Techniques and Tips

Progression of Heavenly Hues: A Pastel Step-by-Step Demo

Progression of Heavenly Hues: A Pastel Step-by-Step Demo

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In this excerpt from Stan Sperlak’s feature article “Into the Night” from Magazine (June 2013), Sperlak demonstrates how to complete a sunset landscape from start to finish. Scroll down to read this step-by-step demo, and learn how to portray the ethereal qualities of night with pastel.

Progression of Heavenly Hues
By Stan Sperlak

The moments after the sun sets provide an opportunity for an easy lesson in painting the order and values of prismatic colors as they appear in the sky. If painting from life, try to match the range of colors in a small work that you can use as a study.


1. On a Belgian mist Dakota Wallis board, I lightly drew the horizon line in vine charcoal. I then began to build sky colors from the top with a layer of dark indigo, specifically Art Spectrum (AS) D528.

2. I added a layer of indigo blue (AS P534), working downward on the paper, from dark to light.

3. I continued with ultramarine blue, using Terry Ludwig (TL) B030. Note that the layers overlap each other and that areas of the previous layers are visible in the newer layers.

4. I skipped down on the surface to the horizon line and lay in a wonderful violet by Art Spectrum called jacaranda (V522). This allowed me to continue working from dark to light—but progressing upward rather than downward. Thus, the area between the blues and the violet will be the lightest part of the sky.

5. I added red (TL R350) and then orange (TL A080), bridging the blues and the violet. The warm “glow” indicates where the atmosphere is most dense—with ozone, moisture and low clouds—as opposed to the cooler upper sky.

6. I added yellow (TL Y080) and began to blend the colors, stroking very lightly in only one direction with the side of my palm and cleaning my hand between strokes. (I use my hands or fingers for blending only in the sky area.)

7. I layered on more yellow and then, to add visual interest, dragged a grayish violet (TL V260) through the range of the sky to hint at tight clouds in the distance. The clouds break from the order of the prism (red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet) because they’re separate masses—phenomena within the sky that have their own properties.

8. I then laid in broader clouds higher in the sky, adding depth and drama. As opposed to the clouds in step 7, these clouds are slightly darker and warmer. They’re also thinner in density to allow the under-painted sky to show through. Their larger size adds a sense of scale and perspective, thus making them appear to be overhead.

9. With the sky basically complete, I massed in the foreground to contrast with the sky. I used one of my favorite red-violets (TL V100) and a slightly warmer and lighter burnt umber (TL N130).

10. I added warm colors (umbers and ochres) and cool colors (blue- greens) to the foreground. Taking a cue from the greenish blue in the sky, I chose a darker value of blue-green to start the base of the water and to indicate moisture in the marsh grass. I blended with the sides of the pastel sticks, cleaning them often.

11. I warmed the horizontal plane of the foreground grasses with ochres and burnt sienna (warm colors bring items seemingly closer to the viewer). To bring out detail, I added highlights to the grasses and water, using sharper intensities of the light and dark values of the original tones.

12. After adding a few subtle details, such as highlights on the water, I signed The Secret of the Evening (pastel, 12×18).

Stan Sperlak studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1995 to 1998, after which he participated for a year in private classes taught by Academy instructor Patrick Arnold and conducted outdoors in the home garden of landscape architect William H. Frederick Jr. Sperlak also studied plein air landscape painting with Patricia Vanaman Witt from 1997 to 2003. Sperlak now teaches at his own facility, Crow Creek Farm, in Goshen, New Jersey, as well as in workshops across the United States and abroad. In 2012 the Noyes Museum of Art in Oceanville, New Jersey, presented Sperlak’s 25th solo exhibition, “Stan Sperlak: Into the Night,” featuring pastel landscapes of twilight, evening and nighttime skies. Sperlak is represented by SOMA NewArt Gallery, Cape May, New Jersey; William Ris Gallery, Stone Harbor, New Jersey; Hardcastle Gallery, Wilmington, Delaware; Main St. Gallery, Annapolis, Maryland; and Bishop’s Stock, Snow Hill, Maryland. Visit his website at Read the rest of “Into the Night” in Magazine (June 2013).

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