Working from a photograph

Medium: Oil pastels
Support: Daler Rowney pastel paper – 160g/m²/98Ilbs
Colours: white, grey, violet, Van Dyke brown, rose wood, cyan, carmine, red, light-orange, golden ochre, cobalt blue, green, sea green
Materials: ‘Q’ tips, cocktail sticks, white spirit
Size: 28cm x 28cm (11” x 11”)


The brief was to work from a landscape photo with plenty of space and either tall trees in the middle ground or hills or mountains in the background.

For the exercise I used a photo of Suilven, a mountain in Lochinver, Sutherland. This was a photo taken many years ago and one which I found again only recently. Before finding the photo I had attempted to recreate the view from memory for a previous exercise.

Suilven, Sutherland

Suilven, Sutherland

At 2, 398 ft (731m) Suilven is just short of a Munro in terms of height but, rising as it does from a flatter surrounding landscape, it assumes a sense of dominance beyond its actual size.

Tonal study

Tonal study

For this exercise I was aiming to capture the sense of a brooding, almost watchful presence and also to explore the range of textures and the quality of the light. The photo was taken on a dull day with the cloud low on the mountain but one thing that I remember from time spent in Sutherland is the quality of the light, particularly towards sunset on a summer’s day when there can be a red glow that almost seems to seep into the landscape. I wanted to try and capture some sense of this.

Colour study

Colour study of Suilven

Colour study of Suilven

To capture the different textures I decided to try using oil pastels – a medium I have used before but not for a long time. In my sketch book I tried out a number of techniques including a scraperboard technique and mixing colours on the paper using white spirit. [1]

I debated changing the dimensions of the picture and using a wider, rectangular format but in the end I felt that the composition worked as it was with the vertical and branches of the Scots pine on the left leading the eye towards the mountain to the right of centre.

This was less a definitive colour study and more a means of practicing with the oil pastels. As I was wanting to have a warm quality for the light I used a pale ochre pastel paper as a background.

I began by blocking in the tonal values, layering colours over one another and mixing on the paper with white spirit. This worked to the extent that I blocked in the main areas but, as I added other layers I found the white spirit taking the colour right out and going back to the paper. Not necessarily an issue but something to watch out for. I decided to build up another layer in a similar way and then apply the pastel more thickly. This allowed me to scrape through using a cocktail stick to create a variety of textures.

Initial session

Initial blocking in of colours

Initial blocking in of colours

I began by working on the sky adding cross-hatched layers of red, cobalt blue and white before blending with white spirit. I was aiming for a dramatic sky with purple clouds above fading through to warmer ochres and reds. The result was a bit heavy-handed but I decided to continue to block in the main areas.

My intention with Suilven was to apply warmer colours to begin with before adding cooler blues and white so that I could scrape through to the warm colours and create a sense of light hitting the rock face.

I then, very roughly, blocked in the foothills using layers of violet and cobalt blue which were, again, blended with white spirit.

Using red and cobalt blue I created the darker tones on the tree with highlights created with golden ochre and white.


Development of sky and garden

Development of sky and garden

The sky definitely wasn’t working as I would have liked so, using some white spirit, I removed some of the darker tones and tried to blend the two areas more. I added a layer of cobalt blue and white to Suilven, blending with my fingers.

I did a little more work on the foothills, separating those more in the foreground by adding cobalt blue.

In the foreground using green, cobalt blue, red, golden ochre and white I began to develop the tonal values for the foliage at the edge of the garden. Again this was blended with white spirit though in some areas I allowed the pale ochre paper to show through.

Further development – sky and foreground

Development of sky and foreground

Development of sky and foreground

I did some more work on the sky removing some of the darker purple with white spirit and blending layers of carmine and white to try and lighten it a little.

In the mid-ground, using red, cobalt blue and white I dragged oil pastels across the surface to create more of a sense of light and shade and to add texture to the areas of hillside.

In the foreground I started to work on the areas of rock and the small rockery. For these areas I used a number of techniques including blending with white spirit, rubbing areas with my fingers and layering colours before scraping through to lower layers using a cocktail stick.

For the foliage I varied the scraping technique, sometimes using a cross-hatching motion and at other times more of a scumbling action.

Final session

Final painting based on photograph

Final painting based on photograph

For the final session I worked on the skyagain as I felt there was a bit of an imbalance between the warmer and cooler colours. I softened the colours to create more of a balance.

I darkened the tree on the far left and balanced this by adding more shadow to the foliage on the extreme right of the picture. I also added more shadows to the grass by dragging cobalt blue and red across it to create a sense of the rise and fall of the ground. I used both these colours to highlight the textures in the rockery and area of rock to the right.

Detail of Suilven using oil pastels

Detail of Suilven using oil pastels

Finally, I wanted to create a sense of light falling on the face of Suilven so scraped through to previous layers using the cocktail stick before adding short strokes of red and light orange.

Learning points

I enjoyed this exercise though I’m not sure if I’ve managed to capture the light in quite the way that I would have liked to. Having said that I was using oil pastels, a medium that I have limited experience of, and it was as much an exercise in getting familiar with them as anything else.

  • I like the range of effects that can be achieved with the oil pastels, from scraping through to create defined areas to looser, more painterly effects that are closer to watercolour.
  • I had no real approach with this beyond a bit of reading and trying out ideas with the colour study. More research and practice required to really explore the potential of oil pastels.
  • I got a bit side-tracked with the sky and had to make several changes. With hindsight I have, perhaps, swung too far from my original dramatic sky and toned it down too much.


[1]  Smith, R. (1987) The Artist’s Handbook: the complete, practical guide to the tools, techniques and materials of painting, drawing and printmaking. London: Dorling Kindersley


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