The Perfect Blend of Literal and Abstract

When I say "the perfect blend," I feel a little bit like I am describing a gourmet coffee flavor, but there really is a perfect blend that exists in pastel painting. For me, the crème de la crème of pastel drawings combines a certain level of literal representation with a modern sense of the abstract.

The Curmudgeon by John Philbin Dolan, pastel painting, 12 x 16.
The Curmudgeon by John Philbin Dolan, pastel painting, 12 x 16.

What I mean by literal

When I say a great pastel painting should be "literal," I mean, in part, that when you look at the painting you should know what or who is being depicted. But the idea doesn't stop there. I also mean that such works put the vibrant colors of pastels to good use describing forms, atmosphere, and light. They use line and texture thoughtfully to give a sense of an object's surface quality and shape.  

What I mean by abstract

An artist who can couple the literal in his or her pastel drawing with abstraction visually pushes the versatility of the medium, emphasizing with each stroke the way that the painting comes together as much as the narrative that is being visually shown. The two should be dealt with as one. For example, working the side and the tip of the pastel as well as blending and scumbling are basic techniques of pastel painting. But when you start to link subject matter with these formal techniques–that's where the magic happens.

Coup de Foudre by Marie-Elise Larène, pastel painting.
Coup de Foudre by Marie-Elise Larène, pastel painting.

It can be a difficult idea for me to wrap my head around. It has been described to me as looking at a Monet painting and seeing separate dabs of color while simultaneously seeing the flower grove or the lily pad. You see what the artist is painting as well as the way he paints it. This also means that you don't have to just paint what you see–you can push your visuals further for the sake of the feeling you want to evoke.

I'm nowhere near an expert in pastel painting, which is why I seek out insightful and established artists to take pastel lessons from in order to learn more about how to get my own "perfect blend." Claudia Seymour is one such artist, an expert when it comes to the bright, glowing, vivid quality of pastels. Her DVD, Pastel Painting Techniques: Still Life Flowers makes her time-honored subject matter accessible and invigorating. She shares compositional strategies, tips on capturing delicate features of your subject, and pastel-drawing instruction on dimension so that your objects can really have the look of three-dimensionality. Enjoy!

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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.   

4 thoughts on “The Perfect Blend of Literal and Abstract

  1. Hi,
    I’ve been subscribed to this newsletter for over a year and I’ve noticed that you use the pronoun “he” to refer to the hypothetical artist. But you are yourself a female artist and I think you’re aware there are many, many more female artists out there. You’re probably also aware that women have historically been and continue to be overwhelmingly overlooked in the art world.

    In light of that, I think it would be really awesome if you could switch up the pronoun for the hypothetical artist to “she”. People already assume a male gender when someone talks about an artist, particularly a professional one. It would be lovely to remind the audience that there are many good and professional female artists as well.