Artists have composed works of art from dry pigments and chalk, known now as soft pastels, since the dawn of civilization. Caves in Lascaux, France, feature prehistoric paintings rendered in this enduring medium.
Soft pastels were perhaps most notably used during the Italian Renaissance, and later by French artists starting around the 16th century. Now, many contemporary artists are pushing the medium to new and exciting heights. Among them is Leland-based painter Janet Johnson.
Johnson is self-taught in the medium's history and its application, and her intellectual, as well as artistic, interest in the art form is apparent in the wide variety of her practice. Some of her "paintings" -- which Johnson notes is the appropriate term for a work composed entirely in soft pastel -- are loose, gestural and impressionistic. Others are nearly photo-realistic.
One of the artist's most recent paintings, titled "Reflections," is indicative of her experimentation with the more painterly and gestural capacity of soft pastel. The piece, her first "roomscape," features a lone female figure gazing out of two large, arched windows. She stands behind a piano placed at the rear of the lavish space, which includes large columns and tall, potted trees to frame her standing form. The space is bright and full of sunlight due to the artist's liberal use of white and yellow pastel to highlight the figure's surroundings. The light pours in, illuminating her face. The looseness of Johnson's strokes grants the image a romantic and contemplative mood. Mirroring the woman depicted in the piece, "Reflections" invites viewers to immerse themselves in the picturesque scene before them.
Johnson takes a methodical, inquisitive approach to her art practice, a tendency that began in childhood.
"Even as a kid I was always drawing, pencil, charcoal, whatever I could, and I loved it," she says. "But it wasn't something that was considered a serious course of study in college, so it was just a hobby. Instead, I earned a B.A. and M.A. in foreign language education. Later I tried acrylics and then watercolors, when my girls were small. But I got busy with parenthood and had to put art away for a while."
A little more than a year ago, Johnson again felt a familiar pull to create art. She purchased a selection of art supplies to reconnect with her passion. Included in that purchase was a set of 12 soft pastels.
"I fell head-over-heels, obsessed really, as my family can attest, and it's all I want to do when I grow up," she chuckles. "It was so comfortable, it felt like being a little kid again and coloring. And it felt so much more natural to draw than to have a brush in my hand."
Johnson developed a painting process that allows her to expand her creative potential while honing her fundamental skill. She regularly challenges herself to experiment with a variety of techniques and draws inspiration from contemporary pastel artists through research and networking.
An avid and lifelong photographer, she often develops compositions from her photos.
"I do a lot of planning before I start a piece," she says. "I have always been a big photographer. I love nature and love to take pictures, so I take them everywhere I go. When I see something that catches my eye, I will often play around with editing the photograph, manipulating color saturation, cropping, and trying to be creative with them. Then I take that reference and turn it into a piece of art, changing and adding even more. Before setting pastel to paper, I will also think about composition, value, colors from the color wheel, size and paper."
Unlike oil pastels, which contain a significant amount of binder giving them a waxy, paint-like texture, soft pastels are dry, blending easily with one another and requiring a rough, textured surface to adhere to. That makes paper type and color particularly important.
Due to the fine, chalky consistency of the medium, pastel paper has a surface texture that allows the pigment particles to adhere in varying degrees, depending on the grain. While many pastel painters will still utilize under-painting for their pieces, others like Johnson use these colored papers for a similar effect.
"There are various kinds of pastel paper," she says. "They have sanded surfaces which hold the particles and lend themselves to layers of colors, whether or not you're blending. The papers come in a great variety of color -- black to white and everything in between. Some pastel artists will paint a background color, but I like to start with colored paper, perhaps because I'm impatient and want to get to the nuts and bolts. The colors of the paper enhance the mood of the painting, bringing out different tones and qualities of the colors you lay over; interesting things happen."
In "Red Hot Summer," Johnson experiments with using several sheets of paper at once. The piece depicts a warm, vibrant array of flowers viewed from above. The artist keeps her lines loose and gestural, and populates the image with bright reds and purples. The effect is a passionate, lively mood.
Before starting this piece, Johnson was gifted several pieces of small pastel paper from a friend. She typically works in large format ranging from 15 x 15 inches up to around 27 x 21 inches, and was unsure of how to use them. After consulting various art journals and online forums for ideas, she decided to tear the smaller pages into various shapes and adhere them to mounting board with a liquid acrylic medium. This technique allows for a textured surface for the dynamic image laid on top. The resulting piece includes small, ripped pieces of that paper throughout, the frayed edges of the paper creating unique lines among the flower petals.
Chief among the reasons for Johnson's love of soft pastel is the medium's capacity for vibrancy and fullness of color.
"I really appreciate when people comment on the colors in my work," she says. "My favorite thing about pastel is how saturated the colors are. With some mediums, you just don't get that, and I was first and foremost taken in by that capacity."
This passion for color is visible in one of Johnson's unique works, titled "String Puzzle." This piece, inspired by a trip to visit one of her daughters in Seattle, presented a challenging compositional opportunity.
While exploring the Museum of Pop Culture, Johnson and her family encountered a sculptural installation called "If VI Was IX: Roots and Branches." The piece, designed by Seattle-based kinetic sculptor Trimpin, is a two-story compilation of more than 500 instruments.
"I was so fascinated by it," Johnson says. "I took over a dozen pictures -- small, close-up portions of this huge, hourglass-shaped sculpture. I wanted to tackle it as soon as I saw it."
The piece Johnson later created is photo-realistic and zeroes in on a segment of the sculpture, a bright red acoustic guitar in the foreground, with several differently colored electric guitars and a violin comprising the background. The artist created delicate highlighting along the planes of the instruments and rendered subtle reflections of light in their smooth, flat surfaces. Her color palette is bold, bright and highly saturated, calling to mind the vibrancy of the music and musicians immortalized in the sculpture.
The detail and subtlety of application in "String Puzzle" seems lovingly composed. This is not surprising, given the familial connection Johnson has to music and the technical puzzle that the piece posed for her.
"That was so experimental and something very different for me to try," she says. "We have a lot of musical background in my family. I play the guitar and my daughter is very musical, so that piece really inspired me."
Johnson describes herself as entrenched in "evolution mode," experimenting with style and technique and assuaging a voracious desire to learn more about the medium.
"I'm experimenting and trying to challenge myself with styles, content and subject matter," she says. "I'm trying to find myself, to learn what I most enjoy doing and what people respond to."
Whether photo-realistic, wildly gestural, or somewhere in between, Johnson's pastel paintings are captivating and impressive to look at. Her experimental and inquisitive relationship to the medium imbues each piece with an exciting and enthusiastic energy that is contagious to the viewer.