A few weeks ago I was painting in my studio when my cat jumped up on the desk beside me. Unfortunately I had a tray of 100 of my pastels only partially on the desk. Before I could even register what was going on, Timmy walked across the tray and stepped on the overhanging part, meowing and reaching his paw out to me for attention. The tray tipped, dumping about $250 worth of pastels, and my cat, onto the carpeted floor.
My husband and I spent the next 45 minutes sorting through and assembling this weird, messy puzzle. It felt like getting that first scratch on your new car. But like a painter having an array of brush sizes, I discovered the various shapes and sizes of pastel fragments have given me more control. It has actually made pastel painting easier and more enjoyable.
Fast-forward a few weeks, and I was working on a small still-life (below), using colors from my other, unbroken tray of pastels. At most I had carefully snapped some in half, leaving cylinders about 1-1 ½ inches long. I was going for a looser, unblended style and was using the pastels on their sides. I noticed that the length and contour of the particular part I swept across the surface greatly affected the resulting mark. Sometimes the pastel and I would create a beautiful mark in a single stroke that said everything I wanted to say about the form. Skill and chance came together like a well-designed board game, and it felt satisfying and fun. But other times using the same sweeping motion with a different pastel would produce a clumsy, striped mark due to the unevenness of the pastel itself. Sometimes the piece was just too long to fit where I wanted to make the mark. The pastels were too unpredictable, in control, and fought against any skill I may have.
My wise daughter reminded me of the saying, "If you wanna make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs." It also makes me think of equestrians: a rider can't work with a horse until it's broken. However heartbreaking it may be in the short term, clearly I need to take my coddled, pristine pastels out of their peaceful little foam beds, and I need to break the junk out of them.
I think I'll leave the cat and the carpet out of it this time, though.