The process of painting a floral still life in pastel is the same as the process of painting anything you like! I look for shape, form, value, colour, composition; you know, the usual lot. Ever since I started teaching I realised I follow the same strategy for most of my paintings. This is a strategy I now teach my students. I hope the demonstration below is helpful for those who want to learn the process of painting and of interest to those who would like a peek behind the scenes.
This painting was created during one of my online workshops for my online art school. A virtual class of students followed the step by step process and created their own floral still life, while sharing their progress on a daily basis in our private forum. Together we got there in the end and the floral display at the end was simply beautiful. Not all my demo pieces turn out worthy of a blog post or a place in my portfolio, but I really got into this painting and finished it off properly. My floral still life had long died when I was still fiddling with the background.
I’d like to share some of the steps that I taught the students during this workshop.
Ten Steps to Painting a Still Life
First things first: I need to be able to fit everything onto my paper, without any flowers falling off on the sides. So I start with looking for very rough overall shapes. The vase is a rectangle, the flowers too. Keeping it super simple, but trying to get at least the proportions (roughly) right. The vase stops just under half way down the whole subject.
I refine the blocky shapes and roughly draw in the vase and the overall shape of the flowers. No details yet, just looking for proportions and making sure it will all fit. Those flowers on the far right only just did!
The cherry blossom is complex so I start to block in the main shapes. I see clusters of flowers so I position those into my drawing. Same for the daffodils. I draw in the stems inside the vase. I can now conclude that everything is going to fit and I am happy with the composition. Onwards!
I am going to move to a rough value block-in. There is not much value (light and dark) going on in this still life as the flowers are white and the background is off-white. There is not much colour either, so a colour block-in would not have been much more helpful. I do a value block-in anyway. Here I have put in the lights.
And now I am putting in the darks. Again, I can double check that everything will fit. A first layer of pastel has been put down all over the paper. I include the background as early as I can as that will need as much attention as the subject matter. It will need layering and building up, so a first layer has been put down.
I now move on to a colour block-in. I have a better idea now of where everything goes so I dare to go in with colour. I am giving everything an ‘average’ colour. This is just a simplified version: the flowers are white, the leaves green, the daffodils have yellow hearts. The vase has a hint of blue in it. Keeping it simple and keeping an eye on overall harmony.
I am now starting to refine the shapes into form. The vase needs more variety, the flowers need value changes. The value variation will create 3-dimensionality. Not forgetting the background...
Everything has really had a good few more layers of pastel, building up the colour, colour depth, value variation and deatil. The background has several layers of pastel, creating variety inside an overall muted palette. The flowers are starting to get more shape and form.
More refinement of the background to increase calm and uniformity (without it being boring). The flowers have been simplified with some very soft pastels; keeping an eye on the precision of shape, but removing the business of hard pastel marks all over the place. A few marks with some pale Unisons ties the petals together and calms the whole thing down. I am also using soft pastels for pushing the colour in the green leaves and the daffodils.
Wanting to increase the stillness of the painting, I layered more grey hard pastel over the background and then blended in selected places. I increased the darker values in the most right daffodils and some blossom shapes in the back. Creating more transparency by working around the flowers in the negative space. I added a line to the table top so provide some grounding. Going over every inch of the painting, I tried to make sure it all works together, every area has a function either as supporting ‘actor’ or leading ‘act’. The painting is announced as finished a few times before I finally decide it is really is.
This painting was created during an online workshop in Sophie’s Art School. I shared a tuition demonstration video every day, for 5 days, showing and explaining the progress of my painting. Students could then apply every step themselves, in their own paintings, and get personal feedback from me and their fellow students in our private forum. Armed with that feedback they could then move on to the next day’s video apply the next steps.
One students commented afterwards:
The practical advice from Sophie was brilliant, not just for my work but also across all the other participants. As ever, the critique was both detailed and encouraging and, along with the demos, this gave some really useful pointers. I am especially grateful for Sophie giving a running commentary on her decision making process as she worked - and I'm pretty sure that's not easy - as it really helped me and it's very rare to get the chance to see not just 'what', but 'why' certain approaches or techniques consist of.
Members of Sophie’s Art School can watch back the Florals in Pastel workshop videos any time in the Workshop Archive.
Not a member? Come join the fun. Not only do you get access to the Workshop Archive but you can join our next online workshop (we do them monthly). You’ll be joining a warm and supportive community of artists, and you’ll have access to a range of courses, workshops and tutorials. We are certain to do the Florals in Pastel workshop again some time!