The Pastel Academy – The Importance of getting Composition RIGHT in our work

The Pastel Academy – The Importance of getting Composition RIGHT in our work

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The Pastel Academy – Update Spring 2018

Getting COMPOSITION/DESIGN Right!  How Important is it?

The main tools in an artists kit bag


And No I don’t mean our painting materials!

The painting at the head of the page is called ‘Heading For the Lake – Spring – Andalucia’.     It is a painting that could not have been done without my knowledge of Composition and how to bring together elements from my sketchbook, from some scenic photos and some addition sketches and photos of horses and people.    It was not simply a matter of waiting for that scene to happen in reality!  I would probaby have been waiting for ever!


Learning – whether online or in workshops is usually down to learning a technique or two in a specific subject;  usually within an hour or two.  But without the background knowledge of where those techniques fit into the big scheme of things  you have perhaps at best just learnt one trick. 
There is just no avoiding the fact that without a solid foundation in the construction of a painting, the tonal values and the advantages of understanding colour theory, success in you work is a  hit and miss affair.  The Core Foundation Subjects apply to all painting subjects and mediums.

So what is composition and why is it important?     Well put it this way, without it your painting can easily miss the target you have set for it.      Composition leads the viewer’s eye to see what we want them to see.  And how we want them to see it.  What composition does is puts you in control of the message you are wishing to give in your work.    Even for a portrait,  there are ways to keep your viewer engaged in the area you want them to.

Knowing how to compose a painting puts the artist in charge of how to make the best of the elements and how to NOT make simple compositional errors which detract from the work and often ruin it.

In short it is a massive tool in the artists tool box.  It is vitally important to good landscape and portrait work and equally so for those in still life subjects, and florals which heavily depend on how to compost the subjects.


It is a Lightbulb moment for many artists


Composition in drawing and painting are a little like learning the grammer when learning how to write.  Just stringing words together won’t work.  You need to know how to construct a sentence and how to use punctuation, as well as have a good vocabulary.    Without an understanding of how to use the basics in art, you are just stringing together an ad hoc list of techniques.   More than that:  you are missing some major tricks.    

Taking all that into account, I was very slow to learn.   I knew what I wanted to know, but art college was not an option for me, so I had no guidance, or means of learning other than books which can only give you information; not guide you how to apply it.   So I learnt the long hard way, experience.  I had to.

Why?   Because I was a portrait painter and using a lot of really poor photographs!   Often tonally very poor and often very old photos:  snapshots of often deceased family members, that customers wanted turning into portraits.  So I would try to compensate for the poor photos by being as creative as I could, and this wasn’t nearly enough to compensate for my lack of knowledge.

Does that ring a bell with anyone?

Soft Pastel ‘Old Andalucia’  14 x 19 inches

Greyscale version of ‘Old Andalucia’ (colour removed)

Heather if you had to choose;   Which are the two most important ‘Core Foundation subjects’:


To complete a good original painting depends on two in particular: 

Tonal Values – how the painting is designed tonally – light and dark .

Composition – how it is designed.    

Without those two elements in particular, the painting will suffer.    Colour theory is very important, but a painting can have average colour and still work to a degree.    Drawing and perspective are massively important and both are on the Academy curiculum,  but good pieces can be achieved using gridding to transfer an image initially.  It is not  ideal but it can keep artists working while they improve their drawing knowledge over time.  But the two major guns in the armoury are Tonal values and Composition; without either one of which,  a painting will be substantially weakened and much less than it could be, or fail totally.

Failed paintings are frustrating (and expensive) and even moreso if you have no idea WHY it has failed   I’m sure that rings a bell with many of you.    But you can more or less guarantee that a high proportion of the major critical faults I see in work which has been otherwise beautifullly rendered, are faults in values and composition.     You can avoid that happening – easily.

Tonal Values  Many artists work in black and white mediums – graphite, ink, charcoal (all covered in the Academy).  Work in these mediums depends on a good arrangement of values; light, mid tones and dark tones.   The difficulty is in seeing poor tonal values when colour comes into the mix.   Which is why in the academy I use a method of teaching members how to assess their own work for tonal values issues. One thing to always look for;  your painting should work equally as well in it’s greyscale version (with the colour removed) as it does in colour.   Does yours?   (Check out the two images above)

Composition – Good design in a painting, no matter what the medium you use (it is the same for all mediums)  is something which is simple enough to learn.  It is always good to have guidance when applying the theory into practice though, as Academy members constantly tell me.      But it isn’t difficult and there is a logic behind it:

What to include and what not to include in a painting is a major issue.

