This week in the Improvers art class (based in Southampton) we went in a completely different direction to realism and it was a bit scary – for me as well as the class!!  In fact if someone had asked me to do this at the beginning of my art journey I would have been out the door sulking haha! Well, not quite but I would not have liked it.  They all did so well and I am incredibly proud of them for rising to the challenge and having a go!

How did we go about it?

So, for the last month I put my brave foot forward and got stuck in learning all about pastel underpaintings, notans and a loose impressionist style of mark making with pastels.  And believe it or not, I have really enjoyed myself and I never thought I would ever be saying that!  I studied the work of these American Artists:  Bethany Fields, Susan Jenkins, Marla Baggetta and Karen Margulis.  These fine pastel artists all work in an impressionistic style and I love the effects they achieve.  They all have YouTube channels and it was very easy for me to get a feel for the style and pick up some tips.

Notan Design Concept

A notan is a Japenese design concept to help you work out your composition.  To make sure you have all the elements of your painting in the right place to create a pleasing composition that will lead the eye into the painting and not off and out.    It is created in black and white tones for the highest contrast and simplicity.  It’s better to iron out any compositional problems with this simple notan than it is to change a whole painting half way through.  Of course,  if you are copying a beautiful photograph where the photographer has a great eye for composition, you may not need to do this.  If you are working from your own photographs and you’re more of an artist than a photographer (like me) then you need to do this!

A revelation on my bike ride

They say exercise is good for the mind, well I have no doubt about that…. here is what I discovered on my bike ride.  The last 2 days here, the air has been full of the joys of Spring with the birds singing and the hot sun combined with the cold and slight wind from pedalling fast on my bike I was having a great time.  I live in the village of Marchwood just on the edge of the New Forest and I am so thankful for that – we have such beautiful countryside in England! But, my photos are pathetic, just yuck, I am no photographer and I really struggle to use my own photos.  I must now say, struggled.  Because using this notan design concept, I can take my pretty pathetic photos and pick out the little nuggets of composition that I like and create a pleasing composition.  I’m so happy about that!

Dull Photos

But the other problem with my photos is that they really don’t sing like the birds or show the hot sun and the fresh spring air.  How could I get that from my photos?  Well that is when my revelation came – the colour wheel!   This is what lifts a painting.  I remember learning about colour theory at school.  It’s a pretty easy concept, but using it in a painting is a huge learning curve.  Something that I will be teaching my classes in the Autumn.
Next i transferred my notan to my paper as an underpainting. In this example I did a study of Marla Baggetta’s stunning painting Northwest Dreaming that got an honourable Mention in the Pastel 100 competition.  Her painting is large whereas my test piece is approx 2 inches square.  You can see her painting here along with lots of her paintings.
Learning something new from great artists is fun!  I also think that there is a lot to be learned from the impressionist style that can help realism paintings sing instead of being flat copies of photographs.  A lot of new artists are afraid to go really dark in the dark areas and really light in the light areas – I think this technique really pushes you to go darker.  Showing my class how to do it was fun too and despite their reservations they did indeed rise to the challenge.  Imagine what they could do if they (and I) practised their mark making with pastels – which by the way can be as tricky as learning how to draw realistically I discovered.
I particularly love this painting.  I was cycling home and got stopped by the train gates.  To the left of me was this ally way.   The photo is ok but my students painting makes the ally way so much more interesting using this loose painting technique.

Here’s Artist Karen Margulis showing you how to do a Notan underpainting.

My Beginners Pastel Class will be using this technique next week and I wonder if beginners will find this much less intimidating than my Improvers Class.  We shall see and I’ll add the photos below:

Here are the paintings from my Beginners group. They have only just started and I tend to do step by step demos. I decided to do a study of Marla’s painting North West Dreaming for them and they followed along really well and the results speak for themselves.  The work-along demo was a much easier way to understand this technique and it’s a great idea to study the work of other artists that you love to discover your own new techniques and style.

If you’d like to join my pastel and drawing skills classes in Marchwood, Southampton you can email me here or phone 07740 282399 / 02380 660639. Classes are on a Wednesday afternoons.

GDPR: All images used with permission


Sue is a Soft Pastel Artist and International Tutor from England UK
She's passionate about soft pastel art and teaching her students from around the globe.

"Art makes my heart sing and my soul smile"