Mowry on Unified Color

Unified Color – Reflections on an an exercise proposed by Elizabeth Mowry, PSA.


For more details on the original exercise I would recommend purchasing a second hand copy of this publication.  The title is:  The Pastelists’ Year, see pages 36 through 39.  Sadly, this book is currently out of print but you might find it on one of the online book stores.  At the Pleinair Convention Elizabeth did mention that she was working on another book which has now been published and is also available for purchase online and in some larger bookstores such as Barnes and Noble.

Above:  My rendition of this exercise on Uart 400 sanded paper using a combination of soft pastels and pastel pencils.  No underpainting, only vine charcoal to begin.

You will need:

  • Your pastels
  • Pastel pencils (I use Carbothello and Derwent)
  • Mid tone grey canson paper, toned sanded or suede paper ( we’ll discuss underpaintings later on – for the moment just select a neutral), say 6” x 4”
  • Scrap piece of the same paper to experiment with your chosen pastels
  • Paper towel to keep the pastels you are working on together and separate from your collection
  • About 1 hour from start to finish – less if you have no fear
  • Scrap paper and black fine liner pen or pencil for value sketch

We are going to either recreate the above picture in the style of Elizabeth Mowry or take one of your own original photos and follow along with this same exercise.

Step 1:

Create a value thumbnail:  Pencil or pen sketches show the value scale of a scene.  Do a quick value sketch then choose your palette.  Limit it to 5 colors or hues, with five values in each hue.  Yes, this is a limited palette but you will potentially have access to 25 pastels.  In fact, the limiting of a palette will give your work a sense of unification of hue.  Keep a piece of scrap paper nearby so you can test the colors you have chosen.  Scumble, smear, stroke in one direction only use hatching, cross hatching, vary pressure, roll your pastel.  You could even find an edge and create organic marks.  Play with the palette you have chosen, see where these experimentations can be used in your color study.

Above:  Example of a value sketch thumbnail from my notebook which I keep with me – always :)))

Step 2:

Establish large value masses:  Sketch in the larger areas on your image in vine charcoal.  Place the first layer of color with soft pastels using diagonal strokes.  Sky, background, grasses, middle ground tree shapes, foreground shapes, trees and three shadows.

Step 3:

Refine the shapes using your soft pastels:  squint at the sky area if you are using your own photo.   For the exercise, I used a mauve and blue pastel as close to the original as I could.  Use a very light touch.  Stroke or scumble in one direction across the sky and allow the first layer to show through the subsequent layers.  Clean your pastel so it is ready for your next stroke.  Move on to the next big shape, squint, shape the trees and shadows across the grasses using the other values on your palette to model the forms.

Step 4:

Unifying color:  This next step aims to represent the direct sunlight on the fields.  Choose a higher value yellow pastel and an ochre pastel pencil.  Recreate the shape of the sunlight where it is indicated in your photo or in the exercise.  Use the pastel pencil on the edges of the shape to allow a value step change from the shapes adjoining the sunlit area.  Next, focus on the background hills.  Lightly scumble the hue you have chosen to represent the light haze on these background hills.  Hint, you could use either a blue or mauve (tending to cool) and use a pastel pencil because you only want to blend this color on the existing layer of pastel.  A light touch is required here, go slowly but deliberately.  The aim is to blend the existing color shape with the majority of the color shape remaining.  Remember, you are experimenting and this is an exercise.  Move forward in your piece, visiting each major shape and refining in the same way with hues and values that work with your piece.

Step 5:

Final details:  Define sky holes in background trees.  Hint, remember sky holes are a deeper value than the general sky hue because of the effect of simultaneous color.  Then add some detail in the foreground grasses but remember less is definitely more.   You need to consider that making the foreground simple lets the viewer complete the space with their own thoughts and visions.  The very last step is to add any hints of field color from wild flowers.  Before doing this though, think about where you want your viewer’s eyes to travel in your piece.  Consider – you do not have to copy your source photo slavishly, you can change anything you wish to change to create interest and to strengthen your composition.  Stop.  Step back from your easel.  Make a cup of tea or coffee then come back to your piece with fresh eyes.  Review your work.  Lastly glue this exercise into your notebook covered with a piece of glassine paper to prevent smudging or pin it to a board where you can look at it from time to time.

Here’s why this is a good exercise:

Making color studies is an excellent method of capturing the local color, the values, the large shapes in a small format.  It is also a great warm up exercise when you first come into your painting space or studio each day.  A study is also a way to learn through experimentation and risk.   Who knew all this?  Elizabeth Mowry.

….A study is exactly what the word implies:  a place for learning through experimentation and risk.  Taking the time to do small color studies helps to keep each idea about a place separate.  The larger paintings that result from such studies will retain their strength and freshness.’

Elizabeth Mowry from her book The Pastelists’ Year

Technology alert:  Use your photo program on your computer to enhance your photos.  Play with the color balance.  Copy your photo and make it black and white.  I use iPhoto and Aperture.  I also make notan and value studies for each painting in my notebook, referencing the number of my photo on my computer so I can access it quickly.  I also create a file on icloud so it’s accessible on my ipad.    Better still than working from photos — leave your studio or desk and venture outside.   Try working en pleinair at least once a week if the weather permits but take a camera with you too.

Happy painting.

Anne Maree Healey