What simple traps which are often found in snapshots, do we need to ignore when we use them as references for paintings is another issue.

How to keep the viewers eye on the most important part of your painting is massively important.

How to recognise when there are perspective and distortion issues in photos of humans and pets is one that crops up regularly on work I see on my Pastel Facebook sites.

What to do with paintings which are ‘just not right’ often need to be re-designed,  which is something the Academy members are going to be doing next month.    It is going to be interesting!

The Challenge I gave to the readers of a UK Artists magazine was to assess the original photograph and produce a painting after having decided  whether it could be improved compositionally.

I wanted to encourage the readers of the magazine this exercise was in, to question the photograph?  Could it be improved?

‘I use photographs to complete my portraits – why do I need to know about Composition?’



My first landscape was pretty Dire.  I copied it from a photograph.     But what was on the photo,   went into my painting.  No question; if the lamp  post was on that photo, I added it, if it needed it or not.   If the tree was too big, it never occurred to me to make is slightly smaller.   If a house was not facing the right direction, I didn’t realise I could move it around.    If a horizon was too low, I never thought of raising it a little.       But I wasn’t happy with the results.   No amount of technique in pastel was helping me out here!
And I learned along the way that the stuff I didn’t know in landscape, was the stuff I didn’t know in portraiture either!    And as a portrait artist, I wanted to do the best for my clients.  
Photographs are a blessing and a curse to artists in equal measure. They are a blessing because without them many artists would have no reference material to work from; but they are a curse because so many fall into the trap of just copying them, warts and all!  There are also some artists who strongly believe that a photo is an accurate record and so you cannot ‘move’ any of the elements to make a better composition.
Wrong – you can and you should . You are an artist – not a photocopyer.
The worst of it is without a good knowledge of Composition you can easily be copying massive mistakes in composition made by the photographer.

Can you Turn an Average Photo into a Good Painting?


But did you know you might have a load of you own ORIGINAL source reference material in all of those old photos which you are hoarding?  Once you understand what composition knowledge will do for you,  you will see those photos with different eyes.
How many of us have masses of old photos that we have taken on holidays and days out which are disappointing and never seem to capture the moment?   With a limited amount of compositional knowledge – (plus an understanding of Tonal Values) it is amazing what you can do with those old photographs! In fact one of my favourite classes in workshops over the years was the photo editing day. Students would bring a selection of their photos (many which they had thought impossible to use) and managed to design new paintings by cropping and editing, and often re-formatting.
Not only that, with compositional knowledge they are able to take elements from different photos into one painting!

Changing the portrait image into a landscape one, opened out the focal point and gave it more ‘importance’.   Some detail was omitted from the focal point (the bridge).  I then decided to turn it into a sunset scene for added drama and to support the focal point even more. The painting now has more depth and perspective.

(I cant tell you what happened next because the Academy members are doing this exercise soon! )


Composition is a Win Win!

I like being in charge of my work.  I enjoy having choices, and having had my eyes opened to what was possible, for me, it was the road to development or nothing.   Being in charge of my choices is true artistic freedom.      Some years down the tuition line, I learnt from my students too.   Now I always start a new artist off in simple landscape and with the core principles of painting.    I go on to teach them portraiture too. Anyone with the slightest training in art will see when a painting has just been copied from a photo; warts and all.   It is often heart breaking to see such great use in techniques of a medium like pastel which is not the easiest to master, but some or all of the basic fundamental principles of painting have not been understood by the artist.    It is a shame;  I cannot stand to see talent wasting itself.

Knowledge is power – not least of all for artists.

It makes my day when an artist joins the Academy and states up front; 

‘ I havent had any trainging.  I want to know the stuff I dont know about good paintings’

That is music to my ears. That means I have a new member who wants to really improve and grow as an artist.   For other members joining the Academy was indeed a lighbulb moment when they looked around and realised that what they didn’t know was massively important.  They saw the work of those going through Tonal Values and Colour Theory and they wanted to produce work like that. It took me a few years to learn how to ‘use’ photography (and to take better photographs) to the greater benefit of my work.  It was vital that I did learn and it is equally as vital to you if you wish to take your art seriously.

And I know that many of you do. The Pastel Academy Online is a resource for all artists who have gaping holes in their knowledge.   (Yes people join to learn the basics because it applies to all mediums).      The structured exercises in the Training area address all the issues that would trip us up.


