In 2016, I was asked to do a guest blog post on Gail Sibley’s, “How To Pastel” Page. Gail has one of the best pastel blogs out there so please check it out at If you missed it, I am reposting it here now.

Making the Mundane Magnificent

People tell me all the time, “I would never have thought to paint that!” and, “I would have looked right past this scene in hopes of finding something worth painting.”

I have tried to paint the big picturesque scenic views, but I realized something quite interesting. It is much more difficult to take something magnificent and paint it even more magnificently. Have you ever taken pictures of the spectacular fall foliage on the mountains, or dynamic sunsets only to be disappointed with the results of the photo? The camera couldn’t quite capture the beauty of it all. But if you paint something mundane or ordinary, it doesn’t take much to elevate its beauty.



Reference plein air photo of scene for “Fenced In”


Fenced In 9 x 12


I am definitely drawn to the landscape. The state of Georgia has an abundance of greenery and I find myself in constant observance of the trees and foliage, with the interplay of the light and shadow patterns it creates. Being an avid golfer and a plein air painter, I spend much of my time outdoors. This gives me the opportunity to observe the ever-changing light and how it affects the landscape throughout the day.

Nancy Nowak, “Ethereal,” 2016, pastel on UArt 400 with watercolor underpainting, 12 x 9 in


Intimate, quiet scenes interest me. I avoid perfectly manicured gardens for I prefer the imperfect, old barn and simple flawed structures with high weeds and brush. Through my paintings, I try to tell a story, much like a movie director, guiding the viewer through a scene, setting a mood, highlighting areas that I want to catch your eye and finding little nuances along the way. The worst thing for me is to have a boring painting. If the viewer walks by without giving it a second glance, then I haven’t done my job.


“Standing Guard” reference



Nancy Nowak, “Standing Guard,” 2016, pastel on UArt 400, plein air. ‘This painting is really all about value shifts in the foreground, mid-ground and background, and working with aerial perspective.’


For me, the subject is secondary to the interpretation. As long as a painting has a strong composition, color harmony, interesting arrangement of shapes, and is skillfully painted, and evokes some kind of emotional connection, the subject matter can be anything. I liken it to a well-written piece of music. If the melodies and harmonies are strong, the lyrics can be about anything and still make a great song. That being said, there still must be something that calls to me or inspires me to interpret visually.


Reference plein air photo of scene for “King of Pops”


Nancy Nowak, “King of Pops,” pastel on UArt 400, 11 x 14 in. This plein air pastel was done in Atlanta to promote the Olmsted Plein Air event in April and an area called “The Shed” in Ponce City Market. It runs alongside The Beltline, a long path where runners and bicyclists come to work out. I struggled to find what to paint. At first I was unsure if I could make an interesting painting with this scene. The name comes from the popsicle vendor who was standing next to the umbrella on the left side. A popsicle was a wonderful treat after a hot day of painting.



I drove by this yellow house and had to stop and take a photo. The light struck the facade so beautifully. In most of my paintings, the subject is the light. My husband jokes I paint ugly houses but it’s not about the house, it’s about the light. That’s what I’m drawn to and gives me that spark of inspiration. I also love the idea of taking an ordinary subject that you wouldn’t give a second look and paint it in a way to amplify its beauty, to make the viewer really see the beauty in the ordinary.

Nancy Nowak, “Little Yellow House,” 2015, pastel on UArt 400, 9 x 12 in. ‘This yellow house is in a neighborhood close to my house. I truly didn’t think I was painting the ugly yellow house… I was focused on painting the light on the arbor and facade of the house.



“Little Yellow House” showing my reference and value study.


I tell my students that plein air painting is one of the best ways of developing their painting skills. I remember when I first heard someone tell me that, I thought, “Yeah, yeah but is that really true?” It was only after I began to paint outdoors did I discovered that light changes dramatically with atmosphere and weather patterns at different times of the day. There is such a variety in light and atmosphere and they affect the relationships of the color and value of the foliage, grass, and buildings, and everything else in the scene. In order to learn to paint light I realized I needed to go out and observe these differences (warm yellow, pink light vs. cool blue or violet light). By careful observation of the relationships of the shadow and light is how I also learned about finding the true values. Photographs don’t tell the whole truth and are unreliable.



