Australian Fine Artist

Barbara McManus

Venue: McClelland Guild of Artists

Topic: Putting Humans into Your Paintings

Barbara’s profile on the Vic Arts website reads as “Barbara McManus needs little introduction, being one of Australia’s very well known and sought after pastel and oil artists. She is highly regarded for her impressionistic work in both figure and character studies which feature prominently in her work.”

Barbara’s human studies, especially her life drawings are stunning. It is worth your time to go to the Vic Arts web site to view her work. She has recently had a very successful exhibition at Vic Arts with over ten sales. In a depressed art market, especially for the lower and middle price ranges, like we have had for the past couple of years, this is a very nice result. The top end seems to always hold up – especially if you’re dead it seems, but as most of us are not in that position – thankfully the dead bit – we have to try to make sales and survive.

I am veering off topic a bit so back to the demonstration today which was about putting people into your work, and as Barbara is an established pastel artist, that is the medium she chose. It is also a great medium for a demo as you don’t have to worry about solvents, spills and carrying wet paintings around after you are done.

We had the pleasure of watching Barbara get two pieces done today. She is a very efficient artist and is able to get her blocking in done on the smaller sheets of pastel paper with beautiful light sweeping layers of pastel pigment.

Rather than drawing in the shapes or composition, Barbara starts with a blocking in technique which gradually fill in the page with light layers of the darker tones. As she cuts in and lays down shadow areas the general shape of the subject is created. This method being very good for being able to adjust as you go and not force you into anything too early. The layering of broad sweeps of colour over the top of each other also gives a lovely depth to the work as it is gradually built up.

Contrary to many other artists who for some reason avoid black all together, Barbara said not to be afraid of it. It is in many of the darker pastels anyway so a careful use of it can help in creating a dynamic tonal range and very interesting mark making.

By working all over the artwork and keeping it at the same level of completion, as other artists have recommended, you don’t get ahead of yourself and it helps in creating a painting that has a uniformity about it. The colour you use in one area can be introduced to others to pull it all together and give a colour theme. the use of lighter tones of the same dark colour used over the top instead of white also helps in creating a unified look. If you want to create drama, try a lighter warm tone on top and scumble it onto some other areas as well. The white can be left for minimal final touches where it will really make the work pop off the surface of the page.

Another important point here was if you decide that something isn’t the right shape or size, pastel can be brushed right off the page and you can start again. The method of laying in light layers allows for alteration and deletion of areas at nearly any time making pastels a very versatile medium.

Other than that the technique of starting large and broad with your darks and gradually going more detailed and lighter is not that different to oil painting, so any oil painters would be fairly at home with having a go at pastel painting and drawing.

With only 40 minutes after the coffee break Barbara took on the challenge of producing another artwork. I personally think that this second one with its lovely loose mark making was the best out of the two for the day. The general shape was blocked in very quickly and the lights and darks were made lively and with some beautiful results. A bit like challenging yourself with doing some “speed sketching” the essence and overall look of your topic has to be drawn in and a focal point worked out and dynamic blocking in with high contrasting complimentary colours achieves this. All this is pulled together with the underpainting of colours spread over the work and use of your high key colours over the top.

The emphasis on the focal points in these two works and keeping the other areas nice and soft and loose made two pieces that drew your attention in and directed you around to investigate the rest, with the clever use of the colours and softening at the bottom stopping the subject from looking like they were sliding out of the bottom of the page.

Of course when doing any artwork, especially a demo, the final lesson is, knowing when to stop. Not only when your time runs out, but also when any new marks do not add anything to what you are creating. If it doesn’t add anything important – don’t do it.

I always like watching Barbara paint. Her various marks and wide range of applying the pastels is something important to learn for my own pastel artworks. She is a very generous lady and talented artist and we were lucky to be able to watch her at work.


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