Exercise 26: Still life group in tone

~ finished drawing

~ finished drawing

For this exercise, the course material suggested using coloured pencils or pastels. As I felt I had been avoiding pastels, I decided I ought to try them. I set up the still life group, which consisted of an aubergine, a red onion, a pepper and a couple of leeks,  and tried several compositions in thumbnail sketches.

~ compositional sketches

~ compositional sketches

Compositions two and four were very similar, but I decided to go with number four as I preferred the slightly higher viewpoint. I felt the arrangement made good use of the space and that the background, whilst minimal, gave the group enough context. I had deliberately arranged the vegetables into a triangular composition, dissected by the diagonal of the leeks. This seemed to lend something of a dynamic quality to the arrangement.  I tried to place them so that the tonal colour contrasts were maximised. Having initially arranged the vegetables on a chopping board, I felt more texture was needed. For this reason, I placed the group on slightly crumpled tea towel. This added several more interesting shadows. The group was lit by a bright lamp from the right-hand side.

~ colour tests

~ colour tests

I then tested a number of different coloured pastels in my sketchbook. Initially, I planned to use hard pastels, and tried a number of colour combinations. I also tried some mark-making that I thought might prove useful. I decided to opt for a mix of van Dyke brown, sap green, and chromium yellow.

~ partially completed first attempt

~ partially completed first drawing

What I hadn’t appreciated was quite how dominant the yellow would prove to be. Even though this first attempt at the drawing was only partially completed, I could see that the colours weren’t going to work for me. Added to this, I found the hard pastels difficult to use with a non-linear approach. In fact, working on this first drawing proved incredibly frustrating. I felt I was working against the materials –  unsuitable pastels, paper without enough texture, and a poor choice of colours. My dissatisfaction grew as I worked. I could feel myself becoming upset, and had tears in my eyes at one point, mostly from frustration. Also, perhaps because I was unhappy with the drawing, I found myself thinking “What makes you think you can do this?”, “You can’t do this”, and other dispiriting thoughts. These stemmed from a long held lack of confidence. The same lack of confidence that had kept me from studying art for so many years. Eventually, I realised that I would be better off taking a break from the drawing.

Once I felt a bit better, I decided to make a list of things I could try that might help before attempting the drawing again. Things such as looking for examples of tonal drawings using pastels, looking for videos on using pastels, and seeing if I could find any useful articles on the subject. I also sent a quick email to my tutor, asking if she had any suggestions on helpful resources. She was able to point me towards a few different links, but more importantly she encouraged me not to let it get to me so much, reminding me that I’m still in the early stages of the course.   It’s easy to forget that, sometimes.

~   looking at colour tone

~ looking at colour tone

One of the things I found most difficult was recognising the  relative tones of different colours.  It occurred to me  it might be useful to try arranging my pastels according to tone, as best I could, then to photograph them and convert the photo to black-and-white.  This way  I could see more clearly how accurate my choices had been.  I did better than I expected.

In addition, I decided to try a different set of pastels –  soft ones, this time  (Rembrandt). Also,  I thought it might be helpful to work on a coloured pastel paper, particularly as the course material seemed to suggest using only three different colours of pastel.  With this in mind, I selected a mid-grey paper, together with my new choice of pastels –  burnt umber,  light cinnabar green, and white.  I used a grey pastel to make a quick outline sketch on the pastel paper.  This was to work out the placement of the items, and their sizes relative to one another.  In this second drawing, I chose to extend the composition beyond the confines of the paper.  It filled the space better that way, and the group seemed to have more ‘presence’ as a result, I think.

One article I had read, prior to my second attempt, emphasised that tonal drawing relates more to the way we actually see, in terms of mass rather than outlines –  patches of light and shade, with edges rather than lines  (Rubenstein, 2006). I tried to bear this in mind as I drew.  Similarly, I place the greatest emphasis on the central subjects, rather than the periphery. I added colour gradually, smudging here and there where colour needed to be established more substantially. Once the basic shapes were in place, I worked using  shading, hatching, and some stippling (the latter most notably to indicate the woodgrain of the chopping board). I also used squiggly lines for the ends of the leeks.  Where it was needed, I used a blending stump, sanding it occasionally to clean it. Bearing the course book instructions in mind, I worked as quickly as I could. However, as pastels still feel alien to me, I doubt it was as fast as it could otherwise have been. I built up dark tones gradually, looking for shadows to increase the sense of depth. I also concentrated on distinguishing between soft and hard edges. In general, I feel the outcome was reasonably successful –  certainly more successful than had seemed likely just a couple of days earlier! I’m not very happy with the shadows in the foreground (those surrounding the chopping board). Up close, they seem slightly messy, although from a distance they do give the required effect of depth. That aside, I think the vegetables worked pretty well. They have  solidity, and sit quite well on the tea towel.

I learned several things from this exercise. Mostly, pastels require patience.  Depth and tone take time to build.


Rubenstein, E. (2006) Artist Daily, ‘Drawing Basics: The Emergence of Tonal Drawing’ [Online], Available at: http://www.artistdaily.com/blogs/drawing/archive/2006/09/16/the-emergence-of-tonal-drawing.aspx (Accessed 19 June 2013).