How often have you watched your child, grandchildren or someone you know, as they are completely absorbed in their own world, and you have known it would make a lovely painting, if only you could capture that moment?

I have spent years with my growing family, trying to draw and paint those special moments with my pastels. Along the way I have developed a few ways to get the most out of each situation and to record happy memories in a personal way.

The first question people usually ask is ‘Do you work from life or from photographs?’
My answer to this is both. I cannot sketch quickly enough to get as many of the subtle details of poses as I need, so I take photographs. However, I need to be constantly sketching as well, to develop my drawing and observation skills. I then use the photographs as reference, but the sketches have built up my huge ‘visual database’ that I hold in my head, so that I understand what I am drawing.

The most important thing is to ‘Be Prepared’, as any girl guide will tell you.

If you have a camera or a camera/phone with you most of the time, and a little book or some paper, you will be ready to spot the moment when it happens. It could be a child jumping over a puddle, or digging in the mud, or maybe a little group of children looking at a spider they have caught in a jar.

To get the best out of your photos, take lots, even if you think you have got the one you want. You can always delete the surplus ones. Use a file size that means it will enlarge to A4 so you can really see the subtle details (probably 1mb is big enough). Look for good clear light or interesting light such as the golden glow as the sun is low, or sunshine catching the side of someone’s face. Good focus is important, otherwise it will blur when enlarged.

Telling a story
The next thing to think about is how to tell a story with your picture. Photographs of children looking into the camera are great as photographs, but don’t necessarily make wonderful paintings. If you can catch them being themselves, in their own world of concentration, unaware they are being observed, then you will have a good starting point. My children complain constantly that we never have family photos of them looking at the camera! I was always planning my next painting.

Understanding figure drawing
Drawing figures can be tricky to start with, but it’s not rocket science. With a bit of guidance and practice you will be amazed how much you can achieve, and how satisfying it is. I have a way of sketching figures that I learnt in a book called ‘Figure Drawing without a Model’ by Ron Tyner. It shows the importance of understanding the basic proportions of the skeleton. I simplify the skeleton into a stick figure so that I can draw it quickly.

It is a way of drawing in shorthand that means I can get the pose and proportions right in a matter of seconds. This is a great technique to develop for sketching from life. It is also a real help when doing thumbnail sketches as preparation for a painting.

As I show people on my pastel courses, once you have practised drawing your stick figure, you can soon get it to move around and show emotions with its body language.

Early thumbnail sketches to plan composition can really strengthen your painting, especially if you want to tell a story. You can work out the balance of space on the paper, the size and position of the figure, and the dynamics (Are you conveying movement or calm and tranquillity?) If you are drawing a group of children playing together, they need to relate to each other in a way that has flow and harmony.

As you do your little sketches, you also get to know your subject better, so can start your painting with more confidence.

Palette and mark-making
The colours you choose will have a huge influence on the emotion and mood of your painting. So if it’s a bright sunny day, keep your palette as fresh as you can.

Try not to use browns in shadows, but go for blues or purples. Warm yellows are lovely colours to bring sunshine and a happy glow to your work, but go lightly with them, as too much can be over-powering! I often put little flicks of orange against blues, to lift the intensity of the colours.

With pastels you have a huge variety of marks that can be made, so you can change the feeling of your picture by varying your marks. They range from bold energetic bright strokes down to soft gentle smudging for skin tones and hair, perfect for painting people, especially children.

Do your homework
I think the most important thing I have learnt over the years, is the importance of doing my homework. This consists of sketching to get to know my subject matter, either the figures or the backgrounds, such as beaches and skies. I also read as many books and articles I can, to find out how other artists tackle the same problems, and I love to watch other artists at work, demonstrating or teaching their methods.  However, above all, it is only by drawing and painting as often as you can that you will really improve.

So with summer round the corner, it’s time to practice your drawing, find your camera or phone and have a go at capturing those fleeting moments.

For more details of Rebecca’s pastel and figure courses, go to or call her on 01392 840132

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