Pastel: Ann Sanders: The Practical Pastelist

13 Dec 2007

0704sand1_600x440_1Santa Barbara artist Ann Sanders finds natural beauty in her surroundings and puts it down in pastel using proven methods—and she stresses that you can too.   

by Bob Bahr

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Devereux Afternoon
2006, pastel, 11 x 15.
Collection Shirley Dettmann.

The scenes in Ann Sanders’ pastel paintings are pretty, but they are very rarely postcard views. Sanders paints in locations with abundant natural beauty, places where a pleasing vista unfolds in nearly every direction. Then, she finds a particular vantage point that affirmatively answers two questions: Does it make a good composition? Does it move me?

“Choosing a composition is usually the most stressful part of a painting for me,” says Sanders. “When I find it, there’s a sigh of relief, and once I get started, I can relax. But first I have to look around until I see an exciting juxtaposition of light and dark. I try to wait until I get a quiver of excitement from some aspect of a scene before I choose a composition. But I can’t hesitate too long—the good light changes quickly in early-morning and late-afternoon paintings. In the afternoon it’s a little easier because the longer I wait, the better the light gets. But in the morning, by the time I choose something, I already feel like I’m late!”

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Molino Canyon South
2005, pastel, 16 x 22.
Collection Joann Hymes.

Sanders is practical in both her materials and her process: She works on Wallis Belgian Mist paper because the good tooth and neutral tone allow her to easily apply pigment and to work in both directions from a middle value. She starts with hard pastels and finishes with soft ones, as is convention. She works from dark to light in her underpainting, evaluates the compositional success of the abstract shapes, and then she fixes this block-in with a wash of denatured alcohol. “The alcohol brings the contrast down, especially with the lights, which are grayed way down,” Sanders explains. “I prefer alcohol over Turpenoid because it dries much more quickly.” The pastelist uses local color for the underpainting—except for foliage, which she believes benefits from being underpainted with a warm complement. She does not blend colors with her finger or another tool, preferring instead to lightly layer colors to achieve blends.

The first pastel set Sanders bought was a small kit of 30 Rembrandt sticks. She thought it would be enough, until friend and fellow pastelist Patti Flynn explained that the correct number of pastel sticks to buy is “as many as you can afford.” Sanders now uses about 300 colors, taking the paper off and breaking each new stick into thirds because she prefers working with the sides of pieces rather than the ends. She uses the same kit for plein air and studio work, organized in a backpack-sized Heilman Pastel Box.

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Bluff Eucalyptus
2006, pastel, 22 x 16.
Collection Ann and
Jeffrey Beth.
Sanders says capturing this scene from a distance allowed her to showcase the shape of the trees and the way the shadows hit the cliff.
Launiopoko
2006, pastel 10 x 8. All artwork this article collection the artist unless otherwise indicated.

“It’s fun painting in Hawaii, but the colors are so different that I can’t hang a Hawaiian painting next to a Santa Barbara painting,” says Sanders. “The colors really don’t go together at all—the light is so much brighter there and the water is so green. The colors here are much grayer.”
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Palm Sunset
2006, pastel, 22 x 16.
Collection Deborah Read.

At first the artist was only interested in painting still lifes, but, after painting outdoors during a pastel class, she was immediately hooked on landscapes. “It was so wonderful, so peaceful, so inspiring,” Sanders remembers. Landscapes now completely dominate her work, most of them featuring a balanced composition. “Paintings with a lot of sky are a challenge,” she says. “It can be hard for me to make a sky interesting. Unless there is something special going on, I try to avoid a big sky. Same for a big foreground—I really admire artists who can pull that off.” Very few of Sanders’ pieces feature man-made structures, save for a handful of paintings done in France. “It’s not that I take houses out of a scene but rather that I’m attracted to scenes without them,” she explains. “In Provence, the structures appealed to me because they were different from what I see around here and because the structures helped me remember the place so well.”

Sanders established an early commitment to protecting wild landscapes. For a landscape painter based in Santa Barbara, this is essentially a no-brainer. The artist says she feels fortunate to live in a beautiful area with weather that allows her to paint year-round. Many group shows in the Santa Barbara area have the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County or another environmental cause as their beneficiary. “By participating in these shows I feel like I can give back a little for the privilege of enjoying the open spaces and help in their preservation,” the artist says.

