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Embracing Frustration

What I learned from attending Pastel Live! and how to use your artistic frustration as Miracle Grow for your artistic abilities...

As a teacher, I REALLY wanted to demonstrate for Pastel Live this week, which was a three-day pastel workshop featuring many of the top artists you dream about. I also realize that to be a good teacher, I need to know who the audience is, what their needs are, and how I can meet them. So I attended instead, to see what it was all about, and it was enriching.

Me attending Pastel Live! it was an online convention

Workshops are expensive, and attendees expect to get their money's worth. As a workshop teacher, it's always my goal to exceed expectations and blow minds. I take workshops with other artists as often as I can, and at least once a year (my birthday present to me!). If you attended Pastel Live! then you got your money's worth and more as well.

I learned many things which I will summarize for you here, as fellow pastelists you will probably appreciate them, other mediums can just scroll on down to the 10th paragraph to get to the good stuff. All artists are visual learners and learn mainly by seeing and doing, not by reading about it. For me, I need to watch it being done, then do it myself for it to really sink in. I attempted to follow along with each demo.

This was my painting following along with Tony using his reference photo-ironically painting snow during Aug. in Florida!

My first day started with Tony Allain whom I have admired for years. Unfortunately, I had a mammogram during his demo, so I wound up watching it on my cellphone with headphones while being tortured. I later painted along with the video to try out his style. He was quicker and less contrived about color and stroke than most artists-he trusted his intuition and went bold with his color and strokes. I learned that I overthink things, and could be far less realistic and still get the spirit of the message across.

My sketch painting along with Gwenneth Barth White who used a live model with Zorn lighting

Next was Gwenneth Barth-White who did a portrait demo that started with a very detailed drawing of a head before she put a single stroke of color down. I appreciated her patience, and she was slow and methodical in her approach and selection of colors. She used Zorn lighting (lit warm on one side, cool on the other, with a dark stripe in the center of the head). I learned alot about her process and how she sited measurements comparing this part of the head to that part. I use Betty Edward's method of eye level to chin, so it was new to me.

My paint-a-long of Alain Picard's excellent demo using a photo reference he supplied.

Next was Allain Picard who I also follow, and was familiar with his style. I was surprised at how organized and thoughtful he was, and he reminded me of Jen Evenhus who puts alot of thought in every stroke. He worked the complements well, choosing colors that would pop and applying strokes cleanly with an occasional swipe with the edge of a paper towel to blend or break up a line.

My version of Lana Ballot's wave demo-fangirl moment when Tony Allain commented that my painting was FRESH!

I didn't attend every demo as alas I am still a working artist and had to teach my own classes during the event as well. What I'm giving you are the highlights of the sessions I did attend. Lana Ballot was a pleasure, as I consider her a friend and colleague, so it was nice to see her in action. Her demo was also one of my favorite subjects; waves. She has a similar style so it wasn't hard to follow her, but I was surprised by her use of underpainting and color choices. She did an alcohol wash with green and purple before starting in with pastel. I never in a million years would have thought to do that. Clarence Porter did a similar underpainting in his demo. He went very slowly and methodically as well.

My version of Clarence Porter's demo with alcohol underpainting that I will never do again!

William Schneider has a refreshing sense of humor and approach to color. He did a portrait of a beautiful young woman with red hair. I was surprised by his use of greens in the cool shadows of her head, as I would've used them as an underpainting but not a skin tone. He said something I often say as well; "you can substitute any color as long as it's the right value and temperature!"

my version of William Schneider's portrait demo which had been edited so I struggled to keep up.

This is just a taste of the demos, and I encourage people to try the event next year, or one of the other Live events for watercolor, realism, or plein air. If you are very experienced, like me, you will still get a lot out of it-technique wise, and also the opportunity to fan-girl out on all the fun artists you read about in art magazines. Most of the participants were beginner to advanced level artists. I got to know a few in chats, and break out rooms.

One topic that came up repeatedly was frustration. I experienced it myself. That moment when you come up against a skill or technique you are just not quite able to pull off. Most of us want to think its a teachable thing that you just follow along certain steps and VIOLA! There it is! Most art techniques are like that to a certain extent, but then there is a level of finesse involved. You have to be able to finesse the pigment to make it do what you want it to do.

My version of Tony Allain's "wee yachts" that I just couldn't quite get!

For example, in painting, you need to know how much pressure to put on the brush to get an effect, and how the brush mark will change when you lift up. The same is true for pastel. It's all about the edges. I struggled with Tony Allain's "wee yachts in the distance on Loch Earn" which he was able to capture with one deft pastel stroke. There are no substitutes for time and experience. There are no shortcuts.

Frustration is a gift. When I am frustrated, it's because I have stumbled across something I'm not good at yet-I haven't mastered this, it's a weak point that I need to work on until I can do it in my sleep.

Organizers and publishers of the event encouraging us all to not take ourselves too seriously!

Many "newbie artists" get frustrated and throw in the towel. The pigments get shoved in a closet and the internal critic starts berating them for ever thinking they had a chance to being with. Does this sound familiar? Probably, because we all have it.

The difference is that advanced artists pulled their stuff back out of the closet and tried again. They may have failed again, but they didn't stop. We all fail. Some fail miserably and famously (think Sargent's "Madame Gatreaux) but failure is fuel for the creative fire. The more failure you have, the harder you are trying and more breakthroughs you will experience.

I was frustrated several times during Pastel Live, as I tried on new techniques and styles. Some things fit, some things I will probably never do again (like alcohol underpainting or building up layers of color under skin tones by cross-hatching). I try to be teachable. When we take a workshop, we really need to do it the way the teacher is demonstrating in order to learn the lessons we are paying to learn. If I keep doing it my own way, then nothing changes, no frustrations, and I stagnate instead of grow.

Next year I am hoping to be one of the demonstrators on Pastel Live-I am setting that as a goal and moving toward that every day. I challenge you to do something that frustrates you this week-push yourself to overcome the frustration and learn the technique behind it. Even if this means trying on someone else's style and techniques for size. Many Renaissance artists cut their teeth on copying Old Master's paintings and sculptures.

We never know our limits until we bump up against them, then overcome them. Let yourself feel the uncomfortable emotion of frustration and welcome it as an opportunity for spiritual growth. I dare you! :)


Not only is your art “fresh” Shawn, but your approach and writing about it, is as well! It shouldn’t have surprised me to read about you taking a workshop, however, it did! You are so down to earth and always thinking of ways to improve your art! You are a wonderful mentor because you are not afraid of practicing what you preach and expressing it every chance you get! You make me want to follow in your footsteps…we don’t meet people by accident…we are meant to meet people that will make a difference along our journey and you have made and continue to make a difference in mine! Thank you 😊


Nice to meet another Floridian artist. I appreciate your words of wisdom and encouragement. I wondered why you don't like using an alcohol underpainting as most pastelists I follow embrace it (Susan Jenkins, Karen Margulies and Allain Piccard).


I so appreciate your comments as I embark on this pastel adventure. I paint in oils and have also used oil pastel but I have never used soft pastels. You "gave me permission" to become frustrated and I really appreciate that! The thing about being an artist that is one of my favorites is, there is always so much to learn. It never ends. I hope to see you as a presenter next year!


It was especially helpful to read about your experiences with Pastel Live! Thank you for sharing your honest and humble thoughts about frustration. As a "newbie artist", frustration seems like 75% of my experience each time I paint. It's good to know that discomfort can yield spiritual growth in painting as in life.

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