How to Paint a Tree with Pastels

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In this pastel lesson , we’ll take a look at painting a landscape that features a prominent tree in the foreground. We’ll take a looser, more painterly approach to the painting, concentrating on the shapes of value and color that we observe instead of focusing on the details.

Materials for This Painting

For this lesson, we’ll use two different brands of pastels. (Keep in mind that soft pastels differ greatly from oil pastels. Although you can use oil pastels to create a similar image, the approach would be different.)

For broader areas and for more intense applications, softer Rembrandt pastels are used. For details and some refinements of color, the harder NuPastels are applied. In many circumstances, a combination of different forms of pastel are used to complete an image. This could be any combination of soft pastels, PanPastels, pastel pencils, or hard pastels (NuPastels).

Rembrandt Soft Pastels


Vine Charcoal

Canson Mi-Teintes Pastel Paper (Smooth side is used) Suggested Materials

Preparing the Reference Photo

Pastels are inherently a looser medium. Although they can be used with a great level of detail, they lend themselves to a painterly approach where details are implied instead of described completely. To help us recognize the shapes of tone and color and to eliminate some the details, we can use Photoshop to prepare the reference image for painting with pastels.

The reference image that we’re using for this lesson comes from, a free resource for images.

In Photoshop, we can use the Camera Raw filter to make the necessary adjustments. In this case, we’ll adjust the exposure, contrast, blacks and whites, and most importantly – the clarity. Here’s how to use the filter…

Open the image that you wish to edit in Photoshop.

Duplicate the “Background Layer” in order to preserve the original photo. (You may not like what the filter does and you’ll want to have the option to adjust the original image.)

Make sure that you are on the duplicated layer and select Filter > Camera Raw Filter from the top menu.

Use the sliders to make your adjustments and watch how the image changes as you make these adjustments.

By tuning the “clarity” option, we can tone down the details. This is especially helpful when creating a looser, more Impressionistic painting since we don’t want the details to impede us from recognizing the shapes of value and color.

If you don’t have Photoshop, or you don’t want to bother with these steps, you can always squint your eyes to remove some of the details.

See Also: Basic Photoshop for Artists (Course)

Here’s a look at the edited reference photo…

Step by Step Breakdown of the Process

We’ll begin on toned pastel paper with a stick of soft vine charcoal. An orange surface is chosen since it will contrast nicely with the blues of the sky. It will also help to create a warmer feeling to the piece, reflecting a summer day.

Using the vine charcoal, we’ll begin blocking in the darker shapes of value along with the main shapes of the tree and the bushes underneath. The horizon is also defined along with a few of the darker tones that exist there.

See Also: The Ultimate Guide to Drawing Trees

Painting the Sky

Once we have blocked in the composition with vine charcoal, we’re ready to begin adding pastel applications. Since we can layer pastel applications, we address the background (sky) first. We’ll then move on the middle ground and foreground, working mostly from areas further away to areas that are closer to the viewer.

We’ll add the blues for the sky with a combination of lighter blue and a medium blue. We usually have a natural tendency to apply blues that are lighter than they should be when addressing the sky. For this reason, we’ll make sure to use a blue that is slightly darker to ensure strong contrast between the blue sky and the lighter clouds. We can always go back and make the blues a little lighter if needed.

A much lighter blue is used for the shapes of the clouds, before adding a touch of gray for the subtle shadows. A very light yellow is applied for subtle highlights, before adding a darker gray to push a few of the shadows darker. We must not forget that clouds also have form, so we’ll need to develop both lighter and darker values to create this illusion.

The darker grays can be softened with an additional application of lighter gray to create a slight transition, while the highlights can be pushed lighter with a touch of white.

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