January 9, 2021

Winter Solstice 2020-2021, the second, Descanso Gardens (crayon pastels on burgundy toned pastel paper)

Here is my second attempt to capture the 2020-2021 winter solstice at the Descanso Gardens here in So Cal. Last week I shared a pastel on toned paper of a huge and lovely gingko tree just outside Descanso’s rose garden. This week I rendered a large and lovely sycamore tree with overhanging pink bougainvillea next to an opulent display of bright yellow tubular flowers that were clinging to a brugmansia shrub. I know we of Southern CA are spoiled with mild weather right now and are still enjoying such amazing color in many of our gardens. In fact, I was in the rose garden this morning and there were still quite a number of roses in bloom. And right now, under the canopy of the garden’s magnificently huge oaks, are numerous camellia shrubs with numerous buds all along their branches. (Camellias generally bloom in February all over Northern and Southern CA.) If you are familiar with Southern CA you may have already noticed another tell tale sign of where you are. It’s the white washed Spanish style stucco posts with rustic wooden arbor holding up the masses of flowers, right? 

This week I again used my crayon pastels on toned pastel paper. For this piece the background color I chose was decidedly darker—a deep burgundy color. I don’t think I’ve said why I generally don’t use “chalk-like” oil pastels. It’s kind of a simple reason really. Regular pastels are a messy medium, with lots of dust floating around as you blend one color into another. Using a “crayon” pastel doesn’t produce any dust I can see and that’s good, I think. However, because they are not so soft and squishy I have almost no way to easily blend colors. I can use my finger tips to scrub colors together. But that’s it, and it’s pretty limiting. I have to press so hard it almost seems I am also blending in skin cells and my fingerprints onto that rough and toothy paper. Adding human skin to a sketch is a little creepy, right? Many years ago I used pastel dust to create some of my scientific illustrations, but that involved frequent use of a spray fixative. Dust and chemical spray, yikes! Even though each kind of pastel has its drawbacks, I still love the lovely soft quality of color you can get. So, I guess I will continue using the crayon version for now.

But I wonder if the real story of my recent winter solstice pastels is not the medium I choose to scribble with, but rather the “under” color story which comes from the actual toned paper. I’ve written about using this “under” color technique in a previous blog, but what I described was related to working with oil paint on canvas or birch. For those pieces I first put down a color that is not meant to be seen, but it is meant to positively affect another color that will be added on top. For example, I might first put down a soft pink in the area of the sky, with the intent of that showing through in the tiniest way after I add just right amount of cerulean and white on top. This would then represent one CA girl’s sky just before sunset. Or I might use a bright cadmium red “under” color for a hill that will later be covered in vineyards. I think the “under” red sharpens and intensifies the shades of green that is then layered on top. I have also used yellow ochre as an “under” color for a variety of greenery, adding just a bit of an earth tone effect. As for this series of pastels I don’t need to lay down a color, the paper comes in these luscious “under” colors that I just need to choose from. But it also means that I need to be aware of how I will use that color for everything—sky, structures, as well as any plants or animals I plan to add. There is an added bonus, or consideration, with this approach as I can use the darker background color to create instant shading. All of this is very strategic, but I love this kind of planning. I absolutely love imagining all the different ways to achieve what I want even before I put one color on the paper. 

OK, you’ve probably had enough of my artist geekiness. But wait, I have a couple more 2020-2021 winter solstice pastels to share. Maybe for the next one I will just post the art, no explanation needed? Not likely!

Happy New Year! (I forgot to say that last week.)

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