Pastels: Teaching Values

14 Dec 2006

0607ballinger2_450x300_abMaintaining a distinctive value structure is at the core of Joann Ballinger's  pastel instruction--and her own paintings.

by Lynne Moss Perricelli

In both her teaching and her own pastel paintings, Joann Ballinger emphasizes the importance of a distinctive value structure. She tells her students at the Lyme Art Association, in Old Lyme, Connecticut, that drawing and value are the most important factors in painting, and that they must make small value changes rather than large jumps in order to keep their colors vibrant and the value structure intact. In her own work, Ballinger maintains her initial value structure by continually checking on the developing painting, viewing it from a distance and making adjustments if necessary.

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Late Day Glow
2005, pastel, 8½ x 10½.
Collection the artist.

Such an emphasis on the values in a painting ensures the subject reads properly and allows the artist to use whichever colors suit the moment. "I'm not afraid of color," says Ballinger, explaining why this freedom is important. "I'm not trying to back off. I always go for the rich colors." The vibrancy she achieves contributes to the uplifting, nostalgic mood she seeks to convey, which is another critical aspect of her work. "I gravitate toward happy subjects," she says. "That's just who I am, and I never try to paint a feeling I haven't experienced myself."

Most of Ballinger's subjects come from the shoreline near her home in Bozrah, Connecticut, or from Rhode Island, where she teaches workshops twice a year. Her primary focus is children and animals, which she often incorporates into marine settings. In addition, she frequently paints boats, landscapes, and seascapes. Sometimes she discovers these subjects on-site, and other times friends and acquaintances offer to pose themselves or their children. "I look for interesting effects of color and light," she says, "but I also want to paint scenes that will remind viewers of a special time in their lives, so I look for scenes that remind me of a special time in my life."

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Most Curious 2002, pastel, 6¾ x 9¾.
Private collection.

When Ballinger is on location, she demonstrates paintings for her students and makes notes on the colors she uses, which she uses as reference for other pieces she completes in the studio. The artist also takes photos. She occasionally works en plein air, but only for landscapes. When Ballinger wants to feature a figure or animal, she relies on one or more photos to document the details and complete the work in the studio. "It's important to work en plein air or from the model," she says. "It helps you to better use your reference material. Working from life keeps everything fresh."

For materials, the artist favors Wallis Sanded Pastel Paper, which she buys by the roll and cuts to size. She favors the white paper because she tones it herself by applying an ochre or burnt sienna Nupastel—which will not affect the paper's tooth—over the surface. For her figurative works, she tends to use Sennelier La Carte Pastel paper in a variety of colors. Sometimes she uses a watercolor wash to tone the Wallis paper. Her pastels are primarily Unison, Nupastel, and Schmincke, although she has a variety of brands on hand for specific colors.

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2 p.m. on Barne Island
2000, pastel 9 x 11.
Private collection.

After Ballinger has prepared her paper, she makes an initial lay-in with an ultramarine blue Cretacolor pastel. This blue has become a kind of trademark in the artist's work and creates a complement to the warm colors that she tends to use in succeeding layers. "The lay-in with the blue is a value study," explains Ballinger. "I establish dark and light areas to create a map for the painting." She then establishes the larger shapes of local color, beginning with the darks and progressing to the medium and lighter areas. "Some pastelists build many layers," she adds, "but I don't like to use fixative and prefer to have as few layers as possible."

In fact, Ballinger's pastels consist of about four or five layers at the most. She blends only sparingly, and tends to use a light touch. "I like to think of pastel as similar to oil painting," she describes, "and my strokes look almost like brushstrokes." After the initial lay-in, she uses only the soft Schmincke and Unison pastels, enjoying the "buttery texture and wonderful colors," she notes.

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Tranquility
2005, pastel, 7¾ x 10¾.
Collection the artist.

The artist organizes her pastels in a custom-made taboret that opens like an accordion. A tray in front holds the pastels she uses the most, with the others—including Diane Townsend and Rembrandt—readily available in the taboret. She does not establish a palette before she begins a work, preferring to pull the pastels she wants as the painting progresses. However, she adds that "the lightest light in all my paintings is lemon yellow and my darkest dark is violet. I try not to use white or black by themselves because they tend to deaden a painting."

As the painting develops, Ballinger continually steps back from her work and double checks that her values adhere to the original plan. If not, she adjusts accordingly, lightening or darkening areas in relation to one another. To help her students in this process, she hands out a value scale, which they can use to assign a value of 1 to 10 to each area of their composition. They can then more accurately interpret the values into the colors they will use. "Many students start out OK but get lost," Ballinger observes. "It helps to have them make swatches of the pastels they want to use and assign values to them. They can group them in colors, of lightest to darkest." Ballinger notes that students often resort to the least chromatic pastels for the lightest values, and the color begins to look washed out. To offset this common problem, she tells them to "back up a few values and choose a light pastel that is more brilliant to interpret that value."

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Moving With Grace 2005, pastel, 7¾ x 5¾.
Private collection.

Another common obstacle regarding color is muddiness, which results from the pastel filling the paper's tooth or from value changes that are too severe. Ballinger advises students to make only small jumps in the values, explaining that if the values are fairly close, they will be able to better maintain their lively, fresh color. In addition, a close value structure lends an appealing subtlety and naturalism to the work. Ballinger recommends using a light touch, as she does, reserving a harder approach for the painting's focal point or an impasto effect.

In conveying a sense of mood, Ballinger sets aside the rules of drawing and value to listen to her creative side. "I first visualize my best paintings," she says. "I try to get lost in my paintings, to paint something I love and go back to that experience." When she began Late Day Glow, for instance, she contemplated the "breathtaking beauty of the property," says the artist. A friend had taken her to this Block Island location, and she felt overcome with emotion when she saw it. "I thought about my friend," the artist describes, "and what I felt and saw." Having a dedicated work space where you will not be interrupted is critical, she notes, as is anything else that will help you focus on your subject. "Everyone will need something different," she says. "It's important to be able to let go so that you can go beyond the technical side."

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The Hairdo 2004, pastel, 12 x 9.
Collection the artist.

Like many longtime teachers, Ballinger has learned as much from her students as they have from her. "Teaching has made me dig deeper," she reflects. "It has helped me clarify what I am doing and come up with better methods. It's made me more alert, and that keeps my work fresh."

About the Artist
Connecticut artist Joann Ballinger has taught pastel at the Lyme Art Association, in Old Lyme, Connecticut, since 1996. She is also the monitor of the independent figure-study class at the association and a pastel instructor at the Art Cellar, in Clinton, Connecticut. She has received many awards for her work, including the Connecticut Pastel Society Honor Award in 2005, and her work has appeared in numerous group shows. A former president of the Lyme Art Association, Ballinger is also a member of the American Society of Marine Artists and a signature member of the Pastel Society of America, among other professional affiliations. She is represented by Eisenhauer Galleries, on Block Island, Rhode Island, and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts; Lily Pad Gallery, in Westerly, Rhode Island; Art Cellar Gallery, in Clinton, Connecticut; Maritime Gallery at Mystic Seaport, in Mystic, Connecticut; and The Admiralty Gallery, in Vero Beach, Florida. The artist conducts workshops on Block Island twice a year. For more information, e-mail wballinger@snet.net, or call (860) 886-0366.

Lynne Moss Perricelli, a former editor of American Artist, is a freelance writer and editor in New Jersey.


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