Pastels are one of the most immediate and satisfying mediums to work in. They are, in essence, sticks of pure pigment held together with glue binding. There are different grades of pastel depending on the strength of the binding. It is essential to experiment with different degrees of hard or soft pastels if one is to understand the medium, Very different effects can be created with hard as opposed to soft pastels.
Soft pastels are made with artist’s pigments that are mixed with a solution of gum tragacanth or gum arabic. Hard pastels are made with the some pigments, but contain more gum binder. Hard pastels also have the advantage of being able to be sharpened and shaped to achieve more precise effects. One can also buy pastel pencils that are encased in wood. These pencils can also be used with watercolor and for detailed drawing techniques.
Texture is a crucial element in choosing a support, as the pastel needs “tooth” or textural areas on which to adhere to. There are a number of surfaces on which you may choose to work, including pastel boards and paper. However, almost any surface that has sufficient texture can be used, including canvas.
One of the disadvantages of pastel papers is that the texture may be shallow and a second or third layer of pastel may not adhere well to the paper. Of course, the choice of a surface depends to a large degree on the subject matter and the style of the envisaged pastel work. If you are considering a simple sketch then a daily smooth surface will do. If, on the other hand, you wish to create a work that has color and spatial depth, you may need to choose support with a more intense texture
Making your own support for pastel
Here is one method of making a surface for pastel drawing that can be adapted to your needs. Take a piece of hardboard or strong paper and cover it lightly with wood glue or an acrylic adhesive. Before the glue dries, take some fine sand and sprinkle it over the paper and glue. The amount of texture that you wish to achieve can be regulated by the amount of sand you apply to the surface. Once the glue is dry, take the support and tilt it so that the excess sand falls off. A textured surface remains on
which you can start drawing. You can even take sandpaper at this stage to even out or reduce the textured surface.
Creating a colored background
A pastel painting if often enhanced by beginning with a wash of color as an underling background to your drawing. Choose the color of this wash carefully as this color will serve to “pull” the different elements of the drawing or painting together. For example, a warm color like orange can be used to give an overall tone and mood to your drawing. The underpainting can be allowed to show through the final drawing, and in this way, a sense of unity can be achieved in the composition of the work.
One of the easiest ways to create a background is to crush some soft pastel into it power form and to mix this with water. This essentially makes a watercolor wash and a large brush can be used to spread the color on the surface. Alternatively, a normal wash of acrylic or watercolor can be used. One can also create a background by rubbing the dry pastel into the surface of the support with a cloth. This tends to give a very smooth and even texture to the background.
Pastel sticks are normally used in the same way that you would hold a pencil. You can also draw with the sides of a pastel for broad strokes. Pressure is all-important in practicing pastel techniques. The amount of pressure that you apply on the paste will determine the richness and depth of the pastel color.
I suggest that you experiment with pastels on different grades of paper and various supports until you have become used to the way in which pastel adheres to the surface under different conditions. Experimentation with pastel, using hatching, dabbing and other techniques cannot be overemphasized. Many artists find pastels difficult simply because they have not spent the time to become acquainted with the medium.
There are two basic drawing techniques to begin experimenting with. The first is to use the point of the pastel and experiment with line and degrees of line thickness. The second is to use sides of the pastels and create short sharp marks known as hatching marks.
Pastel work achieves its depths and wonderful glowing quality from the application of layers of pastel pigment over each other. Each layer adds to the overall richness. Layering means that you add a layer of form or color to a previous layer. Usually with soft pastel, the layer that is being covered over has to be “fixed”. This means the layer has to be sprayed with some form of fixative so that the next layer will not disturb the powdery pastel to any great extent. When starting with pastel have a look at some of the great pastel masters, like Degas. You will notice the rich texture and the depth of some his works. Degas used the layering technique extensively and is also said to have used a special binding liquid, partly made from tealeaves, to achieve his effects.
As discussed, the support you use should have enough texture, or ” tooth” to hold the layers of pigment. However, as one builds up layers of drawing and color it often happens that the texture of the support is not sufficient and the pastel power begins to fall off the support. In this case, special fixatives are needed which are produced by all major art manufacturers to
” fix” or adhere to the layer of pigment to the support.
These fixatives are sprayed on, but a word of caution here. Use fixatives sparingly. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the beginner is inclined to want to fix his or her drawing too often. Fixatives can also detract from the natural beauty of the pure pigment and, if sprayed too harshly, will tend to darken the natural colors. Each and every pastel drawing should be given a light fixative spray on completion in order to preserve the work. Try to avoid the use of fixatives if you can by preparing or choosing support that has sufficient texture.
Soft edge and hard edge
Another technique that is often used in Pastel drawing and painting is to soften the edges of object to give the illusion of space and distance. Foreground details would be treated with a more hard-edge technique. In other words, the artist would emphasize the outlines of the foregrounded figures with distinct outlines, while blending the edges of distant objects.
Blending and manipulation of pigment is part of the beauty of this medium. Pastel is a very direct medium and a number of methods can be used to create transitions of shape and color very easily. A special tool called a torchon, which is tightly rolled paper usually ending in a point, can be used to make subtle blends. Pastel can be blended easily using a tissue or even the fingers to achieve subtle gradations of shape and color very quickly.
It should not be forgotten that, although pastel colors are usually applied directly onto the face in using the pastel sticks, one can also mix pastel colors using the same principles as in oil or acrylic. For example, one can blend red and yellow immediately on the surface of the support to achieve various shades of orange. A major part of the attraction of pastel is this immediacy and innovation that occurs spontaneously as one draws and paints in this versatile medium.