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Pastels & Me

By Jan Chesler

6th September, 2019

I fell in love with pastels from the moment I first saw their lustrous sheen on paper.  Being a self-taught artist, I had muddled through prior efforts to paint with watercolours, acrylics, coloured pencils and more.  I found pros and cons with each medium, but when I began to play with pastels, I was hooked.  The rich colours and immediacy of the medium spoke to me in ways the other media did not.

The past couple of years I have begun to study under various artists and have come to appreciate the qualities of pastels even more.  Some of my latest works have incorporated what I have learned from great artists like Jude Tolar, Dale Martin, Tandi Memmott, and others.

Recently I have become interested in trying out different surfaces for my pastels.  I have tried Canson papers, watercolour paper with gesso added, mat board with layers of gesso added, and various sanded papers.  I found pastelmat and sanded papers to be my favourites, particularly Kitty Wallis papers, as they hold more layers of pastels.  I have found them to be more workable than Canson paper or other surfaces.

Here is a sample of a recent painting I completed on Kitty Wallis paper.  Mediterranean Spring, 12×9, using a mix of hard Nupastels and Unison, Sennelier, and Terry Ludwig soft pastels.

The grit in the paper allowed me to utilize an alcohol/pastel underpainting, and then gradually to build the layers of colour to reflect the variety of trees in the distance and the mix of foliage and flowers in the foreground.  I was happy with the workability of the Wallis paper.  It holds up well to alcohol underpainting and multiple layers of pastel.

Another example of work on sanded paper is Purple Anthurium, 8×11.  I incorporated an alcohol/pastel underpainting here also.  I tend to start many paintings on sanded paper with an alcohol/pastel wash as it allows me quickly to block in an underpainting of colours and shapes.  Then I begin to add very soft layers of additional colours to add depth, luminosity, and interest.  I save the softest pastels for final touches, sometimes going with very hard, thick marks to emphasize an area of interest.  My favourite soft pastels are Unison, Terry Ludwig, and Sennelier.

An example of a painting completed on watercolour paper with multiple transparent gesso layers added is Tropical Paradise, 12×18.  The watercolour paper warped when I added the layers of gesso, but I let it dry and stacked heavy books on it and the paper flattened to its original shape.  I did not use an alcohol underpainting as I feared the paper would warp again.  It took multiple layers of pastels to cover all of the white paper.  If I use watercolour paper again, I will add a bit of acrylic paint to the gesso to give it a base colour that will work with my painting.

Another painting completed on watercolour paper with layers of transparent gesso is Valentine Bouquet, 12×16.  Overall, the watercolour paper with gesso worked okay, but I like the sanded papers better.  But if you have extra watercolour paper sitting around that you won’t use, try it out.  It certainly works.

As an alternative to sanded papers, recently I tried pastelmat for the first time.  On a positive note, it held more layers of pastels than I thought it would, but not as much as my sanded papers.  It is very workable.  On the down side, I tried letting some of the pastelmat show through on a painting, as I liked the background colour and it worked well with my painting, but I found the colour of the pastelmat did not photograph accurately, so I had to adjust my plans and cover the entire surface of the painting with pastels.  Also, the surface tends to have ripples and patterns in it that show up when you lay down a flat layer of colour.  This requires additional attention and care as you don’t want these patterns distracting from your painting.  But the pastelmat gives a very soft look to the final painting that I find works well when painting flowers and animals.

Here are a few examples of paintings on pastelmat.

A pastel painting of an Anemone, gently lit by the sun.
Sun-Kissed Anemone, 12×9, mixed hard and soft pastels on pastelmat.
A pastel flower painting.
Cottage Garden Roses, 15×12, mixed hard and soft pastels on pastelmat.
Backlit Beauties, 12×16, mixed pastels on pastelmat.
A pastel painting of a yellow Warbler bird.
Chilly Spring Morning, Nashville Warbler, 12×9, mixed pastels on pastelmat.

If you haven’t tried multiple surfaces, give it a go!  It’s fun to see the effects you can achieve with different formats.  Make your own surface by layering two or three coats of transparent gesso to mat board or watercolour paper, add some acrylic paint to the gesso if you want to change the colour of the paper.  If you haven’t tried sanded papers, you will want to try them.  They come in various grits depending on how much tooth you want.  They hold up to scrubbing and alcohol washes, watercolour under-paintings, and they hold many layers of pastels.  And pastelmat is so soft and smooth.  The finished look can be quite dreamy.  Mix it up and try something new.  You never know.  You might find a new favourite!

You can check out my work at https://jan-chesler.pixels.com/art

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