“Marsh View” reference



Nancy Nowak, “Marsh View,” pastel on UArt 400, 9 x 12 in. ‘Painted en plein air in Lake Kiawah while I was teaching a workshop.’


My Painting Process – En Plein Air

I sandwich a couple of pieces of sanded paper in between some scored and folded foam core board, a process I learned from Richard McKinley. I use the foam core as a backer on which to tape my pre-mounted sanded paper, then I stick it up on my easel. For ”Right at The Corner”, I used one of my last pieces of Kitty Wallis Belgium Mist, only because I had limited time and I can get away with no underpainting.


“Right at the Corner” reference photo. ‘Just before the IAPS convention, I thought I’d get in a quick painting. I threw my backpack in the car and since I was by myself, I didn’t want to go far. I spotted this scene, right at the corner, just up the road from my house, and a place I drive by everyday. I wouldn’t have given this house a second look, but I saw this illuminated facade with vines making interesting shadow patterns (unfortunately, not seen in the photo). Luckily, there was a place to pull over and set up my easel.


One step I never skip is a good value study, squinting to simplify my scene into around 5 basic, interesting shapes of various sizes using 3-4 values. I try to join my same value dark shapes and my same value light shapes, even if they are different objects. This is where I will locate my soft edges. Value studies help set up a strong composition from the get-go and act as a guide to drawing out my finished design on my painting. I know if I have a dominant value and an interesting abstract design in my value study, I will most likely have an interesting painting. This helps work out many of the issues and problems that will arise so I don’t get stuck half way through the painting wondering why it’s not working. Also, changes are so much easier to make on a small thumbnail than on your big painting.

Nancy Nowak, “Right at the Corner,” quick value study. ‘Many of my value studies in the field are done so quickly that they tend to look like scribbles, even though they are well thought out.


I realized early on that good paintings tell a story and have a point of view. Since I want the viewer to have an emotional response to my painting, I have to be like a movie director. I have an intention of what I want my focus to be and what story I want to tell, and also, what’s unnecessary to the story that can be edited out. All this gets worked out before I begin to paint.

Armed with my values and composition, I begin with massing in my dark shapes. I use a broad range of pastels but my favorites are Terry Ludwig, Unison, Great American and Schminke. I usually use harder pastels (Cretacolor or Nupastel) for under paintings and the soft buttery ones (Ludwigs) for last strokes. As a pastelist, I never seemed to have the right green shade but Terry Ludwig’s set of 90 greens did the trick.



Nancy Nowak, “Right at the Corner,” pastel on Wallis Belgium Mist, 9 x 12 in. ‘I was absolutely over the moon to find out this won 1st place in The Pastel Journal Magazine 2016 Top 100. It’s a very rare occasion when all the stars align, when a painting seems to paint itself and everything works without a struggle. “Right at the Corner” just worked. I’m not sure if it was because I took the time to plan everything out ahead or I put no pressure on myself to make a good painting, or because time constraints limited my fussing with it. Probably a mixture of all of three.


In “Right at the Corner,” I jumped quickly into establishing the light – the warm yellowish white on the facade of the house (my inspiration). As soon as I made the strokes of the siding, I knew I didn’t want to layer any color, like I normally do. In this case, it didn’t need it. With the light changing fast, it was all about picking what I perceived as the right color, making a confident mark and moving on. My goal is to make clean confident strokes, get down the essentials in the correct value that I want to communicate, and leave it. I fight myself not to overwork areas. Less is more.

It’s a very simple, intimate painting and because of that, every mark, every value and every color had to feel right. It does have a certain amount of roughness and spontaneity but perhaps that’s what makes it feel more fresh and alive vs. a stiffly rendered studio painting. It would be so easy to overwork it but then it would go against my intention of just capturing the light and the impression.


When I’m not working on a colored surface, I always do an underpainting. My paper of choice is UArt 400. Since it’s a beige color, I can do many different kinds of underpaintings. I enjoy experimenting with different media – pastel, gouache, watercolor, even oil.

Underpaintings set up a guide or blueprint of the underlying shapes and values. They help me establish a background for the shadow areas so I can just skim pastel over the top. I draw out my shapes with pencil using my value study as a guide. This way, all I’m referring to is simple shapes, avoiding drawing out a complicated and detailed scene.