The Pastel Academy Online


In late April we start our Composition Module.    The current members are looking forward to it and it is an ideal time to join – as the module begins.     So click here to check out how to join the Academy.     Meanwhile please do leave me a comment, and answer this one question;   Did this blog resonate with you?     Have you found that just copying to produce a portrait can often be frustrating because knowing how to compose it properly FROM the photo eludes you?    Have you got files full of old photos and new, taken at some point which you hoped to turn into a good painting? In the new Composition module I am asking members to post a few of those, then we discuss the options and learn.   Join us!

Oh and if you want to know what happened next with the Windermere exercise, remind me in the comments below.    XXH Happy Painting!

The Pastel Academy -It’s Greatest Responsibility

The Pastel Academy -It’s Greatest Responsibility

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The Pastel Academy –

Its Greatest Responsibility


I received two emails in the last few weeks (one from the UK and one from Capetown , South Africa)  which touched  on the same subject;

Is the Academy for someone who uses photographs for their work (in portraiture)?  

The thing is I can understand the question.  Why? Because how many art courses in a college or university can you name that works from photos?  The Royal Academy sure didn’t last time I looked.

So let me explain something now:    

The Pastel Academy is specifically for those who use photography for whatever reason, first and foremost!

But – But I wish I knew then what I know now!

Let me tell you why:

As an artist I ‘use’ photography.  Over the years as a portrait painter, much of the work being posthumous,  photography was crucial to my earning a living.  It was also crucial to my growth and development as an artist.     Another part of my portrait work was for various PR and recording companies in the UK and USA , and my subjects were famous to say the least (as were many of my personal portrait clients).   Musicians, actors, comedians, TV personalities – I painted very many.      Photography was crucial; and some of it was old creased , tiny black and white shots, of treasured loved ones departed.   Others were amazing publicity shots of major stars. The difference between chalk and cheese in quality.    I was in at the deep end with photography.

I did realise early on that the results I got from good photos were better than that the results I got from poor photos.     I eventually learned how to produce equally good work from poor and good photography.

So how did I handle it?   How did I manage to produce consistent results, that have always pleased my clients?

The light bulb moment – I was asked to teach


Well with hindsight I know when the turning point came in my art career – and it stepped up many notches in one leap.     I was approached to teach local educational authority classes.   But not in portraiture – in landscape.   The reasoning was simple they told me; it is easier to learn for beginners.        Well in fact that is perhaps true, but my experience in landscape was not as strong as in portraiture for sure.   So I was determined to get down to business and learn.    That was back in 1988.   Today I thank heavens for that moment.

It is learning about how to paint landscape that boosted my portraiture work to another level altogether.   And what I didn’t expect as a respected and passionate portrait painter was to find I was not only enjoying it, I was getting my eyes opened to a lot of things for the first time.    The world of nature, and the miracle of ‘light’.

It was some time afterwards I was able to look back and say – I was developing my Artist’s Eye.

Now why is that?  How does that work?   Well like I said at the time I didn’t even realise or even question it.  But I knew I was on a ‘journey’.

Portraiture can lead you along a very narrow path – it’s amazing the stuff it doesn’t teach you.


When you, as an artist, look at a photo of a face you are not usually faced with issues like tonal values,  colour theory, and perspective; especially if you don’t know, what they mean, or could mean, to that photo you are holding in your hand.  Some would say composition is not normally an issue either.    When producing a portrait, the photo tends to dictate the rules.   The photo is where the details come from too.  And you need a photo that is good enough to see those details.   And of course not too many artists do what I did and take life classes and work from the live model too.     For one thing, live classes are not often available outside the major cities.

Did I realise this as a portrait painter?   Not at first no.

However, there did come a time when I wished I could alter this or that about the photo;  extend this or change the colour of some things, and I would experiment.  The results were sometimes good and sometimes not so good!

Why is this so Important to ……..

This?    The lessons of Tonal Values are crucial.

And lets not forget drawing


And also let us address the elephant in the room right now – many portraits are now traced in some form or another and you don’t get to learn to draw well by tracing.   It is a convenient tool though for many to get on with the stuff many artists ‘think’ are more important – techniques.

For some time I thought ‘techniques’ were what it was all about.   Why?  Because they made my work look sleeker?   Something along those lines?  They made it look ‘professional’?   So  I studied various artists (Great masters) techniques,  but  I never did ‘ trace’ in any form,  so my drawing was always on point when needed.      I had been drawing since early childhood.  And when I started in portraiture my work was fairly large!   (Tracing paper didn’t come in those sizes I’m sure back in the 60’s!)        Drawing was something I loved, and still do, which is why I love pastel more than any other medium.

