Art Blog

Mini Art Lesson #4: Oil Pastels for Beginners

Waiting, Oil Pastel on Pastel Paper, 16 x 12 inches by Susan E. Brooks, based on a photo from the archives of Kentucky Refugee Ministries, with their permission.

I discovered oil pastels while studying art in college.  I don’t know why I picked them up in the first place, and I remember being frustrated with in the beginning.  One of my early attempts was a ballerina whose face looked like that of an ape, sending my professors into spasms of laughter.  It’s a painful memory I’ve rarely shared publicly.

In spite of that failure, I kept at it, and I discovered if I used a textured board and kept my work large, striking portraits began to emerge from the background.  The pastels were so intense I had to mix the colors on the surface of the painting.  I found that not having the exact skin colors of pastels forced me to used a mixture of colors. Those mixtures became magic for me, and I developed my own style using oil pastels.  I’ll share a few oil pastel techniques below:

  1. Use a medium to dark color of textured pastel paper or mat board. The bright colors of the pastels will glow against a dark background.
  2. Try crosshatching layers of colors, allowing the background color to show through in some areas.
  3. Build up thick, buttery layers of oil pastel color, adding unique textures to the artwork. It’s almost like you are painting with oil pastels. Better brands such as Van Gogh or Cray-Pas Specialist artist quality oil pastels work best for building layers of color. I have found these at Preston Arts Center.
  4. For more on using color, see my post on the color wheel.

That’s enough for now. Feel free to ask questions in the comments. Experiment and enjoy!

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Monday’s Mini Art Lesson #3: The Color Wheel

Beauty in Darkness, Oil Pastel on Paper, 12 x 12 inches, by Susan E. Brooks, available at KORE Gallery, 942 E. Kentucky St., Louisville, KY and online at

I love color! Some may think the color wheel is only for children, but there is much more to understanding the use of color than placing the colors correctly on the wheel. The color wheel is a good jumping off place for color theory, so I do use it early on in my teaching. I use color wheel complements constantly in my artwork, such as the pairs of complements used above: orange with blue, and yellow with purple. I’ll explain later, but for now, let’s look at the color wheel.

You can make a simple color wheel with color pencils, paints or pastels.

Color theory can be intense, but I’ll boil it down to a few practical points you need to know as a beginner.

The three primary colors are blue, red, and yellow.

That means you cannot mix those colors from other colors. In theory, and mostly in practice, all of the other colors can be mixed from those three colors (except white, and we could argue about whether or not it’s a color, but I’m not going there). The colors in between those three colors on the wheel, can be mixed by combining the primaries. Yellow and blue make green, red and blue make purple, and red and yellow make orange. All other variations are achieved by adding white or black and varying amounts of different colors. (I’m not arguing about black either.)

The oranges are intensified by the dark blue background. This is an example of complementary contrast. Also at KORE Gallery or online at

Color wheel complements are opposites on the color wheel.

The colors directly across from each other on the wheel are called complementary colors or opposite colors. The main pairs are green and red, yellow and purple, and orange and blue. Using these colors adjacent to one another can create intense eye-popping contrast! On the other hand, mixing or layering these opposites creates various neutral tones such as grays and tans. I use these principles constantly and never tire of experimenting with color combinations.

That’s enough for today. Create your color wheel and start experimenting with color wheel complements in your drawing and painting!

Bonus for teachers: I found a couple of fun activities on Pinterest you can use to create a color wheel while also introducing perspective drawing! Follow the links below for more creative activities: and

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Monday’s Mini Art Lesson #2: Values and Shading Techniques

Dorothy, by Susan E. Brooks, 11 x 8 inches, Pencil on Paper

What’s so important about values?

Values are variations of darks and lights in our artwork. As an art teacher for many years, I encouraged my students to push dark values and contrast in their work. When they entered art contests, I would show them that the winning entries nearly always had lots of light and dark contrast to catch the eyes of the judges. Too often, a talented student would have a nice pencil drawing she had rendered accurately, but it was just a light outline that paled in comparison with a drawing full of contrast and a range of values from dark to light. Even a quick sketch like the one above needs to have dark areas that draw the eye towards the centers of attention, such as the eyes and the smile.

Tanzanian Girl, by Susan E. Brooks, 8 x 5 inches, Pencil on Paper

How do I add values?

