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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?


  1. Patsy R Muir Ray

    Actually, all you have addressed here resonates with me. I also started out doing portraiture, and whereas I find some landscapes somewhat easy, I avoid painting many, because they seem too difficult or don’t have enough interest or color in them, and I have little to no idea of how to manipulate the photo to create a beautiful painting. Also, I find certain bright cloudy sunsets very hard. Clouds are hard! How can clouds be harder than human portraits? Could it be because I am a perfectionist as well as a realist? Anyway, the longer I paint the more I become aware of how much I do not know.

    • Heather

      Trust me Patsy – there will come a time when you DO feel in control of the process, and you will be able to look at an ordinary dull photo and produce something beautiful from it. It takes a little time but it is a great journey too. It actually opens you eyes to the beauty of the world in a way that you never saw it before.

      It is high on the Academy curriculum.

    • Denise Grossman

      This article was so on point in terms of it resonating with me! I am a self taught artist primarily. I discovered art after my retirement during the pandemic. I am so looking forward to joining the Pastel Academy. To finally get a clear and grounded foundation on the basics such as perspective to improve my drawing skills. So that I feel confident in painting my portrait, landscape and structures. I have enrolled in a plethera of courses online and in person. I feel that my drawing has improved however, there are remains gaps in my foundation. I realize that my composition skills could also use some work as well. I look forward to enrolling in your classes. I tried to enroll online on a monthly basis, however I was not able to. Wishing you a great exhibition in China!!
      Thank you so much for your generosity,

      • Heather

        Hi Denise,

        Thank you for your comment. The Academy is currently closed pending updates and in the main owing to my health issues this past year.

        I shall be sending out emails when the Academy restarts


        Heather Harman

  2. Les Stead

    I am colour blind in reds and greens, which is really confusing at times. Sometimes when I have tried to ‘do my own thing’ I get asked ‘Why did you put that green there?’ My answer would be, ‘Well it looks alright to me’
    Is there any advice you have to give which may help me in my colour confusion

    • Heather

      Les, I have taught people who are red green colour blind and it isnt easy but it is doable. It demands a little more planning but it is usually successsful.

  3. Bryan

    Hi Heather, I have already learnt that if you just copy a photo ,you might just as well keep the photo and not bother, the trick is to pick out the bits you want and modify tone and colour to make it better,easier said than done. I love pastels and enjoy using them,looking forward to more from the pastel academy

    • Heather

      Well said Bryan. I have always felt the same. I have needed photography but I resented the restrictions they put on me even at the beginning. What I dont totally understand is the passion to paint photo realistic paintings. It must be the challenge I suppose. But I feel also that you might as well just frame the photo. But when learning the mindset is different. Learners need guidelines and of course photos provide that.

  4. Jim Humphreys

    Hello Heather, how true your comments are. I did not start painting in earnest until I retired, although I did dabble previously. As most people are led to do, I started with watercolour with a modicum of success, then progressed to oils, and a bit of pastel, and a bit of this and that!! Most of my tutoring has arrived through books, videos/dvds, and attending demonstrations, along with a couple of workshops. About 4-5 years ago I realised that I was not getting anywhere by swapping back and forth, so set myself a year of nothing but pastels, and have not looked back since. However, I have been and still am at a loss not having access to affordable and quality critique of my work, or any real guidance. Basically I paint what piques my curiosity and grabs my attention. I paint for pleasure, although having been fortunate enough to sell some work, I class myself as semi-professional.

    • Heather

      Yes changing between mediums can be a problem. Sticking with one long enough to learn important principles is the best way. Do you use photography a lot?

      • Jim Humphreys

        A high percentage of my work is from photos. Some is from set ups for still life work, and occasionally small off the cuff pieces. My partner is unable to walk very far, so I park up and take short time walks using the camera as reference.

        • Heather

          Many artists are in the same boat Jim. At some point – after some work – you will also be able to go out in your car and sketch form life and even do small paintings from life. That is a real achievement and it is so gratifying. Meanwhile that camera is earning its keep!! in the UK it is important – we have the weather to content with!

  5. Malcolm collins

    thank you heather you have captured in your words the very feelings i have
    experienced. I only started to paint with pastels 3 years ago but instantly felt it was the medium I had subconsciously been searching for.
    I am so looking forward to learning more and more.

    • Heather

      Malcolm , most of us dont get to take any formal art education. That is why I wrote this blog – and I am glad it resonated!

  6. Kelli

    Definitely resonated, like you have walked my footsteps. Young child, busy life trying to fit my art in !

    • Heather

      Kelly, if it is important to you – and a good indication is if you are trying to fit it in with a young family it is important – you will fight for your creativity. I have walked in those footsteps.

  7. Les Gaston-Johnston

    Hi Heather,
    Yes most of what you said rings true with me, most of my work i do are from photos either i have taken or from another source and on occasion i do think what if i change it a little take out this or put in that, try and view it from a different angle, add a slightly different colour, darken this area, lighten that spot.
    Alas i never really do because i am scared on how it might turn out, so keep what looks good in the photo and copy it to the best of my skills, I have a fairly good understanding of composition, tonal values and perspectives but what i really need to learn is how to apply them, what to look for and what happens if, this you cannot always learn from books or videos but being taught from another person the ins and outs would do so much more to my painting and confidence which is not at a super high with my art at the moment and i really want to improve my techniques and knowledge of art so to take it to the next level.
    I think i have gone on a bit here, what i want is to be pointed in the right direction to what to look for and how to apply it.

    Warm wishes. Les

    • Heather

      Well Les, you have just put in a nutshell what I shall be doing int he Academy. This is all the stuff that should be taught in school but of course now art is rarely taught – as a painting class.

      Many people are scared of how things might turn out if you experiment with you photos. And with good reason!

  8. Anne Laslo-Small

    Yes, this did resonate with me, as I decided to learn how to paint landscapes this year. Really learn.

    • Heather

      Good move Anne. How are you doing with your studies?

  9. Heather

    Comment here.


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