“Moment’s Peace” underpainting. ‘I was inspired by Richard McKinley’s watercolor underpainting and thought I’d have fun seeing what I could come up with. I let the watercolors just run into each other, not caring about colors flowing into each other and creating all those crazy drips.’


Starting to add pastel over the watercolour painting and keeping it loose.

Nancy Nowak, “Moment’s Peace,” 2016, pastel on UArt paper with watercolor underpainting and variety of pastel brands, 9 x 12 in. ‘Notice how the area around the lightest part of the foliage is actually neutral colors. This was purposely done as light colors appear brighter when next to grays. This painting was juried into the Enduring Brilliance 2016 Pastel Society of America Exhibition in September of 2016. It was also included in the International Pastel Exhibition in Rome, Italy in Oct. of 2017.


Once the shapes are rendered, using a hard Cretacolor or Nupastel, I usually skim a warm color, pink or yellow for the sky, orangish colors for the grass. This way, when I overlay the blue in the sky, it vibrates against the warm underlying color. The same goes for the green grass. Then, using Isopropyl alcohol, I brush it down carefully to fix the color and let it dry. Working from my reference, I use the lightest touch and begin by working dark to light, saving the details to the very last. I’m always thinking before I pick up a stick, is my next mark darker or lighter, cooler or warmer?

Pastel underpainting on UArt 400 paper for “Out in the Sticks.”


Nancy Nowak, “Out In the Sticks,” pastel on UArt 400, 11 x 14 in. ‘This scene is from the north Georgia mountains, along a side street, literally out in the sticks. I purposely used a limited palette of blues and its complementary color of light orange-ish color.


Color is one thing where we have lots of leeway. Stretching color, seeing how far I can take it without looking garish and phony is something I love to play with. Layering warm and cool colors on top of each other in pastel brings out those beautiful translucent vibrations. As long as they are the same value, you can use multiple layers of different colors without it getting a chalky looking.


Gouache underpainting on UArt Paper for “Ablaze.” ‘This painting was inspired by a demo I saw by Frank Federico where he used a sanded surface painted solidly in bright yellow with gouache overlay. Experimenting and keeping it very loose, I painted the three values in different colors, leaving the yellow for my lightest value, red for my medium value and blue for my darkest value. Note that I did not try to make a finished, detailed painting. I wanted the colors to run into each other and just composed interesting shapes.



“Ablaze” progression. ‘I begin to lay down color using different brands of pastel, working all over the surface. My color choices are intuitive, with a sense of fearlessness, not worrying about the outcome.’

Nancy Nowak, “Ablaze,” 2015, pastel on UArt 400 with a gouache underpainting, 11 x 14 in. ‘To me, this was an experimental piece but glad that people responded to it by winning The Terry Ludwig Award in this year’s UArt online show.’


Pastels are my first love, but I also paint in oils. It’s a pretty easy transition between both mediums and my process of painting is very similar. I also had a calligraphy business for many years. I realized it’s all mark-making: I use the side of the pastel in various ways and pressure to make marks just as I did with my calligraphy nibs and tools. The end of a paintbrush also makes a variety of different kinds of marks. Having a calligraphic background really aided in my ease of stroke-making, no matter what the medium.

Nancy Nowak, “Dripping,” 2016, pastel on UArt, 11 x 14 in. ‘Also painted in Lake Kiawah. My host took me to Magnolia Garden for a day of painting together.


I always believed that it’s important to have some kind of creative outlet, a passion, something to get the creative juices flowing. Art for me is my self-expression of the world around me in visual form. There is something magical about creating something from nothing. It’s our soul’s purpose to create, to add to this world something uniquely our own. It’s our own personal language expressing and interpreting the beauty that surrounds us. There is nothing more fulfilling than that.

6 thoughts on “Making the Mundane Magnificent

  1. Thanks for the fabulous demo yesterday at 2Smith gallery. Unfortunately I HAD to leave before you added finishing touches. May I ask how you “fix” your finished paintings or if at all before framing?
    Thank you!

    1. Thanks for coming, Cindy. I do not use fixative on the finished painting for it darkens the values. I just frame it behind glass.

    1. Tara, I teach out of my home studio in Suwanee, GA. I do teach workshops in various locations and look under “Workshops and Classes” on this website for specifics. Thanks for your inquiry! Please email me to discuss!

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