You add values to a drawing by shading. So many shading techniques exist, but let’s start with these three: filling in an area with the point of the pencil, laying the pencil sideways, and cross hatching.

  1. Around the eyes and mouth of the portraits above, I filled in those smaller areas by pushing harder with the point of a softer, darker pencil, such as a 6B.
  2. In the larger areas that needed shading, I laid the pencil sideways and used a broader stroke to shade.
  3. To shade around the nose and mouth on the Dorothy sketch, I used cross hatching. To cross hatch, you put down a series of parallel lines, and then go back over them with a second set of lines in another direction to darken the area. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, but you might want to practice on scratch paper before attempting it on a favorite drawing.

That’s enough for now. Experiment with shading and push those values!

For more on pencil drawing and to see my time-lapse drawing video, go to Mini Art Lesson #1, Pencil drawing for beginners at

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Monday’s Mini Art Lesson #1: Pencil Drawing for Beginners

Beauty in Ghana by Susan E. Brooks, Pencil on Paper, 5 x 7 inches

Pencil drawings can be preparatory sketches for larger paintings or beautiful artwork in themselves. Pencil drawing ideas range from simple geometrical shapes to flowers to complex portraits. Whether you choose to draw from life or from photos, the following tips should be helpful.

1. Know your graphite pencil scale.

Graphite pencils are labeled according to their hardness and blackness.* Think “H” for hard and “B” for black. “HB” is the hardest pencil in many sketching sets, probably because softer, darker “B” pencils are better for shading. For shading, the higher the number, the darker the “B” pencil. “8B” is the darkest, softest pencil in my set.

2. Start your outline with a harder pencil.

Use an “HB” on a “2B” to begin drawing your outline. While you are establishing proportion and accuracy, the hard pencil will erase easily and smear less than the softer, darker one.

3. Once your outline is established, switch to a softer pencil for shading.

Look for the darker areas, and begin to shade lightly with a “2B” or “4B” pencil. You may want to use overlapping crosshatching marks, or lay the pencil on its side for a thicker mark. A third option is to let your pencil shading follow the curve of the edges of your subject.

4. Switch to a softer, darker pencil for the darkest areas.

As you finish up with shading, think about the darkest areas and use a “6B” or higher pencil to darken and add contrast to the drawing. The area with the strongest dark/light contrast will probably become the center of attention, so choose your darks strategically.

In later posts, I will explain values, shading techniques, and positive and negative space. Until then, play with different pencils and have fun with your drawing!



Thin Places, Mom, and the Milkshake

At Mom’s Window by Susan E. Brooks, 18 x 24, Oil Pastel on Paper

At Mom’s Window is inspired by a crazy photo I took while looking in at Mom on a visit to her window. Somehow, all the barriers blurred. The reflections from the window showed the happy sky that seemed oblivious to my grief, as well as the flowers we all sent to hang outside to cheer her. The photo also showed Mom and the faithful aid feeding her the milkshake, along with the edge of my phone, framing them in. It all seemed symbolic of the time we’re living in, and it looked like a magic door I wish I could step through, like in Narnia, to suddenly be inside the nursing home with Mom, giving her a hug.

This artwork also reminds me of a story I shared earlier this summer about thin places and the wonderful way the nursing home staff takes care of Mom. In case you missed it, here’s the video:

Let’s keep our eyes open for thin places, where barriers are blurred, and heaven touches earth.

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Mixing Colors for Acrylic Painting

Blackberry Lily, 6 x 6 Inches, Acrylic on Canvas, the original was donated to Prints are available at

Acrylic painting is great for beginners or pros. Acrylic paints dry much more quickly than oils, so colors need to be mixed and used immediately to avoid waste. Mixing too much paint at one time can lead to big blobs of paint that dry before they can be used. Acrylics require a little planning, but they are less expensive than oils and easier to clean up, requiring only soap and water. If you want to plan a simple painting, see my article “Acrylic Painting for Beginners in Seven Steps.” Follow the steps below to mix your colors for one section at a time.

  • Choose your colors.

