View Full Version : Dark to Light

08-25-2010, 07:17 PM
I am trying to work with soft pastels, and looking at various artists on line. Everyone says start with dark and go to light. Why? In watercolor we were always taught the opposite. Why dark to light with pastels.:o Thank you all in advance for your answers!- Paulette

08-25-2010, 08:53 PM
Hi Paulette - welcome to pastels!!

I also work in watercolor, and the reason you work from dark to light in pastel is because you CAN place the light over the dark and have it sparkle, whereas in watercolor you must save the white of your paper and it is hard to make something lighter - especially if you use staining colors. It is not impossible to put dark over a lighter area in pastel, but somehow the lighter pastel mixes with the darker when the dark is used on top of the light.


08-25-2010, 09:03 PM
In watercolors, because of their transparency, it is almost impossible to make a dark color lighter, thus as you layer and overlap colors, they get darker. Therefore you work light to dark. In pastels you can actually work any way you want - light to dark, dark to light, or start in the middle and work both ways.

There are a number of reasons to work from dark to light, however. One reason - similar to working wet into wet in oil paints - is that as you layer pastels, they will blend and mix a bit with the colors below. So a dark pastel will lighten if it is laid down over lighter colors and you won't get the dark value you want. Now, if you are working on a surface that takes many layers - and are using some of the softer pastel brands that cover more opaquely - this will not be that big an issue.

Another reason to start with the darks is that they establish a relationship with the values that come after. Some people will put in the darkest and lightest value at the beginning to make sure the relationships with the other values are set right from the start.

Another reason to work from dark to light is that the lightest values are on the tops of things. If you start with the darkest value to block in a tree, for example - that will represent the shadows and areas deep in the tree. If you then work lighter and lighter, this will represent the areas that get the most light - which will be the outermost leaves. By actually having the top layer of pastel being the lightest value, it will seem closer to the viewer, and the dark shadows will literally be behind the lighter leaves. This leads directly to the last reason to leave your lightest lights for last. Pastels will smudge and blend and the dust will be moved around the painting accidentally. So, any light values and bright colors you put down early might get dirty and you will have to reapply them at the end just to keep them clean!

But again, since pastels are fairly opaque - and pastel papers can often hold many layers, you can work pretty much any way you want. Usually, regardless of how you work for most of the painting, the lightest lights will still have to be done or reinforced at the end, for the reasons given.

Those are the reasons I can think of.


08-25-2010, 09:28 PM
Excellent explanation, Don! Thank you!


Deborah Secor
08-25-2010, 11:18 PM
I agree, good answer, Don! Paulette, keep in mind that you can lighten colors using pastels, but rather than thinking of painting in all the dark areas first, think of it as using the darkest value in any given area first...

For instance, in the sky, which is usually pretty light, begin with a color that is darker than you want to end up with. Layer several colors over this darker one (which may only be a medium tone) and you end up with rich, vibrant colors. This works in all areas to some degree. Darker tones first will make your colors lively, even if they aren't only the darkest darks--although as Don pointed out, it's not a hard and fast, always-have-to-do-it rule! Pastels are very forgiving...

Have fun!

08-26-2010, 02:15 PM
Thank all of you for your help!!! You are fantastic!:clap: :clap: :clap:

08-31-2010, 02:05 PM
Hi guys, those are some great reasons for working dark to light here. As I was reading this post a little addition to the discussion came to mind. The thickness or thinness of the darks can affect the overall appearance of the painting. Being able to "see into" shadows within a painting can add interest and excitement. If an underpainting such as watercolor or oil wash is used very thin dark areas can be created that can be worked into with pastel or left alone. Working towards the lighter areas with heavier pastel. Lightest areas can be applied in an impasto like way. Oil paintings also benefit from this.I don't think using actual pastel for darks is wrong or bad but, darks can get heavy fast and rob some luminosity if they are too thickly applied. You can experiment by underpainting a predetermined dark area and work over that, then do the same using dark pastel for the area with no dark underpainting. Just as in watercolor where whites are reserved in pastel a thin dark area can reserve the tooth of the support for further application which can be a benefit, whether done using an oil wash watercolor or charcoal (brushing away excess or fixing) Just a thought. Joe.