In fact, the first portrait I ever did was taken straight from a TV screen in the 60’s.   There were no videos back then and I had no way of ever knowing if I would ever see the face again in photos (which I eventually did – he became very famous).   A quick impression from the TV screen was my beginning. (I am currently writing about this for a book).

My first landscape – Oh Dear.


It was OK.   Just.  I copied it from a photograph.     But what was on the photo,   went into my painting.  No question; if the lamp     post was on that photo, I added it, if I needed it or not.      It wasn’t long before I saw a couple of other problems.        Where as my portraiture was full of life, my landscapes were dull and ‘dead’.     I wasn’t happy.   No amount of technique in pastel was helping me out here!

I was going to be teaching landscape, and I had to learn and quickly.   I was largely house bound with a young family and I turned to the Great Masters,  and studied.   I had a lot of books.   Those I didn’t have I got from the library.   I eventually took a History of Art, G.C.E.  ‘A’ level at my local college and I learnt.  To be honest I enjoyed it because of my practical experience to that date, it was a bit like joining the missing dots in my knowledge and understanding.

And I learned along the way that the stuff I didn’t know in landscape, was the stuff I didn’t know in portraiture either! 

Wow that was a big learning moment.     And then I learnt that artists I admired all seemed to know and/ or were taught (and that is the biggie) how to plan their work.

How to Plan my Work?    Really?


So it came down to two choices; continue to copy photos and paint portraits, or to learn what artists are taught and have been taught in apprentice programmes throughout the ages, the core principles of painting:    composition, tonal values, colour theory and perspective (the main ones).

One way or another, having had my eyes opened to what was possible, I could never go back.  It was the road to development or nothing.

Some years down the tuition line, I learnt from my students too.    Now I always start a new artist off in simple landscape and with the core principles of painting.    I have taught them portraiture too.     When the public attend an exhibition of my students’ work they see a whole different type of show to that of many local society or even national society shows in the UK.      Anyone with the slightest training in art will see when a painting has just been copied from a photo; warts and all.   It is often heart breaking to see such great use in techniques of a medium like pastel, but some or all of the basic fundamental principles of painting have not been understood by the artist.

Yes, I have been known to approach the artist and ask them to consider coming on one of my courses.    And many have and thanked me for it.     But I cannot stand to see talent wasting itself.

Do you know the value of one of these?

And why is this so Important?

My mission in the Academy

My mission is to do what I wanted someone to do for me back when I was a slave to photography.    I wanted someone to:

Show me how to do it better; do it properly; not waste time.

Teach me how to ‘use’ the photo, but make massive improvements to the portrait.

Teach me about composition in landscape and portraiture.

Teach me how to bring life into my paintings.

Teach me about colour, and how to design my paintings around a colour theme.

Teach me what I need to know to produce great backgrounds to my portraits.

Teach me how to understand simple perspective – to put people in my landscapes and get my roof lines right.

Teach me how to work outside in a meadow full of wild flowers, and produce something great.

Teach me everything and show me how to be good enough to teach others.

But above all how to ‘conquer’ photography, and make it work better for me.  Because so many artists reading this right now are also at home or struggling to fit art into their busy lives and need what I needed back then.  And many are women bringing up young  families just like I was back then.

(By the way how many more things can you add to that list?)

On to the Big Plan

It took me many years to learn how to ‘use’ photography to the greater benefit of my work.  It was vital that I did learn and it is equally as vital to you if you wish to take your art seriously.    And I know that many of you do.    What I have learned I will pass on to you because my mission is to make sure that the future of pastel goes forward in a healthier state and with a great deal more respect than when I started in the medium as a teenager.   And now I have the ideal vehicle to do it:

Which is of course – The Pastel Academy Online.

It has been a mission for me.    But make no mistake it is worthwhile because there is nothing else online, quite like it in ANY medium, let alone pastel.   And I can tell you now that I have had enquiries from artists in other mediums , and artists who have never even used pastel, who are interested in joining the Academy so as to be able to access the Core training in the Basic fundamental principles of painting.

In the next blog I send out at the end  of the month, I shall outline in more detail how the Academy works and its pricing structure.   So watch out for the next blog!

Meanwhile please do leave me a comment, and answer this one question;   Did this blog resonate with you?  In other words, do you see yourself in the story about my artistic growth?

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The Academy is Finally Becoming a Reality!


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is finally becoming a Reality!

