Pastels: Taking Charge of Color

Michigan artist Sharon Will uses the elements of color—value, hue, temperature, and intensity—to give her paintings drama and excitement.

by Collin Fry

Rocking Chair
2002, pastel, 12 x 9.
Private collection.
All artwork this
article collection
the artist unless
otherwise indicated.

Painting with full command of color is a goal of most artists. Mastering color—making it work so it contributes to painting success—can be difficult for even the most experienced painter, and plunging ahead into a piece without a real plan for color and value can lead to disappointment and frustration. However, with some insight into the characteristics of color, and some experimentation, one can soon paint with greater confidence and skill. Michigan artist Sharon Will has made a concentrated study of color’s properties and the contribution of color to successful painting. “Direct observation is the best way to see and analyze the elements of color,” she says. “Success in painting requires the solving of a series of problems.

“Once in a blue moon a painting seems to paint itself,” says Will, “but that is a rarity. Normally it takes conscious effort and a lot of hard work to produce a successful work of art.” Color is crucial, but the artist acknowledges that painting is much more than working out a color plan. Good composition, pushing and pulling the painting’s values, color intensities, and temperatures to achieve the right balance, and getting the right kind of edges are also important challenges. Ideally, all of this is accomplished outdoors. “Much of my work today is done en plein air,” says Will. “I believe that direct observation from life is the only way to truly capture the subtleties of form, value, and color found in nature. Even when the camera is used for reference, my goal is never to copy nature but to focus the viewer on that special light, mood, or color relationship that excites me. I try to take the beauty around us and put a bit of myself into it. Working en plein air forces me to think fast, keep it simple, and get those big shapes and colors down before the light changes,” she says.

Patriotic Flower Box
2003, pastel, 18 x 24.

The artist feels that the basic characteristics of a color—value, hue, temperature, and intensity—are invaluable tools for the creative painter. Painting in both oil and pastel, she finds that giving these elements of color careful thought, while also applying other common principles of good painting practice, can produce satisfying results in her work. “An understanding of each of the basic color elements can contribute to successful painting,” Will advises. “These aids to good painting are frequently overlooked by artists, who are often in too much of a hurry to ‘get going.’ The elements of color must be understood and mastered before the artist can paint freely, confident of a good outcome.”

The artist starts with value. “It’s the first consideration, and the most important, because in representational work, value is my best tool for describing form,” she says. This means that before choosing a color, Will considers the design of her composition, which dictates the value needed for a given area. In fact, she begins with a value plan—a small, simple value study. Many questions are resolved this way before she begins a painting. The artist finds that doing this at an early stage helps create a strong composition. And it is time well spent—it will help her avoid problems later. She uses the value study as her road map to carefully control values throughout the entire painting process. Even when colors are modified, every effort is made to keep to the value plan, thus assuring that the finished painting will be strong and graphic in character. Once the values are determined to the artist’s satisfaction, color temperature and intensity considerations can follow. The painting Weathered Shed, which is almost monochromatic, very effectively uses careful value control and placement for its impact.

Golden Beauty
2004, pastel,
23 x 17½.

The choice of which color to use is a critical one. Will it be a ‘local color’—the red in an apple, for example—or will color be used creatively, for mood or other effect, rather than offering an accurate depiction of the object? The choice of hue can give a painting an overall tonality or mood, such as a blue painting or one with a golden tone. It can make a painting cheerfully bright, or subdued and thoughtful. In Will’s piece Pears and Purple, the lavender background provides a colorful key to the contrasting yellow-green pears. The Blue and Rose periods of Picasso’s career are excellent illustrations of the creative use of color for artistic effect. The Impressionists also used hue choice to great advantage, with small bits of color defining form, creating mood, and adding texture and joyful contrasts to much of their work. They used hue to give their paintings an excitement that was new to the art world at that time.


Backlit Lilacs
2002, pastel, 17 3/4 x 14.

A color’s temperature—whether a hue is warm or cool—also needs to be considered before pigment is applied to a surface. Certain questions need to be answered: Should an area recede with a cool tone, or come forward with a warm one? Does a particular red lean toward the yellow (warm) side of the color spectrum, or is it closer to the blue (cool)? That is, does the red look slightly more orange, as in cadmium red, or is it closer to a purple, as in alizarin crimson? Does a blue choice lean toward the red or purple (warm), or is it more turquoise (cool)? Will uses contrasting color temperatures very effectively in Patriotic Flower Box. She notes that in the step-by-step example, the choice of whether to use a warm or cool red, and a warm or cool green, makes a huge difference, not only in the vibrancy and appearance of the finished painting but also in the relationships of adjacent colors, as well as how each color is used to turn a form.

Will points out that too much use of intense color can be detrimental to a painting. The intensity, or saturation, of hues can be easily controlled by adding a small amount of complementary color to pure colors, thus graying them down a bit. Most successful paintings show a careful balance of intense and grayed color. The intensities are used to enhance and control form, to track the eye of a viewer, and to emphasize or de-emphasize parts of a composition. Backlit Lilacs is saturated with intense color, yet it is balanced perfectly by the neutral, subdued intensity of the large shadow shape.


Rocky Mountains
2002, pastel, 17 x 23.

Will didn’t overdo the saturated color. Of all the elements of color, intensity is probably the one most often abused by beginners. Painting with color straight out of the tube is tempting and fast, but it can be disastrous to the final appearance of a piece. “Save those intense color notes for a few choice and important areas in your work,” Will says. “As my painting Rocking Chair illustrates, the discrete use of small areas of intense color, mainly in the three areas of red, adds greatly to the visual impact of the piece.” 

A former illustrator and graphic designer, Collin Fry lives in Norton Shores, Michigan.

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