Susan Hubble Pitcairn, pastel landscape painter
Susan Hubble Pitcairn with her pastels at the Arizona Snow Bowl.

As this Arizona artist creates plein air paintings with pastels, she remains mindful of three overriding principles that help her achieve better paintings.

Susan Hubble Pitcairn: Mindful of Three Principles of Art

“My approach to plein air painting is shaped by intuition and my belief that there are three broad principles that subsume all the techniques and teachings in art as well as in the journey of our lives,” says Susan Hubble Pitcairn.

“Those principles are unity, contrast, and harmony. Unity can be achieved in a number of ways, from toning panels to repeating elements and colors. Unity can also be achieved by considering the spiritual metaphors expressed by the subject itself, such as the wholeness of circles or the mystery of a disappearing path.

“Similarly, contrasts are the polarities of all opposites: hue, saturation, value, texture, direction, number, distance, and edges. Harmony is simply how we balance and orchestrate all those contrasts and how well we use drawing and composition to weave together the whole piece. If you think about it, these principles are deeply embedded in all life.”

Susan Hubble Pitcairn, "Journey," oil, 24 x 24 in.
Susan Hubble Pitcairn, “Journey,” oil, 24 x 24 in.

Pitcairn explains, “Every artist has his or her way of expressing those elements. My approach begins with focusing on subjects that I love, ones that take me to a deeper place. I see nature as a metaphor for the spiritual journey that is life. To help me become aware of that, I often write poetry to go with my paintings, usually after they are done, but sometimes on location.

“I am particularly attracted to bold contrasts of hue, value, and texture. Recently, I have been intrigued by the idea of combining broad, massive areas of abstraction with detail. That is my cutting edge, and I see it as a way of expressing the balance between the forms of life and the formless mystery behind it.”

Susan Hubble Pitcairn, "Morning Joy," pastel, 9 x 12 in.
Susan Hubble Pitcairn, “Morning Joy,” pastel, 9 x 12 in.

Pitcairn enjoys expressing herself in a variety of media, including pastels, oils, and acrylics. “I love versatility and experimentation, but if I could only ever use one medium the rest of my life, it might actually be acrylics,” she says. “For studio work, I typically use acrylics or oils because I love the painterly gesture and I also love to apply glazes.

“I am likely to use a lightweight pastel setup when painting outdoors because I find it easier to work quickly and decisively in an effort to capture the changing patterns of light and shadow.” When on location, Pitcairn spends about 40 minutes on her pastel paintings.

“I avoid spending so much time that I overthink what I am doing,” she says. “To me, the process is a dance between forms and the formless, with the abstract, formless areas becoming more important to me as time goes on.”

Susan Hubble Pitcairn, "Land of Awakening," oil, 18 x 19 in.
Susan Hubble Pitcairn, “Land of Awakening,” oil, 18 x 19 in.

Art Materials for Plein Air Painting

Discussing her preferred materials, she says, “I use black sanded paper (Art Spectrum, Sennelier La Carte, or even wet-dry sandpaper from the hardware store for 8 x 10 inches or less, e.g., 300-400 grit.), and my favorite pastels are included in the Sennelier Plein Air Landscape kit. I also like using pastel pencils for details and a Guerrilla Painter pastel box.”

For acrylics, the artist prefers Golden paints and mediums. When working with oils, Pitcairn normally uses Gamblin colors and a medium made using Ralph Mayer’s classic formula (equal parts stand oil and damar varnish, thinned with one to five parts mineral spirits).

“I always tone the canvas, often with warm siennas or ochres, and work thin-to-thick, lean-to-fat throughout the painting process, reserving thicker slabs of paint for the focal point,” says Pitcairn. “I like scumbling or scraping paint over the dry paint surface, and sometimes I allow the underpainting to be so thin that it leaves interesting drips that show through in places to contrast with thicker strokes.

“With oil or acrylic paints, I use glazes to unify masses within the composition or to push the distance away with blues or bring the foreground closer with warm tints. I use a small amount of color plus the medium. I use thinner glazes in the underlayers, and thicker glazes for the final finish.”

Although she has participated frequently in the Sedona Plein Air Festival and teaches at the Sedona Arts Center, Pitcairn notes that she is a bit of a homebody. “I love where I live and am not inclined to travel out of town to festivals and other art events.”

Susan Hubble Pitcairn, "Back at the Ranch," pastel, 12 x 12 in.
Susan Hubble Pitcairn, “Back at the Ranch,” pastel, 12 x 12 in.

Connect with the artist at

This article was originally published in Plein Air Magazine (February/March 2018)

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  1. For clarification: The picture caption says “at AZ Snowbowl” (outside Flagstaff) but the image is Cathedral Rock in Sedona.

    The black paper as a start is an interesting way to get immediate contrast in light filled desert high country.


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