Building the Academy


Twelve months ago the journey began, fueled by the knowledge that I needed a working tool to be able to reach out and teach all of you who want to learn, improve and advance in your artistic careers; in the belief that the end result has to be good for you, and equally as important for me; for the furtherance of the pastel medium.    To me it always seemed a little futile in giving over my life’s creativity to learning and specialising in a fabulous medium like pastel – if not to find some way to pass that knowledge and passion on to others.

It has been an exciting, if a demanding dream – but now the months of planning and building are beginning to pay off.  I have had little time to paint, but that was a necessary sacrifice in the short term. It certainly has been and remains a concentrated period of creativity in another way.

And without doubt I have been spurred on by your messages of encouragement.   Thank you so much to those of you who have written to me and also those who have replied in the comments sections of my blogs.  I was also pretty knocked out by how many of you took part in the survey earlier this year – your input was very important.


So the first task is to test the technical workings of the Membership site.   The role of Beta Testers

So now on to the serious subject of Beta Testers.  What are Beta Testers?  Well not only will they be the first members to enter the Academy (!), they will also be the first to test the Membership Site functions.

Possibly one of the main attractions of becoming an Academy Beta member, is the fact that as the earliest members, your feedback could actually shape the features of the Academy, by giving your input honestly and with an appreciation of the mission of the Academy in mind.  To be in on the birth of something like the Academy can be exciting and productive!   And I will be in there testing it all too, so for me it is also a chance to get to know my first members who are helping me to polish the site.

Beta Testers are in fact Charter Members: first members of the Academy, there will be a special enrolment price for you..  You will be offered the membership level of your choice with a large discount off (either the Silver or Gold Membership – Platinum membership opens later in 2017) – and that fee will stay the same for the duration of your membership!   The beta prices will be forwarded to you in an email in a few days.

So what do the Beta Testers Actually do?

Well they join the Academy prior to the Launch and they make themselves familiar with all the pages and resources.  They are of course also the first to test out the payment structure.  That really is an important test.   If there are any problems the Beta Testers will find them.

What Else do they do?

They test all the links between pages – check out that all the buttons take them to the place they should do.  They check all videos and resources.   They should run up a ‘snag’ list.     It is amazing how many little glitches or issues I might not be able to ‘see’;  which is natural considering how close I am to the site, so your fresh eyes will be valuable.

But equally as important – and this is the fun bit – you get to start the Community Forums.    With me.  The Forums are an awesome feature!

Heather tutoring a Colour Theory class.

Heather’s Masterclass Demonstration for Pastel D’Opale,  France 2014.


Oh yes and they are awesome!

There are a few Forums in the Academy but first of all let me explain why I have chosen Academy Forums over a Facebook page for instance.    As a friend of mine recently experienced, Facebook can at any time change their rules or even worse (as happened to her) they can close groups down, with no warning and even less reason.     And then of course there is the simple fact that a properly set up Forum is far better than a Facebook group, and private from the public gaze.

So the Academy Community is an important part of the academy experience.   There are many sub forums which make up the whole community experience, including:

  • A beginners Forum: beginners and improvers in their drawing skills/ and or pastel, where those just starting out and maybe a little less confident can make friends with others in the same position.
  • ‘Say Hello to the other Members’ so that you can be part of the Academy from Day One.
  • A General Discussion Forum.
  • A Core Training Forum; covering all the major elements of good paintings:  Colour Theory, Tonal Values, Perspective, Composition.
  • An ‘Ask for Feedback’ from the group Forum.
  • And more forums will be added as needed.

In addition, you will each have your own totally customisable Profile page where you can add all your weblinks and social media info.

So to be the first to populate the Community Forums is a great thing – and the Beta members will be doing that.

So What Am Looking for in a Beta Member? 


Now this is interesting.

I need Beta Members who are both familiar with computers and some who are not particularly computer savvy.  In fact, I estimate a good percentage of people I am writing to right now – might not be computer savvy.  You are equally as valuable to the Academy as Beta Members.

So if you want to be in the Academy at ground level, and would like to be a Charter Member of the Academy – this is your chance.

I am also looking for beta members who take the aims of the Academy seriously and respect the job it is being designed to do.  And from these Beta members there might also be some Academy ‘positions’ which develop – eg Forum moderators, customer service. etc

So How Do You Become a Beta Tester/Member?

I am looking for no more than 15 Beta members.   So this really is a ofgne and only time opportunity.

So if you are interested in being a Beta member simply send  me an email to  (or click reply on the newsletter that provided you with this blog link).     In return I will send you a mail with beta enrolment information and more information about the beta tasks.

It is estimated that the Beta Group might be invited to join in late November/early December 2016

More news soon.

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