How to paint landscapes - Nancie King Mertz
Nancie King Mertz, “Sun Spots,” oil, 46 x 40 in.

By Nancie King Mertz

In “Urban Pastel Painting,” I go from start (with my “tic-mark-map”) to the finished painting, talking about each step as a way to assist others in this rapid way to see, draw and paint. After the map is quickly established, I go right in with the darks. Pastel painting is approached just like oil painting, by getting the darks in first, keeping them transparent, layering on the mid-tones, and then hitting the surface with the lights as the final step. Many are not aware that pastels are the purest form of pigment — they simply ARE pure pigment in a stick form — the same pigments used in oil paints, but without the addition of oil.

Painting with pastels - Nancie King Mertz
Nancie King Mertz, “Light Commute,” pastel, 19 x 26 in.

Painting with Pastels

Once I’m satisfied with the placement of the darks, I lightly apply denatured alcohol with a sturdy #6 fan brush, loosely brushing the darks in the direction pertaining to the correct perspective. This allows the darks and the brushwork to do much of the work for me, as those strokes often remain in the finished piece. I hold off on mid-tones and lights until this step is complete and dry, to avoid a muddy or chalky look that can occur when darks and lighter values are combined in this early stage.

Painting with pastels - Nancie King Mertz
Nancie King Mertz, “Light on Lake Street,” pastel, 12 x 16 in., Plein air

Now that the dark pattern is set, I go in with the midtones to start the real development of the painting. Much of the refinement is done during this stage, and the lights are saved to the latter stage, when I can apply them heavily for the sparkles of light — again, much as one would approach a painting in oil.

Painting with pastels - Nancie King Mertz
Nancie King Mertz, “Beecher’s Cheese,” pastel, 9 x 9 in.

All my life — since childhood — I have been an oil painter, and many ask why I have become such a devotee of pastel. I find it is much easier to travel with, the plein air setup is quick, no time is spent mixing color when I’m ready to paint, and the colors never lose their brilliance, as oils can. There is a misconception about pastels — the word alone often leads people to think of soft and airy paintings with little substance — quite the contrary! They can be very bold with thick layers of pigment that sparkle in brilliance as the color is laid side-by-side with no sinking-in over time.

Painting with pastels - Nancie King Mertz
Nancie King Mertz, “Salute,” pastel, 8 x 10 in., Plein air

As with any medium, good results can only come with good materials. Using a sturdy sanded pastel paper that can withstand washes and heavy strokes, and good brand(s) of pastels can make all the difference in success and failure. Often my students will lament that they’re saving their good materials for “when they get good” and I reply that they “won’t get good until they use their good materials!” I prefer to paint on mounted UART #320-400 paper and have an Urban Set of 80 and an Atmospheric Landscape Set of 80 of Jack Richeson hand-rolled pastels in my name that I use together when plein air painting. In my studio I have more pastels than I could ever count of many different brands — Great American, Ludwig, Richeson, Sennelier, etc. I love them all!

Preview “Urban Pastel Painting” here:

About Nancie King Mertz: Pastel Society of America — Master, Chicago Pastel Painters — Master International Assoc. of Pastel Societies — Eminent Pastleist, BFA in Painting University of Illinois, MA in Painting, Eastern Illinois University, Member of OPA, AIS, Degas Pastel, Palette & Chisel. She teaches workshops across the US and in Europe, owns a gallery and frame shop in Chicago (est. 1979), has work on sets of all the Chicago-based TV shows, and is married to Ron, her college sweetheart. Stay tuned for Nancie’s upcoming PleinAir Art Podcast interview with Eric Rhoads!

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