pastel impressionism painting of boats
Maria Marino, "Morning at Back Creek — Eastport," 2018, pastel, 12 x 24 in., Private collection, Plein air

Pastel Impressionism > This Maryland artist finds that the color sense and paint application that define Impressionism perfectly suit her approach to working with pastels.

Broken Color

It’s fair to say Maria Marino draws inspiration from the Impressionists. But these days, the term is used loosely enough to apply to almost all representational painters. Why? Because there seem to be two components — or at least two views — of Impressionism: a philosophical approach and a technical approach. The Impressionists were interested in using (often broken) color to suggest the feeling or experience of a scene — the artist’s impression of a place. To do so, Claude Monet famously laid down different colors adjacent to one another to allow them to mix optically in the viewer’s mind. For Marino, if such technical aspects of French Impressionism are not present, then the simple pursuit of depicting feeling and atmosphere is not enough to make something impressionistic.

If these seem to you like fine lines dividing painting styles, then you’ll understand Marino’s tendency to keep her views to herself. She is not interested in arguing, or deciding who’s right and who’s wrong. She is interested in painting the rich beauty of the world. “When I see a landscape, I taste color and I see colors that other people don’t see,” says Marino. “It’s gorgeous, and I want to get it down on paper.”

Maria Marino, "San Felipe de Neri Fundada," 2017, pastel, 9 x 12 in., private collection, plein air
Maria Marino, “San Felipe de Neri Fundada,” 2017, pastel, 9 x 12 in., private collection, plein air

Pastel Process

It’s perhaps no surprise that the Impressionists’ use of broken color appeals to a pastelist like Marino. While the French Impressionists laid down oil colors next to one another with a brush, pastel artists use sticks of nearly pure pigment to draw and paint on textured paper. Rather than mix paint on a palette and then apply the mixture to the working surface (which can dull or muddy a pastel painting), many pastelists use adjacent colors to blend hues; it’s the nature of the beast.

“It’s the way the light is captured in a painting, in a more fractured manner, that appeals to me as Impressionism,” Marino says. “I go to the old guys in the Impressionist movement. That’s who I like and that’s who moves me.” But don’t make the mistake of believing Marino is thinking solely of the French Impressionists. “The Russians paint more in the impressionist manner than others,” she asserts. “It’s how they mix color optically, with fresh brushstrokes — with no fear, no hesitation. In pastel you can’t premix color; you have to optically mix them. It’s all about value and how intense that one color is against the other colors. It’s all about adjacencies.”

Marino says she does not take many workshops, and instead uses past masters as her education. “I look forward to going to museums and looking at stacks of work by the Impressionists,” she says. “The big auction houses are a great resource, too; I can get a close-up view of paintings and see how the artists put paint on the canvas, how they optically mixed color. They are my teachers.”

Marino doesn’t merely apply colors side by side when building up a painting, however. She employs several techniques, and her choice of pastels allows that variety. In tandem with Terry Ludwig pastels, which are relatively creamy textured pastels, she uses Diane Townsend Terrages pastels, which have ground pumice mixed with the pigment, making them gritty. These pastels create more tooth on the surface even as they add color. She mixes in Sennelier pastels along with these throughout the process, adding finishing touches with the much harder Henri Roche pastels. “It’s like weaving,” she says.

Maria Marino, "Eos," 2016, pastel, 12 x 24 in., private collection, studio
Maria Marino, “Eos,” 2016, pastel, 12 x 24 in., private collection, studio

Finding Inspiration

Two themes that continually pop up in Marino’s work are coastal and marine scenes. The atmosphere is fairly thick and humid in Maryland, so soft edges in the distance — in particular, the horizon line — are crucial to the execution of Marino’s paintings. The Terrages-Ludwig duo works well for this element. “It’s flat where I often paint — Annapolis and Tilghman Island, where my brother lives — so the water and land meet and form spectacular colors that blend into the ocean,” says the pastelist.

“The Terrages pastels are rounded and have a nice distribution of pigment. They go right into the surface. Then, when the softer Ludwigs are woven over this color, I can capture the aerial quality of the horizon. The sticks can be limiting in some ways, but they have a beautiful distribution of pigment that I don’t get in oil. I call them my magic sticks. You can lay color down with different brands and create beautiful tactile surfaces with highs and lows. That’s what’s great about pastels. Still, your support can only take so much pigment, so you have to be careful … but you also have to be daring and just do it. I really grind the sticks into the surface. They start to fuse and create new colors.”

Broken color can mean a disjointed painting, if not done right. Including quieter passages in a pastel can allow the viewer’s eye to rest, thus giving strength to the busier spots on the surface. “It’s all in how you maneuver the stick,” Marino says. “You don’t want it too busy all over the place.” The solution is to scumble. “I will take the side of a stick in a more neutral color and scrape over a few places. By taking softer Ludwig rectilinear sticks and using the edge to scumble over areas, I can knock some of the busyness down. The minor areas of interest, the restful spots, help the major focal point stand out.”

Although Marino finds plenty of inspiration around her home in Maryland, she’s also keen on travel. “You need to go somewhere and experience a different land to get the gears moving again,” she asserts. “When I’ve been in a rut, I feel like it’s time to go. Travel helps rekindle the feelings of why I paint, of why I get up in the morning and want to do this. There’s nothing like going to a place with people who are both the same and different from you, and encountering a different landscape. That uneasiness wakes you up and gets you going, and maybe it allows you to come home and see something in a different light.”

pastel impressionism painting of a garden
Maria Marino, “Late Afternoon in the Garden,” 2018, pastel, 12 x 16 in., Private collection, Plein air

The Business of Business

Many artists are reluctant to talk about the marketing and sales of their work and how the marketplace influences their approach. The dirty fact is that a working artist needs to sell. The overlooked truth is that one can be an honest, virtuous artist and still pay attention to the wants of galleries and collectors. Marino embraces the traditional view that galleries and artists are partners with a common goal: to sell art.

“I like hearing from my galleries,” Marino says. “I ask the gallerists questions about why people buy my pieces. I ask what the collectors said about the work. Why did they plop down that kind of money for a pastel? It’s helpful in terms of future work, but it’s also just good to hear positive feedback, because all too often artists get kicked in the teeth.

“Also, the galleries know their market. One important lesson I’ve learned from my galleries is that good framing is essential. Certain shows I have been in were focused on every piece having good frames, and a couple of other, similar experiences made me pay more attention to the quality of framing. Framing is what finishes the baby and shows the baby off.”

Pastel impressionism artist Maria Marino
Maria Marino, shown here painting on location at Paint It! Ellicott City in Maryland, finds inspiration in a variety of subjects.

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