Pastel painting – tips and equipment

Firstly, there are the pastels themselves. They are made from pure powdered pigment bound with a small quantity of gum binder (low quality pastels have chalk added). Pastels come in many varieties (hard, soft, sticks, pencils, etc.) but they are essentially all the same: the final choice is largely a matter of personal preference.

What’s probably more important is the type of paper you use with pastels. When pastel is drawn across a surface, the pigment crumbles, and so deposits on that surface. Using the right type of paper ensures that the deposited pastel sticks to the paper, and doesn’t just lounge on the surface. In other words, a good pastel paper will have a “tooth”, or grab.

Tooth and texture are not the same things. Velour paper has a sumptuous soft texture, but not much tooth. Art Spectrum Colourfix type papers have little texture, but a fantastic tooth – like very fine sandpaper. The choice of paper is often down to what sort of painting you want to make. Briefly, the more toothy the paper, the more pastel it will grab, allowing greater colour mixing and tint intensity. However, a strong tooth can restrict the ability to record fine detail. The final choice is often a bit of a compromise, and down to experimentation, but the key point is – don’t use any old paper to paint with pastels; use a paper made specifically for pastels.

Pastel work requires a fair amount of blending and reworking: some pastel painting techniques require the use of water, so it is important to use a paper that is robust. My personal recommendation is that you use the heaviest weight pastel paper you can buy – something that will stand-up to a bit of a battering.

A final consideration is paper colour. Pastel papers come in a large variety of shades and although white is usually an available option; it is rarely a good choice. Coloured papers are preferable for a number of reasons. Unlike paints, pastel work often allows some of the surface of the paper to show through. Choose a paper colour that is sympathetic to the overall colour of the painting you want to make, and the background colour will serve to compliment and subtly unify your picture. The paper colour you choose will also help to set a mood for the picture. Finally, in the same way that painters normally lay-down a base colour on a white canvas (as a first step in their painting), choosing a coloured paper has the same effect (you’re on your way before you even start to draw).

Getting the pastel on to the paper requires techniques above and beyond simply drawing on the surface. Once you have made a mark, you normally need to do something further – bend, smudge, fix, erase/clean-up, etc. You can use your fingers, but a few simple tools do a much better job.

Torchillons (or paper stumps) are good for “fixing” and “short” blending. What I mean by fixing (in this context) is pressing the pastel into the paper so that it is less inclined to smudge, and/or has a sharp defined edge (e.g. for detailed work). What I mean by short blending is where you wish to smudge over a small distance (e.g. to blend two different colours along their border).

A brush is great for softer blending (a graduation of colour or tone). While a torchillon pushes the pastel into the tooth of the paper, a brush lifts and carries the pigment, so you achieve a more gradual blend.

It is also possible to buy something called a “colour carver” (best described as a pointy bit of rubber with a paint brush style handle). These perform like a super torchillons (they really push the pastel into the tooth). They also act like a wet-on-wet paintbrush, and permit thickly laid pastel to flow like paint. However, over do it, or press too hard, and they act like an eraser (a job normally best left to an eraser).

Talking of erasers, you’ll need one of these too. It isn’t there to correct mistakes; it is necessary for cleaning-up (because pastel doesn’t tend to stay where you put it). The best type is a putty eraser. These are very soft and can be pinched into points or thin edges to take out tiny dots or thin lines of colour from your picture, without doing any damage to the paper.

What about sharpening pastel pencils? The options are knives, sandpaper, pencil sharpeners. Opinion varies, but I use a good pencil sharpner (when I absolutely need to) and accept that pastel pencils don’t last forever.

Pastel painting is a very messy business. I often think of pastel work as painting with dust. This is why it’s best to use the tools described above, rather than rely on fingers. Get your hands dirty and you will inevitably make a mess.

Guess what? There is even more equipment you can acquire to help deal with the dust problems, but before I get into that, I think I need to explain the dust issue a bit more. It doesn’t matter what type of pastels you use, what type of paper you work on, or how much you push and blend the pastel into the tooth, the fact remains that some of it will grab, and some of it will just sit on the surface of the paper as dust. The problem is that the dust is going to move at sometime and pollute its surroundings. For example, black next to white is going to drift and grey the white, while the white will waft onto the black and lighten it.

One solution is a pastel easel. These tilt forward, so the dust will mainly fall onto the ground below. However, if you don’t like “doing it standing up” (so to speak), this may not be the answer. I “do it flat”, and use scrap paper to cover the areas of my picture that I’m not working on (in the style of a surgeon). It’s not foolproof, but it helps a little. Some advocate blowing across the surface of the paper to shift dust (but you need to take care not to accidentally spit) or use compressed air (sold in spray cans) instead. When I blow, I carefully choose the best direction in which to blow the dust; the one that causes the least damage to sensitive colours. I try to blow only when I absolutely must: it removes dust, but also spreads it.

The final bit of equipment you may need is a fixative spray. Opinion is divided on the use of fixatives. Pastel is possibly the most permanent media there is. There is no oil to cause darken or cracking. The pigments are far more permanent that their watercolour counterparts. The only weakness is the detachment of the pigment from the paper though rough handling. Some say, give the picture a good shake, and frame it under glass. My picture framer says he hates framing unfixed pastels.

There is no doubt, fixative does dull pastel, but it has a number of positive benefits. The first is …. it fixes pastel and stops the dust. The second is that it can be used before a painting is finished to renew the gab of a paper. When you just cannot get any more pastel to stick to the paper, spray with fixative and the problem is solved. Thirdly, it allows control over what you do and don’t want to smudge (e.g. when overlaying colours). Don’t use hair spray (except on your hair): use a purpose made pastel fixative. Don’t over do it (in terms frequency and amount). Paint for as long as you can before fixing unfinished work. Apply several light coats rather than one heavy one. Re-work highlights as the final step of any painting, and don’t fix these.

Portrait artist working mainly from clients’ own photographs. Portraits by John Burton