3 Paintings I'd Take in a Heartbeat

Unknown Woman by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1890, pastel painting on paper.
Unknown Woman by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1890,
pastel painting on paper.

I love the effects and colors you can get with pastel paintings . . . at least I do now. It wasn't too long ago that I felt like I had some kind of weird complex where I could appreciate the work but I couldn't really see how they were created, which was frustrating for the forever art student that I am content to be.

But a friend of mine gave me some good advice: "Look at a few works you love and really study them," he said. "I mean really study them—for a good, long period of time. Your mind can wander but don't look at anything else."

I did! It was odd, like having blinders on, but in a good way. And once I settled down and just let my eyes rest on the work, I could see a lot of things I missed before. So here's what I saw:

In Unknown Woman by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, I realized the delicacy of pastel. This pastel figure drawing has such an ephemeral, barely-there quality that it seems like the delicate layers of pastel were blown on rather than put down by hand. It is the veil-like transparency that I'm drawn to, and lends a real sense of atmosphere rather than form to the work that I would love to imitate.

Flower Clouds by Odilon Redon, 1903, pastel painting.
Flower Clouds by Odilon Redon, 1903, pastel painting.

When I look at Odilon Redon's Flower Clouds, one word reverberates in my head: glory. This painting makes me gasp and open my eyes wider and wider trying to take it all in. After the initial heady sensation of just looking, I did begin to notice that despite the otherworldly response I have to this pastel drawing, there was a lot of physical effort from the artist—stumping, incising, and layering brushwork—to create the overall effect. That was a revelation. I hadn't thought about interacting with the medium in such a way before.

Dog Woman by Paula Rego, 1994, pastel painting on canvas.
Dog Woman by Paula Rego, 1994, pastel painting on canvas.

To me, viewing Paula Rego's Dog Woman is like being slapped in the face. It is that much of an assault on my senses. But sitting with it for a while, I am mesmerized by how varied the mark making is. The chalky, almost crusty surface of the figure's face is a contrast to the taut stretched skin of the knee and shoulder. And the colors in the skin are incredibly blended, especially in the exposed leg. The shadowed areas evoke thoughts of bruises, aged skin, dirt, and sunburn in my mind, and the fact that all of that was churned up with just blended pastel is extraordinary to me.

Having these works and the pastel painting techniques that created them swirling around in my mind has been incredibly beneficial in terms of trying to push into this medium, which is pretty new for me. But now I can begin to gain confidence in using pastels, and then move further in my own creative direction. I wish the same for you! Enjoy!

And what are your favorite pastel paintings? Leave a comment and help me discover more!


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

14 thoughts on “3 Paintings I'd Take in a Heartbeat

  1. Alas Courtney, I wouldn’t want any of the three on my walls.

    It’s a matter of personal taste but I want beauty and not edgy, nor do I want something for shock value, nor something to try to impress my friends with my sophistication.


  2. hello there,
    first,i should send my regards and thanks for the lovely paintings you show here.i really enjoy most of them.
    i love the < Unknown Woman by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1890,> that is great,as i like figurative and mystc ones.

    many blessings.

  3. Wonderful images and thoughts. I am passionate about soft pastels and give workshops such as Luscious Colours in Pastels. (http://www.escapewithgary.com/Escape_with_gary/Luscious_Pastels_3_hours.html).

    I would love to show you some of my pastels but there are many other incredible pastel artists such as Degas, Quentin De La Tour, Wolf Kahn and currently Bill James, Betsy Bennett, Brennie Bracket, Mario A. Robinson, Richard McKinley, Suzor Côté, H. Craig Hanna and not to be left out, Alex Powers.

    Gary Smith

  4. Well, I read every comment you post and I save them as well. This has to be one of the most clearly related that you have done. You really would have to be blind not to see the differences and why, good choices. Also, as a teacher/ artist you had good advice and thanks for passing it forward, better to do what you did sometimes than having an expensive art lesson. Three of my favorites also.

    By the way, the piece of watercolor at the top? What does the rest of this painting look like and who did it?

  5. Hi Courtney….From the style and method used in “Dog Woman” it really seems to me that it is just badly executed and the bruises or such are more a bad use of values and color. I appreciate the statement the artist is making and would like to hear other comments on it. Ned Mueller

  6. Courtney,
    I totaly agree with your comments. Now, Odilon Redon happens to be one of my favourite artists, his colours are hauntingly beautiful. Yet I do find a lot of contemporary artists absolutely great, I love Diane Rosen, Montse Valdes, Claude Texier and a host of others to be really intelligent in their creative process.
    Thanks for your wonderful effort.

  7. Courtney…I don’t really think that those are bruises or sunburn…they are more than likely badly executed value and color choices as the total painting is not very well executed.

  8. To a few of the responders: You seriously can’t see beauty here? Perhaps you should question your perceptions and withhold judgement. If you are using this forum to reinforce your ego instead of to open your channels of creativity, you might want to find another way to express yourself than art.
    Courtney, thanks for the disparate and beautiful images.
    Keep trying to expand our horizons.

  9. While I would not have chosen any of these three pictures, I was super impressed by your analysis and writing. I need to learn to take that look and maybe appreciate art better. That is what I’ve missed so much since this page has become more of an ad.


  10. Hey Courtney. I like your enthusiasm in pastels and the appreciation of it’s many uses in art. I wanted to share this I stumbled upon today by an Artist I hadn’t viewed previously. Her drawing skills had me at the start…but when she began applying masses of color blocks and blending as she also worked on the background, I was blown away! The ephemeral qualities of pastels are a delight in bringing forth any subject. This YouTube video is an amazing example > http://youtu.be/SwrRbyBdlL0
    Until next time…enjoy!