How exploring a new medium can inspire you as an artist

Janette Summerfield RBSA

Writer, Jane Redman, shares her experience of how pastels bring out creativity in artists and amateurs alike through guidance of RBSA artist Janette Summerfield.

RBSA Workshops are run by active professional artists to suit all skill levels. Explore and learn new techniques with like-minded creatives. See full workshop descriptions at

It is with some apprehension that I, a decidedly amateur artist, turn up to the RBSA on a wet February morning to try my hand at something new – a ‘colourful pastels’ workshop with artist Janette Summerfield.

My fellow students gather before the class for tea and biscuits in the gallery and I realise that we are a very mixed bunch, ranging proper artists looking for fresh inspiration, accomplished amateurs, leisure painters and complete beginners wanting a challenge. Helen, an artist, enjoyed her first workshop so much she’s come to another. “You certainly don’t know it all as an artist, you get in a rut and sometimes you need new inspiration and a bit of a refresher. Exploring a different medium can give you that.” We have brought our own materials and the range is as wide as the clientele – from a £200 wooden box boasting a 360-degree colour wheel to a bargain pastel pack from The Works.

Up in the studio, the course kicks off with Janette giving us a demonstration of different types and grades of pastel and how they can be used: turning them on their sides, blending them, dotting them, cross-hatching, layering them, using blocks of colour. She talks us through some of her own paintings, describing what materials she used and how she achieved different effects. We see how the choice of background and paper affects the painting, and how to think about composition and focal points. Everyone has their own different ‘Aha!’ moment during this session. For me it comes when Janette points out that the focal point of a painting doesn’t need to be something structural, like an object or an intersection of lines – it can simply be a colour. If there’s one thing I carry away from the day, this is it. My magic tip.

We are told to pick out from our palette the colours we think we will need to do our painting. Everyone stares hard at their images and selects an array of colours to work with. I envy the lady with the £200 box for her subtle range of every shade of yellow imaginable, but it turns out my envy is needless. To shrieks of dismay Janette goes round the class whittling down everyone’s palette to four or five shades, as this alone will help give unity to our artworks.

Everyone pitches straight into their painting with apparent confidence. If a lot of your choices are taken away, it becomes easier to make those all-important first marks and the limited range prevents our pictures from becoming busy with competing colours, adding harmony to the whole.

The afternoon passes so fast it is as if I have spent it in a parallel universe. Pastels are so quick to work with that your picture soon starts to take shape, giving an almost instant sense of achievement. It feels as though it would be quite easy to start another painting if the first goes wrong, and for me this is a comfort blanket, enabling me to be bolder and freer in my approach.

I use most of the techniques we have been shown, but my favourite is building up blocks of colour with the pastel on its side. Using fixative to darken the colours slightly each time, so a greater tonal range can be achieved using the same pastel again on top of the fixative. Looking round the class, everyone is doing something very different. I am hardly blending the colours at all, others are blending everything and creating very smooth, dreamlike images. One person is building her entire picture using juxtaposed lines of colour.

Janette says: “I’ve been doing workshops for around five years now and I really love seeing what my students do with the techniques I show them. It always amazes me to see the range and variety of paintings at the end of the workshop.”

All our artworks are lined up against the wall at the end of the class while Janette talks about each one and assesses its good and bad points. The works are as various as animals in a zoo and there is something to like in every single one. The amazing thing is how little they have in common.

Asking around my fellow students, it seems I am not alone in being a new fan of pastels. Ann, an artist herself who is looking for inspiration and a new connection to her work, is really pleased with her results and loves the accessibility of pastels. Partners Sarah and Shaun like the fact they don’t have to deal with the technicalities of colour mixing. Jeelan, another beginner, feels that the course has built her confidence and given her something she can explore at home.

By Jane Redman

RBSA Workshops are run by active professional artists to suit all skill levels. Explore and learn new techniques with like-minded creatives. See full workshop descriptions at

About Us

The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) is an artist-led charity which supports artists and promotes engagement with the visual arts through a range of exhibitions, events and workshops.

The RBSA runs an exhibition venue – the RBSA Gallery – in Birmingham’s historic Jewellery Quarter, a short walk from the city centre. The gallery is open 7 days a week and admission to all our exhibitions is free.

Find out how to reach the RBSA Gallery here.

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