Pastel painting for my mom

victorian lady 03
Finished :-)

My mother turned 70 last January.
I started this piece nearly a year ago, as a gift for her birthday. 10 months and 5 versions later, it was finally signed, sealed and delivered to her. I love how it came out, and she did as well! :-)

I call this painting Mom’s Victorian Lady.
It is 23×50 cm | 9×20 inches
Pastels and pastel pencils on Pastelmat

I wish I had pictures of it in the white frame, it looks even prettier framed.

In the beginning – the evolution of ideas

Starting out, I thought I’ll draw a single Lisianthus flower branch, but it didn’t feel personalized enough, I wanted something very personal for this round birthday, to express my deep love for my mother.

My mom is very creative, and this is her big gift to me. She has a collection of clay statues of women she made – elongated forms of ladies in hats, puffed dresses, I think of them as Victorian ladies.
So my next thought was to draw one of these ladies. Shamefully, I didn’t have any in my home! (this was fixed since – I asked and she gifted me this couple pictured below)

I started sketching and thinking, envisioning them, and remembered my childhood – she used to free-draw princesses for me, in outlines only, and I would color them in. I loved princesses as a child. They would all have puffed sleeves, a long dress, and a pearl necklace. This memory filled me with longing, for my naivety as a child. I see so much negativity now, and then, with those princesses, the world was beautiful, life was happily-ever-after.
This concept of re-connecting with the hopefulness and innocence of childhood, of believing in fairy-tales, felt liberating!
It’s hard to explain, it somehow made me feel it’s OK to dream, to look at a fantastic, positive, utopian world. I dived into this feeling, allowing myself to put aside reality, to dream and believe again. And from that state of mind came the concept of the lady surrounded by flowers.

Drawing from imagination and memory

I am not good at drawing from reference. I don’t enjoy it, personally. My preferred method is observing, studying my subject as much as I can, and then sitting down to draw from my head – from memory, understanding and imagination. Impressionistic – though not in the sense we’re used to this term, not the painting style – but the approach :-)

So I looked at a lot of Victorian and Regency ladies’ photos, I watched documentaries about these eras.
I love watching history documentaries, especially when drawing, I learn, I get a feeling for the times, and feel and hope that it somehow affects what I’m creating.

Drawing the lady wasn’t easy, as I’m not very good at portraiture, and not having one exact image to look at and copy, it took me several attempts and a lot of mental work – that she needn’t be realistic, that the ambience of the painting was more important than the details, that being hard on myself is NOT helpful in any way.
And of course, the fact that this was for my mother, wanting to please her, only made the whole process harder. Damned perfectionism…!

victorian lady 05
I intentionally left the strokes in the hair very loose, I didn’t want to loose the free movement in it

The technical side – what I learned in the process

Being fairly new to pastels, I learned several things about working with them.

  • Pastels and pastel pencils are a JOY!!
    Having the ability to correct, to place lights on darks, to go over parts again and again and refine them, with the comfort of using my hand, not a brush – I love that.
  • Pastelmat (by Clairefontaine) is delightful
    It’s smooth enough to feel nice to my touch, yet absorbs all the pastel particles really well. I also washed it under tap water (when a previous version didn’t go right) and there was no damage at all to the paper.
  • Not use pencil for the initial sketch
    I found that going over and covering pencil lines was really difficult for me, especially when applying light colors on them. in the later versions I used a lighter pastel pencils for my sketch lines, as those are much much easier to go over.
  • Another very useful thing was sorting all the pencils I used and placing them together in one tray
  • Rule of Thirds should not be followed blindly
    I may get harsh feedback for saying this, I realize.
    I tried initially to place the important parts – the lady’s head, the bird and the open flower exactly on the meeting points of the grid lines, but it didn’t feel right! Having the head in the top-right crossing, meant having too much space above, or having the figure way too small for the paper size, especially as I wanted her form to be elongated.
    I observed quite a few paintings, taking them into Photoshop and placing grid lines on them to see how the propotions are distributed, and noticed that many paintings had the head in the middle of the top third, not right on the cross lines.
    I decided to trust my intuition. I left the bird and the open flower in the cross-sections as that did work well, but my lady is standing slightly to the right of the center, leaving what felt like a good amount of space above and to the left (since she’s looking left).
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Detail – little bird

I miss you, grandma!

What, another bird?
Yes, I like birds, and I like drawing them.
This one is a sparrow. My grandmother’s last name means ‘sparrow’ in Russian. This little bird represents, for me, the matriarchal connection, 3 generations of women. I wanted it to be lovingly held, yet to seem (and be) free to fly off at any moment. In my mind that also connects to motherhood, and making a painting for my mother, with all the symbols it holds, had to have some reference to my grandmother. I do miss her so much, her heart-felt protective hug is something I still long for.

Non finito

I deliberately left the bottom part of the painting looking sketchy, undone. I really enjoy it, in some paintings, it feels to me like I can trace the process through it, reminding me this was once a blank canvas.
Since I have worked parts of the painting so much, I wanted to balance it with loose, sketchy marks (that somehow always maintain so much more expression in them). I left sketch lines in the hair, in the dress, but mostly I tried to keep them in the bottom (the paper I used was the gray shade you see in the bottom), this makes me feel as if the whole painting is growing upwards, developing as you move up.

Thank you for bearing with me with all my ramblings.
I would be delighted to hear your feedback (always am!)

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Non finito – I like to think the painting grows from this loose, sketchy bottom part

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