UART Tip #12: Making Your Mark with Barbara Jaenicke

For the impressionist pastel painter, it’s important to allow the mark-making qualities of your pastels to take precedence over rendering precise subject matter. While we work hard to control the pastel medium, the really hard part is learning what NOT to control so that this luscious medium can be free to show off its unique characteristics to which we as artists are attracted in the first place.

Wide Open View, pastel on mounted UART 400, 12×16

In “Wide Open View,” the texture of the rocky cliff side was an important feature of the landscape that I wanted to highlight using clean application of pastel layered over my underpainting and early layers. By paying close attention to thoughtful, purposeful placement of each layer, the pressure I applied, and the contrast of sharp, crisp edges to soft, faded edges, I could achieve the texture I was after.

Sometimes individual marks on a painting are referred to as calligraphy when they have a clean, poetic quality to them. And just like learning good penmanship as a child, it takes years of practice to learn the nuances of applying your own characteristic marks to your work. After determining other key painting decisions (such as value, temperature and chroma), here are a few mark-making items I consider before placing pastel to surface:

– How should I hold the pastel?

– How much pressure should I apply (which will determine how transparent or opaque the mark will be)?
– How long or short of a mark should I make?
– Which direction should I apply it?
– How fast or slow should I apply it?
– Should I connect the marks or make each one individually?

It’s the artist’s nature to want to perfect each mark of pastel that’s applied to a painting. However, in my experience, a mark that was thoughtfully applied to a painting is typically better left “unfussed with” rather than trying to perfect it. Often, some of the marks I’ve made to painting that I first thought were goofs, if left alone, have become my favorite parts of the painting. That’s because those marks maintain the loose, spontaneous look that gives an impressionist painting its character.

A fun exercise I often have my workshop students do is “count the stroke” studies, in which a small landscape study has to be painted using only a limited number of strokes. In this way, you have to make sure you don’t waste any strokes on details that don’t absolutely need to be there. The exercise also forces you to consider the list of mark-making items mentioned above.

One of my “count-the-stroke” exercise demos

One of my “count-the-stroke” exercise demos

There are of course many skills for a painter to learn, but I believe that it’s your mark making capabilities that might very well be what ultimately elevates you to a higher skill level. And that’s unfortunately a skill that can’t be rushed, but comes with time and lots of practice. In the meantime, try letting go of a bit of rendering control and let pastels make those beautiful marks that they make so well!

Barbara Jaenicke, PSA, IAPS/EP, AIS, OPA

Visit Barbara’s website at to view more of her work and her workshop schedule, and check out her blog at for additional painting tips for both oil and pastel. You might also want to visit for Barbara’s instructional video series.