Eight three-hour weekly sessions of drawing with colour. What a great way to spend winter afternoons, I thought. And so, near the end of January, along with six others, I began a journey that gathered steam as we moved from one project to the next.
I admire Marta’s relaxed teaching style, but I also admire her thoroughness. In the first class we started by reviewing materials: soft pastels comprise pure pigment and binder; papers should have some tooth, but not too much, and Ingres is one of the most sought after brands, but is hard to find because it was bought out by Canson; a soft rag makes an excellent blending tool, but so does a tortillon. I was reminded that in the arts, including the culinary arts, French has a firm grip on vocabulary.
Then Marta talked about safety. Safety? Yes. Some colours, such as cobalt blue, cerulean blue and all cadmiums, contain toxic compounds. The better quality the pastel, the more chance of toxicity. To mitigate the danger of breathing pastel dust, Marta had us fashion for our drawing supports a pocket out of aluminum foil, much like a baby’s bib. “Do not blow,” she admonished.
Our first still life looked easy enough. A trio of eggs—one white, one brown, one black (actually a shaker used as a percussion instrument). These she had lit with a small desk lamp, having placed them on a white sheet of paper. Before we began drawing, in an engaging way, she made us look hard at the subtle variations in tone. Marta has a way of asking questions that makes you want to shoot up your hand as though you were in primary school. And thus we talked about light: the primary light from the source, the secondary or reflected light on the shaded side of the eggs, and the tertiary light, which is the reflected light bouncing back onto the cast shadows. Got that? And did you know that a lit egg (or lemon, or other rounded object) has an equator?
Although none of the student artists in the class were beginners, we agreed during the second class that creating a colour wheel would be useful. Here was a chance to mix pastel hues like paint. But wait… What happened to the primary colours we all know? No longer red and blue, but rather the magenta and cyan that, when paired with yellow and black are used in commercial colour printing. As a former graphic designer I’m familiar with process colours but was surprised by their new role and elevated aesthetic potential.
At every turn, Marta gave us drawing options. For our colour assignment we were encouraged to draw the aforementioned lemon, or an orange, or some grapes, or a Bosc pear. Or a conch. All of which Marta had lit and arranged against a blue background. What next, I wondered. In fact, during the first class Marta had handed out small cards on which she had asked us to write what we wanted to draw in this course. Class three, then, saw us working on simple floral arrangements from reference material we had brought to the studio.
The art of pastel combines drawing and painting with the added excitement of working on coloured paper as a kind of under painting. Marta encouraged us to try different papers—including black—and to allow them into our pastel drawings.
With every new assignment Marta did demos. For the demo in the third class Marta had prepared a tonal drawing of an iris, which she wanted to recreate in colour. “How should I start?” she asked. “Well, I don’t know what colours you’re planning to use,” countered a student. “Neither do I,” rallied Marta. Such is her strength as a teacher: using her knowledge of colour and technique, but experimenting as she goes along, and encouraging us to do the same. Presenting drawing, in other words, as an adventure. Small wonder that four of our group of seven, myself included, took this course, in part, because Marta was teaching it.
In class five, while reproducing the work of a well-known artist of our choice, we experienced a poignant moment when Marta responded to the preparatory work Carol Lynne had done on a ballerina by Degas. She had laid down areas of pale pastel that evoked the tones and movement of the dancer. “It’s exquisite,” Marta said more than once, while Carol Lynne blushed and maintained she really should start all over again. “ Allow yourself to accept that this is an exquisite piece of art that deserves to be framed,” Marta insisted, with emotion in her voice, understanding that Carol Lynne had reached a milestone.
For our second-last class Marta organized a field trip! We spent a relatively balmy afternoon on the 20-acre property of one of Marta’s friends. Trees, rocky outcroppings, patches of snow and a pristine white lake—a setting worthy of the Group of Seven. And I certainly had that in mind as I sat on a granite ledge, feeling the warm sun on my face as I attempted to recreate the scene in front of me on blue paper (sky and shadows). Some student artists walked around the point, taking photos, and then moved indoors to draw. Before heading indoors herself, Marta made a tour of her protégés’ plein air efforts. She reminded me that I don’t have to use the colours I see: Why not pick up the pink in the granite I am sitting on, or make that distant shoreline purple instead of dull gray?
What else did I learn in this course? Which colours to mix in order to create skin tones; which palette can result in pleasing florals; how triangular shapes affect composition; when the Golden Mean first made an appearance in artistic expression; five ways to create aerial perspective. And much more.
At the end of eight weeks, our small group of pastel artists—Barb, Carol-Lynne, Diane, Jacqueline, Margaret, Mark and I—had made a range of images on different-coloured paper. Will we continue our exploration of this medium? A resounding yes!