Building Rich and Full Layers

Lake Louise Steps
2008, pastel, 24 x 18.
Collection the artist.

By subtly layering pastel, Marlene Wiedenbaum creates a luscious and convincing sense of the world. 

by John A. Parks

In her pastel painting Path With Trees to Hidden Pond, Marlene Wiedenbaum presents a resplendent view of a glade whose rich canopy encloses a forest floor buried under a dense carpet of fallen leaves. So natural and convincing is the filtered sunlight and enveloping space of the painting that it takes us a few moments to discover the hint of a pathway through the woods. The artist, it seems, is content to take the world as she finds it and then to mine it for hidden riches and intriguing insights. She has achieved this feeling through masterful use of pastel, working it in numerous layers to create color of surprising subtlety and nuance while keeping her surface supremely tactile and alive.

“I love the immediacy, the color, and the forgiveness of pastel,” says Wiedenbaum, “but I especially enjoy the involvement of my hands. I understand and control my fingers much better than I ever did a brush, and there’s a more direct connectedness to the work.” Wiedenbaum made the change to pastel from oil some years ago. “I was frustrated at having to clean brushes, as well as myself, and having to put everything away each time I wanted to paint,” she recalls. “It was drudgery. I didn’t have the luxury of huge blocks of time back then, and the condition of the work is different each time you return to an oil painting. A very good friend left a box of pastels on the dining room table, and that’s when my relationship with pastels began.” The artist also enjoys the portability of pastel. “It’s so much easier to spontaneously pack up my supplies for working en plein air,” she says.

Like most other pastel artists, Wiedenbaum has also come up against the difficulties imposed by the medium. “The biggest drawback is the dust,” she says. “I sometimes wear a mask in the studio, but I don’t know how much that really helps.” The artist also manages to keep some of the pastel dust off her fingers by wearing finger cots—small rubber sleeves that can be rolled onto individual fingers—which are available in drugstores.

Wiedenbaum focuses on landscape and still life, specializing in images of New York’s Hudson Valley and its environs, in particular those areas that have been spared development. “As a child growing up in the Bronx, I adored the summers we spent at bungalow colonies in the Hudson Valley,” she says. “My love of the area stems from those early experiences, and I’m very grateful to a number of organizations for working to save the appearance and feel of the locale.”

Downriver From Potown
2009, pastel, 19 1/2 x 25.
Collection the artist.

When preparing to start a piece, Wiedenbaum takes a number of different approaches. “I work both from life and from photographs,” she says. “If the weather cooperates and I can find just the right composition with just the right light, I’m very happy to be outside working.” The artist finds that landscape and still life lead to somewhat different approaches when it comes to photography. “I prefer setting up a still life in my studio rather than working from a photo,” she says. When working from a landscape, the artist says that she takes photos in case the weather changes or she cannot get back to the site. “I also have boxes of sorted photos and folders filled with images on my computer to work from,” she says.  Settling on a composition is not always an easy task, Wiedenbaum says, and to begin, she sometimes does a small, quick sketch to familiarize herself with the important elements of the scene.

“Often, from that point, I block in the values, noting what needs to be kept clean for lighter values,” she says. “I do always use vine charcoal to sketch the image onto the paper before I actually start working with pastel. I start painting using mostly blacks or dark blues and greens to block in the darkest values.” The artist says that she has no consistent plan after this point and varies her approach based on the demands of the image. “I most often go right into the focal point of the composition, or I start working from the top left until I get to the bottom right, or I work steadily from the darkest values to the lightest throughout,” she says. “I move and blend pigment with my fingers or use a stomp for large areas, and I use the flattened edge of a kneaded eraser for sharp edges, or I use it sideways like a brush, pushing and mixing pigment.”

The artist will continue working in this way until she senses that the painting is starting to come together. “For me, there is a moment in a painting that comes when I know I have turned a corner,” she says. “That knowledge seems to be symbolic of my commitment to the work; I go to sleep with it, wake up in it, and am happy working or looking forward to working. I rarely finish a painting without experiencing this, even when I work en plein air and complete a small piece in three to four hours. Knowing when I’ve reached the end is almost as intuitive, and that can happen within hours, days, or weeks.”

Path With Trees to Hidden Pond
2008, pastel, 24 x 31.
Private collection.

In order to achieve the lush and rich surface of her paintings, Wiedenbaum uses sanded paper and a wide variety of pastels. “I primarily use Sennelier, Schmincke, and Unison soft pastels,” she says. “Through my endless search for colors, I have also been enjoying Great American Art Works and for a slightly harder pastel, Mount Vision. For many years I worked on Sennelier La Carte sanded paper. That product seems to have changed, however, so I use Wallis paper more often. I am also working a lot with UART paper, since they offer a 40-inch sheet and various textures. The 400 and 500 grades have made my fingers bleed, but the layering possibilities make 500 my preferred paper.”

When asked how she would like to think that viewers experience her artwork, the artist says, “I have been told that my work captured loneliness or the essence of a familiar place, that it made viewers feel the summer’s breeze or sense their grandmother and cry, or that they wanted to touch a still life. These are responses that have been shared with me, at least, and they are satisfying in that the viewer is engaged with the work. If the artwork makes viewers feel something they can take with them, like a memory, I am satisfied.”

John A. Parks is an artist who is represented by Allan Stone Gallery, in New York City. He is also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and is a frequent contributor to American Artist, Drawing, Watercolor, and Workshop magazines.

About the Artist

Marlene Wiedenbaum studied art at Queens College, in New York City, where she was influenced by sculptor Richard McDermott Miller, whom she credits with encouraging her and broadening her knowledge of the art world. Wiedenbaum went on to study oil painting with Harvey Dinnerstein at the Art Students League of New York, also in New York City. She also worked with St. Julien Fishburne and in 2001 went to Italy with a group led by Christine Debrosky. Wiedenbaum is a signature member of Pastel Society of America and has exhibited widely, mounting solo exhibitions at the Teatown Lake Reservation, in Ossining, New York; the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum, in New York; and Mark Gruber Gallery, in New Paltz, New York, among other venues. She lives in the Hudson Valley and teaches pastel workshops at the Barrett Art Center, in Poughkeepsie, New York. She is currently represented by Carrie Haddad Gallery, in Hudson, New York, and Fieldstone Fine Art Gallery, in Ramsey, New Jersey. More of the artist’s work can be viewed at her website,

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About BrianRiley

Brian Riley is the managing editor for the American Artist family of titles (American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing & Workshop) and has been part of the AA team since 2003. He first became interested in art as a child, specifically drawing, but drifted away from the visual arts as he grew older, gravitating towards writing while in college. His position at AA has offered him the opportunity to reinvigorate his early passion and continue his education.  

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