Sketch pads, Pause Buttons & Pastel Dust

One of my past tutors described pastel painting as “Drawing with Colour”. I must admit I can’t think of a better description.  Pastel painting certainly demands a constant attention to sketching and drawing with lead and charcoal to maintain one’s ability to produce good final products. It is with this in mind that I am using this Blog to give you some hints on the strategies I have adopted over the years. I finish off with a novel way of recycling.

Sketch pads

We use sketchbooks and pads in different ways. For some it is a way that compositions can be mapped out and altered in preparation for the final bigger picture. Many of us want to capture the moment whereas some merely doodle from which new ideas evolve. How many times however, do we see something and regret that we didn’t bring paper and pencil with us. Not all of us can be like Toulouse Lautrec who could doodle on the menu card at the Folies Bergere. For me that used to happen a lot (not doodling on a menu card at the Folies Bergere!) and so it prompted me to have my materials always at hand. I now have small sketchbooks (A5 or A6) and pencils permanently in the side door of my car, in my backpack whilst out walking and even in the lounge (more of that later). This has meant that whenever I see something interesting, whether it is the sight of summer visitors lounging in a park…

interior objects, plants, and architecture indoors…

…or paintings and sculptures in a gallery, there is always something at hand to use.

I remain quite self conscious when painting outside (I’m most uncomfortable with a passing audience) and so it is rare that I do ‘plein air’ painting and, by using simple non conspicuous equipment I don’t attract attention. More importantly I can quickly pack up when ready to move on or when it rains! The pads don’t have to be large; in fact only big enough to fit into a coat pocket and I tend to carry one drawing implement. In this regard I can certainly recommend the Koor-I-Noor Mechanical Clutch Holder carrying a large 3 or 4B lead, which may seem heavy and cumbersome but is quite capable of producing fine lines as well as general shading.

Stuart's pencils.

I may not use any of these doodles but it certainly helps in keeping my skills in good condition.

The Pause Button

Following on from this, I mentioned that I always have a pad and pencil in the television room. There are times that watching TV has to be interrupted, whether by an unexpected phone call, the need to pop out for a coffee or to the loo. The natural instinct in this instance is to use the Pause button to suspend the action and this has provided an excellent opportunity to take advantage to increase my drawing skills. Very often the freeze captures figures, faces and actions in most unusual positions – ideal to dash down a copy. The essence of this is speed and one wouldn’t want to delay the programme for too long. Consequently, getting into the habit of trying to capture what’s on the screen in no more than 2-4 minutes is a very useful discipline. Even 30 seconds is an exercise to capture the essentials of say, a ‘University Challenge’ team in discussion.

Stuart's sketches while watching TV.

I always remember attending life classes where the model changed position every 5 minutes which concentrated the mind no end. You had to be quick to get the essential bits down on to the paper.  I am enclosing examples from ‘Masterchef, the Professionals’, the ‘Repair Shop’ and the TV comedy ‘Outnumbered’ as illustrations of figures and figures.

In sport, one can stop the action to try and capture the movement and interaction of players, something one can only get from still photos.  I illustrate this with instances from football and rugby as well as capturing the instant when a footballing crowd reacts on the scoring of a goal.

Pastel Dust

At home I use a table easel with my painting taped on to an upright board. The easel has a gutter which serves as a suitable trap for the pastel dust that accumulates during a painting session without the inevitable mess it could produce on the table, floor and one’s person. I tend to use Sennelier Pastel Card which has a high tooth texture from the impregnated thin layer of ground cork particles. It has the advantage of holding the pastel without the dulling effect one can sometimes get with fixative sprays. This inevitably produces more residual dust than the finer textured papers.

Some time ago I read from a magazine a pastellist suggesting that one could collect the dust and as it still contains some of the binder, could be moulded into a pastel stick. I decided to experiment with this and at the end of every session I carefully brushed the dust from the gutter into a little pot. Having done this for a number of weeks I took the plunge and added water to the pot. At first there didn’t seem to any mixing of the water and dust and so, after trying to stir it, I abandoned it with a sense of disappointment. Three days later however I found that admixture had occurred producing a thick mud, albeit impossible to work. Left a few days longer it had dried so that I could scrape it out with a palette knife and fashion it into a stick of sorts. As one can see I now have a very useful pastel stick made up from all the colours I have used in the past. Although the end product may seem a muddy green grey, it is now frequently used in my palette to make interesting tonal accents. Nothing comes to waste!

I hope these little musings may stimulate you to try out some novel ways of expanding your repertoire of painting.

Stuart Walton

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14 Responses

  1. Really enjoyed this post Stuart – lots of good tips and I’m going to have a go at using all my unison dust to make a pastel 🙂 Nigel

  2. Thanks, Stuart – great tips: I’m going to try them all, and I appreciate your honesty re plein air painting! It’s good to know that confidence doesn’t equal competence.

  3. Loved the bit about making new pastels!
    There is definitely something about working small, less restricting and helps to get the art started again

  4. Hi Stuart, love the notion through out that nothing is to be wasted, the combination of both time and materials , both precious, love use of telly time and great drawings ! thank you

  5. I enjoyed this read and the sample sketches. I need to do more sketching of everyday things around me.
    I very much appreciated you sharing your reluctance to plein air paint. People do tend to want to stop and see…. I recently read an article about a painter who
    has concocted his own steering wheel paint set up…. so he can find a scene, let down the window, and plein air from his car. I may give that a go at some point.
    I, too, collect my pastel dust by emptying my tray into a zip loc bag. I have yet to try making a pastel from the dust…. but it sounds like the one piece you did make is serving you well. I have pastel friends who actually separate in bottles by colors…. but I am not that precise.
    The pandemic did a number on me and I seemed to lose my mojo for paints or pastels…. at a time when I could have painted all day long. I’m working hard to get back into doing something daily, however small or simple..
    Best regards!

  6. Отличные советы, Стюарт! Всегда иметь под рукой бумагу и карандаш это признак настоящего художника! Прекрасная тренировка приведет к успеху в творчестве. Интересные опыты по использованию пыли от пастели. Творческий подход! Спасибо!

  7. Superb write up, thank you for this. I found it inspirational and thought it was just
    me who draws from the paused tv.

  8. I was interested in your using pastel dust. I gather mine and put it in a stocking foot, knot it and it gives me a great tool to use ( the dust comes through the stocking mesh) when blocking out my life drawing shapes before I draw it up. Sometimes I even crush the small bits too small to hold.

  9. Really found your post encouraging especially using the dust from your pastels to make your own pastel colour mix.

  10. Really enjoyed your blog, especially about en plein air, always take too much stuff. Will change to something that will fit into a pocket. Thankyou

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