How to Achieve Brilliant Color in Pastel

Exotic Splendor with Artist David Napp

David Napp’s fills his pastel art with resplendent color and bold mark-making. He expertly captures his real-world adventures, from the bazaars of Marrakesh and the thronged cities of India to the Italian countryside and the cosmopolitan splendors of London and Rome.

Whether it’s London’s Waterloo Bridge at night or an Italian hill town covered in snow, Napp brings a sense of raw pleasure at being in a particular place at a particular moment. His views and motifs are carefully chosen and simplified to a compelling clarity. Detail is stripped away, forms are massed and color is built to achieve a transformative vibrancy.

Heading Down a New Pastel Path

For the first 30 years of his career, Napp worked directly from life traveling with his easel and pastels in tow. Then on a trip to Marrakesh on 2010, he found it was too difficult to paint his subjects from life.

“The bazaars, or souks, are designed with very narrow streets so that people are forced to look at the merchandise on the stalls,” explains Napp. “And every so often a truck comes down collecting rubbish, or a taxi will push its way through.”

He continues, “There just wasn’t any room to work. And then there were light effects — shafts of sunlight breaking into shadows — that were transitory. I decided to use photography. And of course, it was difficult because the locals don’t really like having their photos taken.”

Still, Napp discovered taking photos allowed him to take on painting subjects in light conditions he’d never have been able to attempt otherwise. “I’d never done a night painting,” notes Napp, “because you just can’t see color at night.” Once he was back in the studio, he found he could adjust the values in his digital photos to make all kinds of nocturnal conditions accessible.

Although he knows taking photos captures subjects that would be out of his reach otherwise, Napp understands the pitfalls of relying too heavily on a camera.

“A photograph is only a starting point for me,” he says. “I’m quite prepared to make all kinds of alterations. If you looked at my reference photos, you’d see that they’re very different from the final work. I don’t think I’d have been able to do any of these pieces if I didn’t have all of those years of working directly from life under my belt.” 

Pushing the Limits of Color in Pastel

Napp’s color choices push the outer limits of naturalism. In Grand Designs, a mud brick wall in Morocco becomes a glowing, saturated orange on which palm trees cast brilliant red shadows. The sky behind the vast Battersea Power Station in London becomes a heavy green overlaid with powerful red strokes in Tower Station.

The excitement of these scenes is matched by the thrill of Napp’s pastel strokes, which he applies with a take-no-prisoners approach. A sense of movement takes over, helping to sweep the eye around the image and confer a sense of joy and vitality.

“I really assault the paper,” says Napp. But for all its energy, his work is underpinned by accomplished draftsmanship and a sophisticated sense of design and composition.

To aid the composition process, Napp will use a cardboard square or make his fingers into a box shape to frame his subject. If he makes preparatory sketches, he may grid them to ensure the composition is transferred accurately. The very orderliness of the composition enables the freedom of attack that’s so enticing to the viewer.

Working Fast

When it comes to building his pastel surface, Napp explains, “You have to build pastel like oil paint, starting with the darks and building up to the lights. Also, like oil, you have to work from thin layers underneath to heavier layers on top.”

After he has established his composition in outline, Napp relies on a big set of Rembrandt pastels to start building active color layers without putting too much loose pastel on the surface.

Darks are massed in, and basic color areas are established. He frequently skews the color in the early layers of pastel, putting down red-oranges on areas that will eventually be green, or placing greens in areas that will be red.

“For the final layers, I use a soft pastel, usually Sennelier or Schmincke,” says Napp. “The hues are much more vibrant with these brands, but a lot of the color work already has been done by the harder pastel layers underneath.”

Like many pastelists, Napp wrestles with the consequences of going back and reworking a pastel. “In the end,” he notes, “my most successful pieces are the ones that are done the fastest, when everything comes together in a rush, and there’s no reworking.”

After he has completed a piece, Napp has one final ritual. “Since I never fix anything, I have to tap the work quite sharply on the back to ensure that any loose pastel falls away,” he says. “Otherwise, it will drive my poor framer crazy.”

If you’re intrigued by Napp’s approach to color in pastel, read on for a quick step-by-step demonstration!

4 Steps to Colorful Pastels

A strong underlayer of pastels often skewed in color serves as the foundation for many of Napp’s paintings. Here’s how he achieves brilliant color in pastel.

1. Transferring the Image

Napp begins by using a grid to transfer the image from a sketch to a piece of toned pastel paper. The pencil grid is visible lightly here.

The outline is drawn carefully in pencil, and the darks are massed in with a deep blue. The pink laid in the sky will provide considerable color action when blue is placed over it.

2. Applying Sure Strokes of Pastel

The broad masses of the subject are laid out with clean, sure strokes of pastel. The blue now sits over the pink in the sky, while the trees are established in an unlikely brilliant orange in preparation for a later layer of color.

3. Establishing Layers of Detail

Greens are laid over the orange of the trees to create active, vibrant color. The sky has been built further. And, some of the complexity of the lights and shadows of the bridge are put into play.

Napp includes a full account of the railings on the bridge, a meticulous counterpoint to the freer strokes elsewhere.

4. Adding The Final Touches

The last strokes are added to the rippling water in the foreground and the buildup of the swan in the middle ground. The pastel exhibits extraordinary freshness and directness; there’s no evidence of fussing or backtracking.