Q&A: How I Work With Pastels

"The Waning" South Korea - Pastel, 8x10

“The Waning” South Korea – Soft pastel on paper, 8×10″/20.3×25.4 cm

Recently, another artist working in pastels asked some questions about my own work. After typing a long Facebook message, I decided it might be smart to post this, instead! So here’s some info on how I work with pastels.

Q: Do you work from photos or on location or both?

A: I work from photos and on location. The larger pieces are all done from photos I’ve taken (or that my wife Ping has taken). I crop them using GIMP (a very good, free, open-source alternative to Photoshop!) and create a grid for them, if they’re particularly complex. I’ve done only a few plein air pieces in soft pastel, but I’ve been working up the nerve to do more. Most of my on-location work has been with Derwent “Inktense” permanent inks and ballpoint pen, which are very fast, compact and highly portable, and have proven to be best when I have only 10-40 minutes to paint. I can set up and tear down in less than a minute. I don’t think I’ve gotten the hang of doing plein air soft pastels yet, but I think it’s just lack of practice, frankly.

Q: Do you use a particular brand of soft pastel or different brands?

A: I use all different brands of pastels, any color and hardness that works for the piece: Rembrandt, Sennelier, Windsor-Newton and NuPastel. However, Mount Vision is probably my favorite because they’re just so consistent in texture, and just the right softness/hardness for my particular style. The colors and values are awesome. Sennelier also makes some marvelous dark shades which I use all the time. I also use Derwent pastel pencils which are “clean” enough that I can use them at the kitchen table without worrying about getting dust all over.

Q: You use colored paper, right?

A: I use colored paper almost exclusively, all different shades, leaning more toward blues, browns and purples, though I enthusiastically purchased several sheets of INTENSE orange which I have been working my way through, learning how to manage it as I go. I like leaving some paper showing through. It’s a great way to unify the color scheme, so white is not a particularly useful base. My favorite pastel paper is Fabriano Elle Erre which is actually classified as card stock, so you don’t usually find it with the other pastel papers. To me, it’s ideal: stiff enough to hold its own, available in all sorts of delicious colors, durable, toothy enough to take a TON of pastel, able to withstand multiple erasures, and cheaper than most pastel papers out there. Fabriano Tiziano has a bit more laid finish than I like, but it’s come in handy sometimes. Canson MiTeintes is pretty much industry standard, but it doesn’t have quite the tooth or the stiffness of the Elle Erre. Plus, I like the slightly larger sheet size of the Fabriano paper; 19 x27″ gives me just a bit more room to mask off an 18×24″ image. I almost invariably use the “back side” of any paper because I prefer a more random texture. However, one of my pieces that was accepted into a PSWC show was inadvertently begun on the laid finish side of a piece of Tiziano, and it turned out just fine!

Q: Do you fix the pastel at all?

A: I have not been fixing my pastels, but my wife has been encouraging me to try some different fixatives because the risk of damaging the painting is pretty high, especially when they’re unframed or being shipped anywhere. The old Krylon spray was great for colored pencil because it minimized wax bloom, brought out the intensity and deepened the darks–but that’s NOT what I want in my pastels. Fixative is notorious for darkening pastels. To my eye, it just makes them heavy and some of the subtleties get lost. I’ve had a little success with Sennelier’s pastel-specific fixative in a pump spray bottle, but I seem to need to leave my values a bit lighter to begin with, which I find difficult to do. I usually paint to exactly the value I want (something that has made working with acrylic a bit of a challenge, too). Pastelist extraordinaire Richard McKinley has recommended Spectra Fix, which I have on hand in concentrated form but have not tried yet. It’s supposed to do the job without darkening the pastels. The Taiwanese apparently use fixative on everything, but they also tend to like their pastels (and oils, and other media) rather heavy, at least to my taste.

Q: Do you frame your work, do you use glass or Perspex, with a mat?

A: When I was in the U.S., I framed my own pieces behind either glass or acrylic (some shows insist on acrylic, for safety reasons) and cut my own mats. I always taped the paper to a backing sheet of foamcore and used foamcore strips to ensure that the painting was set back from the mat so any dust would fall behind the mat. The framer in Tienmu, Taiwan, who has framed my acrylic work actually knows how to frame pastels just like I did, keeping them from touching the mat or the glass. My current pastels are unframed, unless they’re actually being delivered to someone. I use hooks made out of re-bent paper clips with dangling bull clips to hang my finished art on a rolling clothes drying rack we bought online–kind of like hanging out the laundry, really. This keeps them from resting on top of each other. The bigger pieces are pinned to Styrofoam and stacked with spacers. I have around 130 paintings in storage in the U.S., most of which are simply taped to foamcore and covered with glassine. Smaller pieces (</=8×10″) are stored flat with sheets of glassine or wax paper between them.

Well, this has been fun. I’ve been thinking about doing more pastels recently, and talking about them here whets my appetite for doing more of that “jazz on paper.” Hmmm…gotta finish that big canvas on my easel, and then maybe I’ll do some more pastels…or maybe I’ll just do a little on in my lap. That won’t take too long, right?

Thanks to Greg Winder for asking the original questions! 🙂