Bring Sunshine into your Art

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I’m writing this as I listen to rain pouring down on a dark day in mid-winter. But the great thing about art is that you can bring some sunshine into your life at any time.

All you need is your imagination, OR some reference to get you inspired.

So…. have you got any photos on your phone from sunny days last year? That you saved ‘for a rainy day’? Well it’s here! So it’s time to get them out and enjoy some sunshine….

Detail from 'The Shady Tree'

Or if you don’t have any of your own, maybe you need to dip into the amazing selection of copyright free photos available on the internet? (Not forgetting to credit the photographer if you show your work)

Even sitting here in my dark studio, listening to the rain beating on the roof, I can pretend to be out in the sunshine, anywhere (this one is in Spain!).

That’s the beauty of producing art, it can take you anywhere…. 

'Playing for Pennies'

Searching for the sunshine
Back in reality, its early January now, and as I prepare for my zoom pastel workshop, ‘Sunlight Through the Trees’, I am looking back on my quest last year to capture more sunlight in my work.

This journey developed over time, as I enjoyed looking at other artists work, particularly the radiant pastels of Nel Whatmore and Cathy Pearce, and the oils of Sir Alfred MunningsI have always loved using tonal contrasts to create a glow of light, but recently, thanks to the encouragement of Nel and Cathy, I have been experimenting more with my use of colour. 

Zoom pastel workshop piece, 'Sunlight Through the Trees'

Visiting various exhibitions, I noticed that some paintings ‘jump off the wall’ and I wanted mine to do the same, so that I produced work with more brightness and strength of colour.

This piece, ‘Wild Dawn 2’ was all about the beautiful dawn sunshine shining through the water kicked up by the horses in the Camargue, in the South of France. I used cool purples in the shadows to highlight the warm yellow light.

'Wild Dawn 2', pastel

The search for more colour and sunlight is still very much a ‘work in progress’, but here are a few thoughts from the search so far…..

Inspiration and information
I don’t paint anything out of my head; everything I produce is my reaction to something that I have seen or experienced. So I take photos nearly all the time, using my phone camera which is usually in my pocket. However, when I get back to my studio I know that the colours aren’t really true to what I saw. And they don’t convey that ‘dazzle’ that I get when I look towards the sunlight.

One way to cope with this is to sketch out of doors whenever I can, taking as many pastel colours as I can carry comfortably (packed in boxes lined with foam, and fastened securely with elastic bands). You can see more about travelling with pastels in some of my other blogs. 

These sketches go up on my studio wall for reference, but their most important job is already done – just doing them made me really look, search for colour combinations, and understand a little bit more of what I was seeing. I did them to increase my knowledge and understanding, rather than to hang them on the wall or show them to anyone.

I have also spent hours and hours experimenting in the studio with pastel colour choices and combinations, working from the photos I’ve taken out in the landscape.

As I paint, I just keep asking myself the question; ‘What would happen if…..?’ 
Painting the same simple piece many times really is a great way to answer this question, but be warned, it always leads to more questions!

And remember, if you don’t take a risk, you’ll never know!

'Morning in the Woods'

Keep painting the same picture
In the examples here, you can see 4 colour sketches from photos I took at Bellever Forest, Dartmoor.

They are at the size I use for colour sketches I do before going onto a bigger painting, which is A3 size (30 x 42cm, 12” x 16”), done using Unison Colour soft pastels on sheets of mount card primed with Colourfix primer (colour approximately Elephant grey). Each one was sketched in about 20 minutes max (quickly!)

I went to Bellever Forest on a late afternoon, and I particularly loved the sunlight coming through the trees, casting long shadows on the ground. In the studio the next day, I started with my usual palette, which is based on the premise that cooler colours recede and warmer colours come forward in a painting. So  in Experiment 1, I used lilacs in the distance, and warmer, brighter, more yellow greens in the foreground. It is a fairly traditional composition, but as I did it, I realised that I wanted it to ‘jump’ more.

Experiment 1

I was also bored by the composition, so I had another go using a different photograph of the more slender trees, with the light positioned more centrally, and the shadows coming straight towards me. This gave more opportunities for stronger lights against darks to create more drama, and also a simpler piece to do quickly.

That’s when the colour fun really started.
For Experiment 2, I used a similar palette to the first; lilacs in the background with lilac/blue greens, and more yellow greens in the foreground, with more reds and orange hues on the ground nearer to me. The new composition (slender tree trunks in front of the light) is creating more light and dark drama as well, so the piece does jump out more than the first.

Experiment 2

However, it was with pieces 3 and 4 that I got bolder with my use of colour…

In Experiment 3, I used richer and more ultramarine blues, turquoise and a darker blue for the shadows. I also used a stronger lilac. These new more intense blues had a dramatic effect on the greens, reds and light cream that I had used previously, making them all pop and appear more vibrant.

Experiment 3

In Experiment 4, to take some risks, I replaced some of the lilac with rich vibrant blue greens, and added even more of the darker blue, as well as dark purple and dark red/brown in the trees and shadows. This meant the shadows were not just darker but also warmer. I also pressed harder on the cream to make it more intense.

To me this piece definitely jumps off the wall more then the others, but I’m not sure if I went too far with it! But then again, there is no right and wrong in art, just different ways of doing it, and I really don’t have a favourite piece from this collection. I’m fond of them all as they taught me so much.

Experiment 4

Just enjoy it
Some of the most fun I’ve had over the last year has been experimenting. I loved painting ‘The Shady Tree’, a small pastel inspired by sketches and photos taken in the New Forest at mid summer a few years ago. It was a baking hot day, and the New Forest ponies were resting in the sunshine and the cool shade of a huge, twisted tree. I loved the way that they glowed in the sunshine, and used an orange to exaggerate that, and the same orange in the branches caught by the sunlight, although most of the tree was deep dark greens, rich browns and blues. In the distance I added some turquoise blues to contrast with the oranges of the ponies. Such a joy to play with the colours!

'The Shady Tree'

So why not give it a go…. ignore the gloomy day outside and create one full of sunshine! Try some experiments, and have some fun!

If you are reading this before 8th January 2024 you can find out about my zoom workshop here .
You can find out about pastel courses and some of the paintings shown here on my website here, including online courses, and an in-person course in Devon on using pastels to paint trees here.

You can find out more about Unison Colour soft pastels on their website here

To hear about pastel events and workshops, follow me on Facebook and Instagram @rebeccademendonca.artist