Creating exciting backgrounds



60 min

What you need:

Soft pastel crayons
Among all the fruits, pears are for many artists their favourite to paint. They have such characteristic shapes and vivid colours. It’s a fruit with true personality. This pair of pears gives you the opportunity to employ your understanding of the complimentary colours red and green, as well as learn new techniques for painting exciting backgrounds.

Step 1

First lightly apply soft pastel to the white paper using side strokes in violet and grey shades. Then blend the entire surface with a paper towel to create a smooth toned surface. With a warm-toned hard pastel, draw the outside edge of the pears and the edge of the cast shadows on the table, using linear strokes. Divide the background from the tabletop with a light horizontal line wherever it is visible. Next draw the division of light and shadow on the pears. Also locate the highlights on the pears, using a kneaded eraser to erase the toned surface and reveal the white paper beneath.

When you begin your drawing, use more straight lines than curved. This helps you more easily judge the basic shapes and discern where the big angle changes occur. Use a light stroke at the start and then darken the drawing as you gain confidence.

Step 2

Using soft pastels, begin to mass in the background tones, applying side strokes with a light touch. Change the value of your pastel when there is a clear value change in the background. Notice that the left side is darker and the right side is lighter in value. Establish the dark shadows under the pears with cold grey VI and the foreground of the table with cold grey II. Allow your sidestrokes to overlap each other, especially at the division of the background and the table.

Step 3

Using soft pastels, begin to mass in the darks with side strokes. In smaller areas, and at the edges, use linear strokes with the tip of your soft pastel. Try to locate the appropriate shade of colour right from the start, changing the shade wherever there is a clear change of colour and value. Here we recommend to use three pastels in the shadows: permanent carmine, scarlet red, and cold grey VI.

Step 4

Using a light yellow ochre tint, apply a general tone to the light side of the pear. With a slightly darker shade of dark Naples ochre, tone in the middle and shadow sides of the pear where the greenish ochre is visible. Then restate the dark accents by applying earth green yellowish shades over the reds.

Step 5

Pastel is a dry medium, so we develop the subtle colour and value changes by layering a variety of pastel shades on top of each other. Using flesh tone pastels, build up the colour and value transition between the light side of the pears and the shadow side. Then add more dark reds to the shadow side. Change the direction of your strokes often to create more interest and variety.

Step 6

To remove the texture of the paper flickering through, blend with your fingers. As you blend, be sure to clean your fingers when you drag one colour into another. You don’t want to end up with muddy colour by dragging the dark colours into the lights. Notice as you blend how you can refine the colour and value gradations, both in the background and the pears. During this blending stage, look for areas in the painting that should have softer edges, like between the table and the background, or the soft transition between the shadow side and the light side of the pears. As you blend, you notice the shape of the pears and allow your blending strokes to change direction along with the form of the pear. This increases the realistic look of the pear.

Step 7

Now it’s time to build up the background again with deeper darks and greater clarity of light falling on the table. Strengthen the cast shadows with more dark strokes and add texture by switching between linear hatching techniques and side strokes over the flat, blended background. Then build up the colour and texture within the pears. Using the same technique, switch between linear hatching strokes and painterly side strokes to achieve a variety of surface effects. Notice the addition of orange glaze to the mid tones and earth green yellowish to the light side. Also add more permanent carmine and olive green yellowish to the shadow sides.

Step 8

Now that the overall painting is developed, begin to add in accent strokes and colours. To create a more airy look in the background, use greenish darks and bluish accent strokes. Restate the lit portion of the table with cold grey II, especially at the edges of the shadows. Then apply strong green accent strokes on the pears, along with reds and oranges. These are smaller, more controlled flicks of colour. Anchor the darks again with a permanent carmine. Finally, place the highlights with very light tints of light purple pink and cadmium yellow.

Step 9

The final step is all about refinement. Push the background a little darker, adding depth, blending and softening edges where needed, and adding little details into the lights to build up the form. Don’t overdo the shadow sides; they are better left quiet and mysterious. To break up the monotony of grey and complement the yellow tones of the pears add purple violet to the background transition between the light and dark side. The combination of hard and soft edges in the painting creates the illusion of real atmosphere around the pears.

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Excerpt from "Pastel Basics", published by Walter Foster Publishing, a division of Quarto Publishing Group USA Inc. All rights reserved. Walter Foster is a registered trademark. Artwork © Alain Picard. Visit