I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book that deals with pastel in such breadth and depth. Watson Guptill are becoming known for their really quite serious monographs on media, subjects and techniques and they are also finding some intriguing authors to create them. The biography that appears on the back flap lists some impressive credentials, albeit many not perhaps familiar to a UK audience, and ends by describing Ellen as “a sought-after teacher”. Having luxuriated in this splendid book, I can’t say I’m surprised.
The atelier method involved the student working in the studio of the master, initially observing and doing menial tasks, gradually working up underpainting, then perhaps body colour and, finally, the majority of a painting the great man would finish off and sign. It’s this last experts mean when they say “studio of”. In a book, you don’t have to sweep the floor and scrape the old palettes, but we do start with a lot of basic preparation. In lesser books, this is the “materials and techniques” section we’re usually tempted to skip. Here, however, it serves to introduce the medium slowly and progressively, giving you time and space to think. A whole spread (with illustrations) on storing and organizing pastels isn’t dull or over-written, but part of a longer sequence on the properties of the thing you’re going to be working with. I should say here that Ellen writes well: it’s a trait WG seem able to find in their authors, who might be expected to think more visually than verbally.
And now, finally, let’s talk about the illustrations. As I’ve lead you to believe, there are Old Masters here and also contemporary practitioners. However, the bulk of the work is Ellen’s. This isn’t just an academic treatise, but a highly practical book and the fourth chapter, The working process contains extended lessons that deal with a wide variety of topics from the technical to composition, perspective and lighting. At this point, it should be said that Ellen is primarily a figurative painter. If the book has a weakness, it is this. It’s not that she isn’t any good – she’s really, really excellent. It’s just that I’d have liked more variety of subject matter in a book like this. After all, when is anything like it going to come along again? Probably not in my lifetime.
Even with that small reservation, though, this is still the best book on pastel you’re probably ever going to find.
Click the picture to view on Amazon