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16 Lessons in Color Theory

Lesson #3


I must warn you that pastels have some serious drawbacks. They are quite soft and break easily. They rub off on your hands and clothes, spread colored dust wafting through the air, and produce a drawing that is extremely fragile.

But there is a positive side. Pastels are almost pure pigment, and the colors are lovely -- as clear and brilliant as oil paints. Pastels, in fact, are the drawing medium closest to painting. Pastel drawings are often refered to as "pastel paintings."

Because pastels come in a wide range of pure and mixed hues, a student beginning in color can experience something very close to painting without the difficulties encountered in mixing paints on a palette, contending with turpentine, stretching canvas, and dealing with other technical problems of painting.

For many reasons, therefore, pastels are an ideal medium to provide a transitional midpoint between drawing and painting. One of the main differences between exercises with colored pencil and pastel drawing is in the quantity of applied color relative to the ground.

For the exercise that follows I will use as my model the pastel drawing Head of a Young Girl, by the French painter Odilon Redon. Redon's free use of pastel color in the negative space of the drawing will inspire you to experiement with this medium.

Redon's mystical and lyrical work spanned the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. His pastel drawings have been linked to the writting of Poe, Baudelaire, and Mallarme, and all are connected conceptually to Surrealism, a period in early twentieth-century art that focused on dream symbolism. The yellow lizard in Redon's drawing, jaxtaposed to the dreamlike serenity of the girl's head, is reminiscent of Surrealist symbolism.

Before you begin: Read all of the instructions.

Find a model or a suitable subject. Arrange a light so that the background is illuminated, providing a pale negative space behind your model's head.

Choose a piece of pastel paper in any soft color. Pastel paper has a sharp "tooth" to grasp and hold the dry pigment. Redon used a soft gray-blue paper.

Choose a medium-dark pastel crayon for the line drawing of the head. Choose three harmonizing light pastels for the light negative space behind the head.

Pose your model and draw the head in semi-profile -- that is, with the model turned very slightly off true profile view.

Calling on your five basic drawing skills, draw the head using the dark pastel you have chosen. Using your imagination, or using objects in the room, complete your composition by adding objects or parts of objects.

Using your three pale pastels, work up the negative space surrounding the head. Use crosshatching rather than filling the area solidly, so that light and air are retained in your drawing.

A special point: Look at your three pale pastels and decide which is the darkest (lowest) in value, which is in the middle, and which is the lightest. Then use the lowest value chalk for the first layer of hatches, the middle for the next, and the lightest for the last and final layer of hatches. This sequencing of colors from dark first to light last is the sequencing required for most painting mediums (with the exception of watercolor, which is usually worked from light first to dark last). In working with pastels, the dark-to-light sequencing helps to keep your colors clear and fresh. Reversing this sequence can result in muddy color. This point will help you see why practice with pastels eases the transition to painting.

Complete your drawing with bold colors of your choice. you may prefer to harmonize your color by staying with complements or analogous hues, or you may prefer discordant hues that are anchored in the composition by repeating or echoing areas of each color.

Start your drawing now: You will need about an hour and perhaps a bit more to complete the drawing. Be sure to give your model a rest at mid-point in the hour! Try to work without interruption, and ask your model not to converse with you while you are drawing. your right hemisphere needs to be completely free of distraction.

When you have finished: Pin up your drawing, stand back, and regard your work. Check the balance of the color. Then turn your drawing upside-down and re-check the color. If any hue seems to pop out of the composition, somehow not locked into the color arrangement, some slight adjustment needs to be made. The color may need to be repeated somewhere, or it may need darkening, lightening, or dulling. Have faith in your judgment and in your right hemisphere ability to percieve coherence -- and incoherence. When the color is right, you will know it!


Way back when we first started the basic drawing series I said that drawing is a magical process. When your brain is weary of its verbal chatter, drawing is a way to quiet the chatter and to grasp a fleeting glimpse of transcendent reality. By the most direct means your visual perceptions stream through your human system -- through retinas, optic pathways, brain hemispheres, motor pathways -- to magically transform an ordinary sheet of paper into a direct image of your unique response, your vision of the perception. Through your vision, the viewer of the drawing -- no matter what the subject -- can find you, see you.

What is more, drawing can reveal much about you to yourself, some facets of you that might be obscured by your verbal self. Your drawings can show you how to see things and feel about things. First you draw in right hemisphere, wordlessly connecting yourself to the drawing. Then shifting back to your verbal mode, you can interpret your feelings and perceptions by using the powerful skills of your left brain, words and logical thought. If the pattern is incomplete and not amenable to words and rational logic, a shift back to the right brain mode can bring intuition and analogic insight to bear on the problem. Or, the hemispheres might work cooperatively in countless possible combinations.

What we have covered in these lessons, of course, encompass only the very beginning steps toward the goal of knowing your two minds and how to use their capabilities. Once you have started on this path, there is always the sense that in the next drawing you will more truly see, more truly grasp the nature of reality, express the inexpressable, find the secret beyond the secret. It is the neverending quest that is the joy of all artists.

Having shifted to a new mode of seeing, you may find yourself looking into the essence of things, a way of knowing tending toward the Zen concept of satori, as described in the quotation of D.T. Suzuki. As your perceptions unfold, you take new approaches to problems, correct old misconceptions, peel away layers of stereotypes that mask reality and keep you from clear seeing.

With the power of both halves of the brain available to you and the myriad of possible combinations of the seperate powers of the hemispheres, the door is open to your becoming more intensly aware, more capable of controlling some of the verbal processes that can distort thinking -- sometimes even to the extent of causing physical illness. Logical, systematic thinking is surely essential for survival in our culture, but if our culture is to survive, understanding of how the human brain molds behavior is our urgent need.

Through introspection, you can embark on that study, becoming an observer and learning, to some degree at least, how your brain works. In observing your brain at work, you will widen your powers of perception and take advantage of the capabilities of both halves. Presented with a problem, you will have the possibility of seeing things in two ways: abstractly, verbally, logically -- but also holistically, wordlessly, intuitively.

Use your twofold ability. Draw everything and anything. No subject is too hard or too easy, nothing is unbeautiful. Everything is your subject -- a few square inches of weeds, a broken glass, an entire landscape, a human being.

Continue to study. The great masters of the past and of the present are available to you through books and even on the web!! Study the masters, not to copy their styles, but to read their minds. Let them teach you how to see in new ways, to see the beauty in reality, to invent new forms and open new vistas.

Observe your style developing. Guard it and nurture it. Provide yourself with time so that your style can develop and grow sure of itself. If a drawing goes badly, calm yourself and quiet your mind. End for a time the endless talking to yourself. Know that what you need to see is right there before you.

Put your pencil to paper every day. Don't wait for a special moment, an inspiration. Set things up, position yourself, in order to envoke the flight to the other-than-ordinary state in which you can see clearly. Through practice, your mind will shift ever more easily.

I have taken this moment to have this talk with you for next week we will move into the nuts-and-bolts aspect of color in which we shall talk less about your hemispheres....but I do not want you to do anything without getting in touch with your "other self".

Next time we will go even deeper into color and its properties.....I will be looking forward to seeing you then.