenkorn.

Degas pastel
Edgar Degas


In none of these things would I be looking for one facet separated out — something like “light” — but rather one finds a holistic sensibility, a way of organizing the world that resembles the ideas of one artist or period.  Naming artists George Bellows, Joan Mitchell, Durer, Titian, Rembrandt, Ingres, Giotto, Edward Hopper, and so on, is to evoke not techniques but personalities.

Eugene Delacroix


Thus any technical question could be answered so many different ways.  I don’t ask “how does one deal with light,” but “what features does Delacroix notice in a landscape and what means does he use to achieve them?”  Even to ask the question of one artist nets slightly different answers depending upon the medium.  Delacroix was very sensitive to the exigencies of pencil or watercolor or pastel or oil and employs each in quite precise ways to take advantage of the medium’s strengths.

delacroix pastel
Eugene Delacroix


The landscapes above provide examples.  The landscape above is filled with wonderful light effects, and the ways of analyzing it are multifold.  But one thing that leaps out at me, looking at it now, is the way he places alternating horizontal bands of light and dark throughout the entire picture, that extend through tonal and chromatic changes in the sky and which continue into the land below.  It’s a device that one finds in 17th century Dutch landscape, something that well-versed Delacroix was quite aware of — yet he does not follow this idea in any programmatic way.  Indeed, one feels quite sure that the effects we see in the picture mirror something that he saw in an actual landscape.

“La vérité est dans une nuance,” he said. (“Truth is in a nuance.”)  To quote it, one has to reemploy the French word.  The very notion of fine distinctions, it would appear, comes to us on the wings of a French idea.  Certainly it was pivotal to Delacroix’s way of looking at things.  And one sees it exemplified in the pictures above.  The landscape he drew has a thousand connections to works by other artists, to ideas about drawing, evocation, arrangement, tonality, space, that one finds in innumerable places from the aforementioned Dutch landscape painters to Claude Lorraine or even Turner.  Yet the scene has a distinctly Delacroix flavor.  And that impress of his personality is undoubtedly the “nuance.”

JMW Turner (watercolor)


Still I have not answered, have I, the question asked by my unknown visitor.  The answer to the question of how to achieve light in pastel is to take a motif in which the fall of light is a principal element and to use pastel to try to depict it.  Observe the subject, translate it through one’s tools at hand.  Pastel itself poses an interesting problem since, of course, pastel colors do not blend as readily as paints.  They are at least a tone lighter from the outset because of the missing layer of oil medium, and thus much chromatic exaggeration and tonal suggestion is necessary to create an appearance of a full spectrum.  But you work with the pastel rather than against it, literally translating your subject into the “language of pastel,” which might mean into lines or hatchings or rubbed tones and approximate color relationships.



And afterwards over coffee, you look at your pastel and compare it with something done by a master in that medium.  And who might that be?  The comparison with Degas will yeild very different results than the comparison with Chardin, Millet, Twatchman — or with Edvard Munch or Picasso or with contemporary artist Jennifer Bartlett.  All such different answers to the “how” question arise from different aims and different personalities.

Primroses Millet pastel


So, there’s not an easy answer.  I think the one who asks the question has to ask further:  what am I trying to achieve?  What light do I seek?  And why?

John Henry Twachtman-The Ledges


And meanwhile the answer is not an answer in the ordinary sense.  It will not be simply one thing — one hopes.  It will be many things, various discoveries that one makes in the acts of looking.