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Donner Creek 1
2004, pastel, 11 x 15.

The artist considers this
her favorite painting.
“I originally didn’t have the red in the
foreground of the creek,
but when I put it in, I
felt such excitement,” Sanders
recalls. “It made it look so
much better. It’s that moment in
the painting that makes it
special to me.”
Headwaters
2006, pastel, 8 x 10.

“I like this painting because
it depicts the gray mist
that I know and must
deal with in Santa Barbara,”
says the artist.

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La Paloma Morning
2006, pastel,
11 x 15. Collection Tina
and Stephen Segal.

Most of Sanders’ work is done en plein air in one session. “I take a digital photograph at the start so I have a reference in the studio, but about 90 percent of the work is done on location,” Sanders explains. “I try not to spend too much time laboring over things in the studio.” The dimensions of her paintings are dictated by common sense too—and it’s not merely a matter of being able to cover the surface in those fleeting hours. “Larger pastels are cumbersome to frame,” she says. “It’s hard to handle the paper without mounting it, and the glass gets heavy. I order mats and frames in bulk—practicality is a big part of everything I do. Some may think I’m limiting myself, but, by choosing the format this way, I don’t worry about framing too much. I can concentrate on painting.”

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Mount Moran
2006, pastel, 8 x 10.
Spanish Creek
2006, pastel, 10 x 8.

Sanders is diligent about her focus. She usually paints five days a week, and on the days when she is not painting, she is framing, updating her website, doing paperwork, or some other art-related activity. Her full-time devotion to art evolved from one book she read in 1992—Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards (Tarcher, New York, New York). Sanders calls her reading of the book a turning point in her life. “It taught me to draw what you see, and that applies so much to painting,” she explains. From that point on, she carried a pencil and small sketchbook with her everywhere. Her sister Lily, a watercolorist, gave Sanders a small set of pastels for her birthday in 1997 because she felt that she should move into color. “I tried them, but it was hard and the results were dismal,” the pastelist admits. But something about pastel intrigued her—perhaps their portability—and she decided to pursue the medium. By 2000 she was taking classes in pastel and in the fall of 2001 she sold her first painting to a stranger. “I never expected in my wildest dreams that somebody I didn’t know would want to spend money on something I made,” Sanders says. “It seemed like a miraculous event; it was life-changing, and I’m still very grateful. Each time I sell a painting, it’s such a validation.”

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Eucalyptus Sunset
2006, pastel,
11 x 15. Collection
Delia Smith.

Sanders is pleased to be selling her work and considers it proof that anyone can learn to paint. She grew up excelling in math and never had an artistic bent. A degree in physics prepared her for a career as an engineer. At her 50th birthday, she still had no inkling that she would be an artist. But her sister convinced her to take adult-education classes, and with the help of Betty Edwards’ book, she found the key. “I believe it’s a matter of learning how to see differently, and that is something that can be learned, not something that you either have or don’t have,” she says. “I read somewhere that it takes 1,000 paintings to become a good artist, and when I read that, I thought that was an attainable goal—after all, that’s just a painting a day for three years. I’m at number 484, so I’m still a ways from 1,000, but I know I can get there.” For the numerous people who already have a Sanders pastel hanging in their home, the number is just a technicality.

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Jenny Lake Morning
2006, pastel,
8 x 10. Collection Mike
and Ruth Ann Collins.

About the Artist
Ann Sanders was born in Belgium and earned a doctorate in physics from the University of California, in Santa Barbara. In addition to continuing-education art classes at Santa Barbara City College, the artist has attended workshops by Glenna Hartmann, Thomas Van Stein, Marcia Burtt, Richard Schloss, Sally Strand, Jean LeGassick, Randall Sexton, Michael Drury, Clark Mitchell, Albert Handell, Richard McKinley, and Chris Chapman. She is represented by Corridan Gallery, in Santa Barbara, and the Santa Barbara Art Association’s Gallery 113.

Bob Bahr is the managing editor of American Artist.

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