Keep it simple if you’re a beginner by choosing a small number of colors. The names on the paint tubes can be confusing. To paint a red flower against a green background, for example, you will need a red, which in the tubes can be a dark purply red (sometimes called crimson) a medium red (scarlet) or a red-orange (cadmium red light or vermilion). Other names may also be used, but usually the color on the tube is close. Choose the red that is closest to your subject. Though green can be mixed from blue and yellow, it is sometimes difficult to mix the shade you want, so you may want to buy viridian, which is a lovely dark green, and you can add yellow and white to it to lighten it. Ultramarine blue is a dark blue that I like to use instead of black to darken my greens or to mix a dark red-violet. Here’s a list of paints for a red flower painting:

Crimson (red)

Cadmium Red (red-orange)

Viridian (green)

Zinc White (generally flows better than Titanium White)

Ultramarine Blue

Cadmium Yellow Light or Lemon Yellow

  • Mix the background color.

The area behind the drawing is your background color. It may be blue for the sky or green for a close-up flower painting. For a green background, using a palette knife, mix some of your green color with a little white, and some with a little yellow, so you have three different shades of green, and quickly, paint the background.

Go ahead and paint the edges while you have your colors mixed. Then you won’t need to frame it if you prefer not to.
  • Choose the color for the next largest area that is behind the details.

For example, paint the main color of the flower petals red before adding spots, shadows, or stamen. Again, mix the red with a little yellow or white to lighten it, or add a tiny bit of the ultramarine blue for darker shadow areas.

  • Begin to add details.

Think about the center of interest where you want to have the most detail and contrast. Mix a tiny bit of blue into the red for shadow areas. Light and dark contrast will draw attention, so mix dark and light colors for the important section of the painting. Add yellow or white or both to lighten the red. Adding yellow leads to orange and adding white leads to pink.

  • Mix small amounts of colors for the final touches.

Evaluate what you have left to paint and mix small amounts of those colors. You may need a light green (add yellow) and a shadow green (add dark blue) to finish up the stems or leaves. You may be able to use a little yellow right out of the tube for pollen or spots of color on the petals. Go slowly at this point, using your detail brush, and stop when you are pleased.

I hope you enjoy your painting! For more help with acrylic painting follow this link.

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Acrylic Painting for Beginners in Seven Steps

Resurrection Hope, 8×8 inches, Acrylic on Canvas, Sold, but prints are available at

Acrylic painting seems to be more and more popular, and it can yield beautiful results. Acrylic paints are less expensive than oils and easier to clean up, requiring only soap and water. They dry quickly, which can be a positive or a negative, depending on the artist’s personality. For beginners or pros, acrylics are a great option. The following list will walk you through acrylic painting, step by step.

  1. Sketch your subject.

Keep it simple if you’re a beginner by choosing a small canvas and one object as a center of attention. Don’t put the object in the middle of the canvas. An off-center composition is much more interesting. Fill the space, and you may want to let the object go off the edges of the canvas. This can be more interesting as well. You can sketch lightly with a pencil, or if you’re more experienced, you may want to sketch with a small brush.

Don’t worry about the edges when you paint the background. Just leave enough of your drawing showing to guide you later.
  1. Paint the background.

Fill in the area behind the drawing with the background color quickly, painting over the edges of the drawing. Limit your colors to a few to avoid muddy colors. You will paint the foreground over theses edges later, so don’t stress about getting it perfect and staying within the lines. You can add details and clean it up later. As a general rule, the foreground should be more detailed and in focus than the background, so just enjoy the flow at this point.

  1. Paint the next largest area that is behind the details.

For example, paint the main color of the flower petals before adding spots, shadows, or stamen. You may want to add a stem or two first if they are behind the flower petals.

  1. Begin to add details.

At this point, think about the area of the painting that should be the center of interest. You want to have the most detail and contrast there.

  1. Choose your sharp edges and your soft edges.

Sharp edges will draw attention and come forward while soft edges will recede into the background. You may want most of the background to be soft and out of focus.

  1. Add the final touches without overworking it.

Look for the areas that need a little more detail or definition or correction, but don’t over do it! If an area works like it is, let it be. Fresh, loose, and free is a good thing. Avoid the temptation to smooth out every brushstroke. Texture is part of the beauty of painting and what distinguishes it from photography. Too much texture in the background can be confusing, but it is also a matter of taste. Enjoy, and stop when you are pleased with it!

  1. Clean up with dishwashing liquid and water.

Wipe the excess paint off of your brushes with a paper towel, rinse your brushes with water, and then clean them with a little dishwashing liquid or a brush cleaner. Always shape the bristles of your brush back into their original shape—flat, round, or pointed— before storing the brush flat or bristles up in a jar. If you have a reusable palette, scrape it and clean it immediately before the paint dries permanently.

