ILWACO — Artist Susan Mitchell says she took up pastel painting when her kids were little. There were no brushes to clean up, no messes to contend with. And as the kids grew, so did her love for working in this medium, so she stayed with it.
Mitchell is a recent transplant from Vancouver, where she taught at Clark Community College and also Portland Community. She lives in Long Beach now. “It’s good to be here,” she told several potential students at her live pastel painting demo May 7 at the Grays Harbor College Columbia Education Center in Ilwaco.
At the demo, her style of teaching was evident and she encouraged questions. Also, she said, “If you can’t see what I’m working on, please stand up and move to a spot where you can see better.”
On a straight up-and-down easel, she had a mid-range colored piece of pastel paper clipped. She had toned it because, she said, when working on white paper, “Every mark you make is going to look too dark, especially the greens.”
And for this demo, she started with Forest Green, to block in dark areas and shadows for a landscape painting she was doing from a photograph. She’d already done a thumbnail sketch of the scene. One onlooker asked if Mitchell works “from dark to light,” and the answer was a definite “yes.”
The paper she was working on was rough surfaced and offered a lot of “tooth” to hold the pastel colors. Demo-watchers could hear the faint scratching of each pastel stroke, as the color came in contact with the rough surface. Not only was that paper choice ideal for this medium, but could also offer a way out if an artist wasn’t happy with their final rendering.
Mitchell had a sort of fearless, yet casual way of applying color to this paper.
Her philosophy is, “In pastel, there’s nothing you do that you can’t change. When I get to the point that I’m completely finished, with this kind of paper if I don’t like my painting, I can take it to the sink and rinse it all off, let it dry and do it over and over again.”
Not all papers allow such reworking, she said, but stressed that this quality paper does.
As she worked on this landscape demo, she explained, “What I have are trees and their reflections coming in this direction,” she motioned with her hand, “and little floating plants coming in the opposite direction.”
Pastel, she said, is “a pressure sensitive medium, so when we’re using the soft colors or harder pastels, we can control what we’re getting with the amount of pressure we apply.”
Plans for the upcoming class
Mitchell’s four-week Pastel Painting and Drawing class begins at GHC May 21 at the Ilwaco campus. It will be held each Tuesday though June 18 from 1 to 4 pm. She said that, “At the start of each class, I’ll do a demo that will take about 20 minutes. I’ll show the students techniques they can use and I’ll answer questions.”
As far as subjects, she said, “A couple of times, I’ll bring in still life items and do a demo. I would hope that the students would follow that, because I think they’re going to learn something. “
But everything is flexible, she said, and if someone brings in a personal photo, that’s fine. Because classes are not generally overflowing at this campus, Mitchell will easily be able to walk around the room and “give everyone the help they need.”
She understands, too, that if someone is working from a favorite photo, especially one that they shot themselves, “It means something to you. And if you like it, you’re going to be a lot more into it, learn a lot and enjoy it more.”
An active hiker, Mitchell has always come back from her “outdoor adventures” with numerous photos, so she understands how much a picture can spark nostalgia.
Mitchell doesn’t believe in giving critiques in her classes. She is obviously an instructor who wants her students to just learn and enjoy the process. Throughout the demo, she repeated often that “things can be changed in a painting.” There are no hard rules.
Check her website for more information on her philosophies and see examples of her artwork. https://susanmitchell.com.