Pastel: Jean Ranstrom: Discovering Unexpected Subjects for Pastel Paintings

0612rans2_300x450_1Jean Ranstrom’s artist-friends are often surprised that she can create stunning pastel paintings in locations they would ignore. “If a painting has a strong focal point, as well as varied edges, values, and color temperatures, it can be successful even if the subject is otherwise unremarkable,” she says.      

by M. Stephen Doherty

Palm Fruit
2006, pastel, 16 x 12.
All artwork this article
collection the artist
unless otherwise indicated.

Most plein air artists count on having an expansive view of mountains, rivers, fields, or gardens for their paintings; and they depend on a strong pattern of sunlight and shadow to differentiate the relative values, color temperatures, projected space, and atmosphere. But Arizona artist Jean Ranstrom knows it isn’t what nature delivers that guarantees artists will create successful paintings, it’s what they do in response to the situations they discover. Good painting has more to do with artists’ skills and understanding than it does with convenient subject matter.

“Don’t get me wrong,” says Ranstrom, “I’m delighted to go out painting at a popular location under perfect weather conditions; but I can get just as excited by other conditions and subjects. For example, the Tucson Plein Air Painters’ Society recently planned an outing to Picacho Peak scouting an area none of us hike, and everyone wound up being disappointed by the overcast conditions. Everyone but me, that is. I immediately found a great spot to paint an intimate view of the desert landscape.

“The key is to choose a subject based on what excites me,” the artist explains. “I consider the strength and beauty of the colors, the mood of the day, the range of hard and soft edges, and my interest in and knowledge of the subject. I prefer to work directly from nature, but I use photographs either as supplemental references or as the primary source of a painting.” Ranstrom adds that the choice of subject matter and method of working influence her selection of the surface on which she will execute the picture and the sequence of pastel application.

2005, pastel,
12 x 9.

Before beginning to paint, Ranstrom makes a series of quick sketches of dark, middle, and light values to determine the focal point and a “road map” for her intended painting. “Without that road map there is no guarantee I’ll land where I plan,” she explains. “Once I have that compositional sketch completed, I am ready to start building up the pastel on a textured surface.

“I work on several different textured papers and boards, and I select the one most appropriate for the mood and atmosphere I plan to convey in my painting,” Ranstrom continues. “For example, I use Kitty Wallace paper mounted to Gatorboard, Ampersand Pastelbord, or Art Spectrum papers or boards. I prefer to prepare surfaces myself by coating mat board, museum board, watercolor board, or paper with two applications of acrylic gesso. Once the gesso is dry, I apply Art Spectrum Colourfix Primer with a foam roller that leaves a smooth surface. For a rougher surface, I use an inexpensive 2-inch housepainting brush to apply the primer in random ‘x’ and ‘y’ strokes to create overlapping textures. When painting outdoors, I sometimes use a warm-gray Canson paper because it has a great middle value on which I can quickly establish the lights and darks of a composition.

0612rans3_300x450 Morning at Elephant Head
2006, pastel, 20 x 20.

“When working on location, I carry several different toned papers and boards so I can select the most appropriate one for the subject,” the artist explains. “I prepare those surfaces in advance by applying hard Nupastel or Holbein pastel, washing over it with water, and allowing it to dry. Once on location, I sketch the subject with sanguine-colored Conté crayon, applying a light pressure so the subsequent layers of pastel will adhere to the surface.”

When working in her studio, Ranstrom also applies a uniform warm tone by layering Nupastel or Holbein pastel, washing over it with water, and allowing the surface to dry thoroughly. She then draws the basic shapes of the design with pastels of the local colors in her chosen subject and secures that to the surface by washing over the isolated colors with water applied with a big brush. The artist makes sure the colors are confined to the big areas of the landscape.

“I refer to the next stage in a painting’s development as putting on the ‘underwear,’” Ranstrom says. “I use that term because it amuses my students so much that they never forget it, and because it explains why this stage is so important. Just as the appearance of one’s outer garments are affected by the clothing underneath, so the final layers of pastel will be influenced by the color, value, and temperature of the underlying strokes of color. For example, most blue skies have at least two warm colors that should be applied before the cool blues and violets are added. Without them, the sky is less likely to convey a sense of light and air. Likewise, the cool shadow under a tree will appear as a deep hole cut in the landscape if there aren’t any warm tones to create the sense of light filtering through the leaves.”