Now you’re all set! Next week, more about mixing colors with acrylics.

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Be Like a Tree

Willow Blues on the Ohio, Oil on Canvas, 11×14, painted at Captain’s Quarters in Louisville, KY, by Susan E. Brooks

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

—Psalms 1:3 (NIV)

            Which season is this? After moving from Kentucky to Mozambique, Africa, it was sometimes difficult to tell. In Mozambique in December, my Christmas candles bent completely over like the Golden Arches in the extreme heat. When it wasn’t raining, the sun beamed into our bedroom at 4:00 a.m., and we woke up soaked in sweat.

Then in June through August, sand storms blew so hard we had to shield our eyes just to walk outside. Though the temperature rarely fell much below fifty degrees, the homes had no heat, so we felt the cold, especially after the sweltering rainy season. Our sense of seasons was off balance, but God knew exactly what season it was, not only for Mozambique, but for our lives.

Seasons of change and unrest come and go, such as the season of the pandemic or the season of civil rights movements. How can we stay rooted and productive when we may not even understand what season it is?

Psalm 1 says we need to be like a tree planted close to the water, which is our Source. Then we will bear fruit in season, even if we may not know what season it is. If we stay close to the life stream, fruit will come naturally at just the right time.

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A Mother’s Hope

This oil pastel painting is based on a photo from the archives of Kentucky Refugee Ministries. In the photo, the child is sitting on a parachute, relaxed, surrounded by vibrant colors. The colorful painting communicates joy and shows an innocent, carefree childhood moment. Every mother hopes her children will be able to enjoy a happy childhood without adult-level fears, at least until they are a little older.

On the surface this is a happy painting, but as the artist, I cannot help but think that too many children do not have the worry-free life they deserve. One of the reasons for the current uprising is that the moment depicted in this painting is all too rare for BIPOC children. I hope we can all work together to make a better world where our children, including BIPOC children, can live happy and free. This is not the land of the free until we are all free.

A Mother’s Hope, Oil Pastel on Paper, 18×24 inches. Based on a photo from the archives of Kentucky Refugee Ministries
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The Evolution of a Painting: Modern Day Good Samaritan and Merton’s Epiphany

In January of 2019, I had an idea for a painting. Perhaps I could illustrate the Parable of the Good Samaritan from the gospel of Luke. How would Jesus have told the story if he were living in the US in 2019?

As I thought about the painting, I wanted to emphasize the fact that in the parable, Jesus chose to identify the hero of the story as a person representing an oppressed minority, a Samaritan. Who could represent an oppressed minority in the US in 2019? I chose a Black Muslim woman as the heroine of my painting.

Stage one of Modern Day Good Samaritan and Merton’s Epiphany

With the plan in mind, I drew a white man who had been injured, and a Muslim woman who had stopped to help. I used photos from downtown Louisville as references for the streets and buildings in the background.

As I worked, I became agitated, worrying about how some might respond to this painting. Then this happened:

Stage 2: In my angst over how this might be received, I started throwing paint at the canvas.

I started hurling yellow paint, then red paint, then more yellow paint at the canvas. All the while I was thinking, “Why should this be controversial?” (Paint splat!) “Jesus was always standing up for minorities!” (Paint splat!) “How can we be so divided that I’m afraid to paint what I feel or think?” (Another paint splat.) I threw paint until I was calmed down a bit.

Stage 3: The yellow lights reminded me of Merton’s epiphany.

As I continued to work, the yellow lights made me happy. They reminded me of Merton’s epiphany in downtown Louisville when he felt a love for everyone, and saw them all as “shining like the sun.” I hoped love would always be the background for my art and all my communications. I then added the male religious figure in the distance, ignoring the problem, matching the biblical account of the leaders who walked past the injured man without helping.

Modern Day Good Samaritan and Merton’s Epiphany
Acrylic and Oil Pastel on Canvas
36 x 48 inches

This is how the painting turned out. The woman is looking straight out of the painting, confronting the viewer. Sometimes I am tempted to look away from my friends and the oppression they endure, but my God, help me not look away. I will try to see all people as Merton did, “shining like the sun,” but the heroes and heroines in the 2020 Parable of the Good Samaritan are my black sisters and brothers, the peaceful freedom fighters who link arms to protect lone policemen and sing worship songs in the middle of a downtown protest. If Jesus were walking the streets of Louisville today in the flesh, he would likely be standing with them.