I recently attended a pastel workshop, and I have to say that I learned a lot from the experience. In many ways, though, what I learned wasn’t so much about how to work with soft pastels as it was about myself.
First, let’s start with this pastel painting, one that I did at the workshop:
I don’t like the painting, although after I stepped back from it I said to myself, “Well, I guess it’s not all that bad.” On the other hand, it’s not all that good, either, and my experience at the workshop left me discouraged.
As I was leaving, the workshop instructor asked, “Did you have fun?” Of course I replied that I had, but saying those words reminded me a bit of going to the casino, losing money, but then brightly remarking “Well, we had fun, right?”
In some ways, yes, I enjoyed the workshop. In other ways, though, I didn’t. It certainly wasn’t the instructor’s fault. My disappointments can only be blamed on myself. I did a lot of things wrong — from the moment I walked in to the workshop.
First, here are a few of the photographs I took during the event:
So, what happened? What went wrong for me… and, why? I’m sharing my thoughts about the experience here in hopes of helping other artists-in-progress gain from any workshops they attend.
- I started off at a disadvantage because I hadn’t fully read and followed the workshop instructions.
Oh, this was a big one, and it set the tone for the day. I had brought soft pastels, and I’d brought pastel pencils, too. Why, I’d even packed myself a healthy little lunch for our break. I’d thought I was prepared for the workshop. As others were setting up, though, I realized all the things I hadn’t brought. No paper towels or hand wipes. No art board or easel to work on. No paintbrush. I’d read the workshop flyer weeks before the event, and somehow I simply forgot all of the suggested items. Having worked in soft pastels before, I should have remembered how messy they get! I should have thought about setting up a comfortable workspace for myself.
But, no. I was left to try taping a sheet of paper onto the table, and it didn’t work very well. My lack of forethought made me feel bad, too. What sort of artist comes to a workshop so unprepared? I was embarrassed, to say the least. That’s not a good mindset for any workshop. I spent more time worrying about the mess I was making on the table than I did thinking about colors, values, and composition. It was awful.
- This probably wasn’t the right workshop for me.
I’ve worked with pastels in the past, but I’ve never really moved beyond the basics. Although I wasn’t the least experienced artist in the room — one mother and daughter were both newbies to pastels — I did feel a little lost at times. I was expecting a more “step-by-step” demonstration, a “do this first, and now, do this” approach to creating a pastel painting. We did start off with the instructor showing us how to create an underpainting for our work, and she next suggested we start blocking in the basic shapes. After that, I sat there waiting for our next instruction, but all that followed was, “Keep working on your painting.”
I had no idea what to do. I had an underpainting and a few blobs of color, but where was I supposed to go from there? And how was I supposed to get there? How should I apply the pastels? When should I blend my colors? At what point should I add highlights?
Now, of course, I had one of the best pastel artists in our area right there to help me, but here’s the rub. At my level of artistic ability in the medium, I don’t even know enough to ask the right questions. I called the instructor over and she made a few suggestions — none of which I really knew how to implement.
- I let my frustrations get to me.
After getting off to a bad start and then feeling unsure of what to do, of course I became frustrated. I was doing my best, but under the circumstances, that wasn’t saying a lot. I was working from a small reference photo, it was difficult to see all the slight variations in color, and what good did it do, anyway? I didn’t know how to re-create what I was seeing. For me, it was a trial-and-error process. Mostly error.
Of course, as the instructor pointed out to us, pastels can be corrected. “If you don’t like the way it’s looking, you can wipe it away…” Oh, those are dangerous words for someone like me. I’m always wiping away and trying again when I’m oil painting, so needless to say I was wiping away and trying again at the workshop. And, as always, my attempts to wipe away and try again just resulted in an even bigger mess.
Yes, if you know what you’re doing and how to do it, I’m sure you can wipe away mistakes in pastel and fix things you don’t like. When you’re struggling with the medium, have no idea how to apply it to the paper, and are already feeling upset… well, fixing one disaster only creates another.
- I made the worst mistake of all by constantly comparing myself to the others in the workshop.
In all honesty, my pastel painting really wasn’t the worst art created at the workshop. Of course, art is subjective, and who has the right to say one piece is good and another not so good? I certainly don’t have that right, so I’m only speaking from my own personal opinion and from my limited understanding of pastel techniques.
But even when I consoled myself by thinking that maybe mine wasn’t the worst painting, I still felt inferior to everyone else in the room. I was the one who had come unprepared, I was the one constantly asking the instructor for suggestions, I was the one making a mess, getting frustrated, and all but giving up.
- I let my frustrations spoil the day — and more.
Am I the only one who tends to shut down when frustrated? I don’t like to be a whiner or complainer, so when frustrations mount, I withdraw a bit. I retreat within myself which means I don’t really listen to others or pay attention to what’s going on around me. I crawl into this sad little place where no light can reach.
When the instructor spoke, I couldn’t really hear what she was saying — at least, not on a practical level. I’d already put myself into an “I don’t belong here, I can’t do this” state of mind, and all I wanted to do was get through the workshop and get out of there.
I finished a second painting — no better than the first — then cleaned up my messy work area, packed up my pastels, and headed home.
“Yes, I had fun,” I remarked in response to the instructor’s query. And, yes, it was fun to be at the workshop, to see friends I’ve made through the art groups I belong to, and to hear others say nice things, like, “Oh, that’s lovely,” when they looked at my pastel paintings.
I didn’t feel lovely. I felt miserable and unhappy. I drove home, still in my blue funk, and I stayed there throughout the day. I stayed there throughout the evening and on into the night. Even the following morning I still felt down-hearted and discouraged.
I did set my pastel paintings out on the counter, stepped back, and took a good, long look at them. They’re not the best pastels ever painted, but then again, maybe they’re not really all that bad.
What was all that bad was, of course, my attitude. I really have to work on that, and in the future, you can be certain that I’ll be better-prepared for any workshops I attend.
For the fun of it, you might want to compare my pastel paintings to the similar ones I’ve done in oil.