Winter Shadows
2004, pastel, 10 x 12.

Once Ranstrom has painted the “underwear” with both linear and broad strokes of pastel, she continues developing the basic shapes in the painting by building up layers of Unison, Rembrandt, and Winsor & Newton pastel in linear strokes that vary in length and width, allowing the colors to blend together visually without rubbing them. When working in her studio, she also uses Sennelier pastels, which are too soft for outdoor use but rich and intense when handled in the studio. “I preselect the sticks I am likely to use and place them into color families along one side of the work area,” the artist says. “As I pick them up to use them, I put them into a permanent foam palette that will remain close by my working area until I’ve completed the painting.

Intimate Landscape
2003, pastel, 16 x 20.
Private collection.

“I generally start working the area of the focal point of the picture using hard edges, intense colors, and strong darks to bring attention to that location,” the artist continues. “I then move away from that focal point, building up the strokes of pastel and keeping the edges of shapes softer and the level of contrast much lower. I usually complete one picture before I start another, unless I notice an especially stunning view that has to be painted immediately before it disappears.”

Like most artists, Ranstrom works from life and from photographs. “However, I always tell students that the shadows that appear in photographs are much darker than the ones in nature,” she explains. “If they are conscious of this fact, they can make adjustments by reducing the contrast. Furthermore, students who work from photographs tend to only see the image captured by the camera. They have to learn to move a tree, reshape a bush, open up the sky, or make other modifications that will improve the composition.

Before Wine
2005, pastel, 15 x 16.

“My procedures for painting in oil are quite similar,” Ranstrom reveals. I usually wipe a thin veil of a warm color, such as yellow ochre, raw sienna, or transparent red oxide, on the canvas using a rag and mineral spirits, and then I sketch the subject with a heavier application of the same color. Using filbert- and flat-shaped brushes, I lay in the large shapes of color and begin developing the focal point of the composition. I expand the image outward from that center using a brush that is a little bigger than it should be because it keeps me from becoming too picky as I paint. I keep edges soft throughout the painting process, except in the area of the focal point.”    

Quiet Morning
2004, pastel, 18 x 24.
Private collection.

About the Artist
Jean Johnson Ranstrom has been a full-time professional artist since 1972 and has taught workshops and painting classes in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Arizona. She is a signature member of the Pastel Society of America, an artist member of the Tucson Plein Air Painters’ Society, and a member of the Lake Country Pastel Society, the Tubac Center of the Arts, in Arizona (where she teaches private studio classes), the Pastel Society of the Southwest, the Oil Painters of America, and the American Impressionist Society. She is a co-founder of Avalon Arts near her home in Green Valley, Arizona. Contact Ranstrom for more information.

M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief of American Artist.

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4 thoughts on “Pastel: Jean Ranstrom: Discovering Unexpected Subjects for Pastel Paintings

  1. Jean,
    Came across you when looking for artwork in Arizona!Dont know if you would remember but I took several classes with you in Mn.Do you live in Arizona part of the year?I currently live in St Cloud area but may be relocating to Arizona in the next year.I still do some pastel work and want to continue.
    Lorraine Lukes

  2. Hey grandma!!!
    I saw this site and wanted to say hi! but dont use the e-mail address. Just wanted to say that I am doing a project about you in school (art) and so is my friend (ashley)! well got to go finish my project! bye! love ya!

  3. Hi Jean,
    Remember the days when Lake Country Pastel was formed.
    Wonderful Art!!! It’s great to see where you are going with your art these days. Very interesting, and creative.

  4. Hello.
    Wonderful art pastels. I have your signed 1/300 print of the polar bear that I won when I was living in WBL, MN.
    I have it beautifully framed and hanging in my home in MI. Do you have any more polar bear prints ? I love these
    beautiful creatures that will be soon in trouble due to global warming. Please capture the beauty in them again.