Painting Pastel Miniatures

Have you ever wanted to sharpen your mark making skills or improve your ability to simplify a scene to get the best composition? Both of these important skills will improve if you start painting ATC’s or Artist Trading Cards.

Conceived by Swiss artist M. Vänçi Stirnemann in 1997, these miniature paintings have maintained popularity throughout the world, and for good reason. First, their tiny size of 2 1⁄2 by 3 1⁄2 inches (64 mm × 89 mm) mimics trading cards in sports and other widely collected interests. Secondly, they can be of any media and are intended to be small works, signed by the artist on the back. They were originally intended to be traded between artists as a calling card or after an exhibition.

One of my ATC’s displayed on a tiny easel
One of my ATC’s displayed on a tiny easel.

There is a lot of interesting information about ATC’s online but for this post I want to focus on the benefits of doing these small pieces of art to exercise your skills, and how to begin the practice of doing pastel miniatures if you have never painted this size before. Beyond all the benefits already mentioned, painting ATC’s are a great way to repurpose your pastel paper scraps and all those inevitable tiny shards of pastels you can’t bear to throw out. Painting ATC’s can help you engage in a quick daily painting practice or just warm up for a studio session on a larger piece.

Additionally, painting small can really make you more agile at handling your pastels, training your hands to make precise marks that land exactly where you want them to go. At times every pastel artist struggles with placing marks accurately, painting ATC’s engage your fine motor skills with a bonus. Since they are small works, the risk of “messing up” an important piece is pretty nonexistent. You will find yourself taking more mark-making risks, while finding your precision of marks improving.

Another great benefit to painting small is getting to use all those pastel paper scraps we all inevitably have laying around the studio. I like to cut several pieces at a time and store them for quick access when I only have a few minutes to paint and don’t want to be bothered with cutting paper first. In the photo on the below both cards are cut to the correct size, oriented horizontal, then vertical. To be a true ATC, there is one rule – it always needs to measure 2 ½” x 3 ½”

Rulers being used to measure the cards.

It’s very helpful if you are using scrap pastel paper to secure it to a self-healing cutting mat with either painter’s or artist’s tape prior to cutting. This will keep the paper in alignment while you make your cut ensuring your card is straight and in-square. I use a clear quilter’s ruler with the cutting mat since I can look through it and easily see if I am in alignment, but any good square ruler will work. Use a sharp razor knife, Exacto or utility knife. Don’t try to cut the paper in one pass, make several cuts  if needed going deeper through the paper each time and you will get a clean edge that way. You can also use a paper cutter if you have one.

Using the paper cutter.

Once you’ve made your cuts, your pastel paper should look like the examples below. These are both UARt 400, in buff and in black.

Cards cut to size.

Before you begin, first sign your signature to the back of the pastel paper so your signature is on your work. I also sign the rigid backing board that I put behind the ATC to keep it supported. You want your name on the back of the piece in the event that your painting is removed from the clear sleeve and eventually framed. Once you’ve signed the back of the paper, adhere it to the surface on your easel to begin working. I use a sheet of plexiglass and tape my paper to it, then secure the plexiglass in my easel. You can use any board that suits you to keep the piece steady while you work.

ATCs taped to the plexiglass.

Choose a simple composition for your reference, look for ones with only 3 or 4 main shapes. I begin by blocking in my darks first (as is typical for most pastel painting) then follow with mid tones and lights. Sometimes I will block in the darkest dark, the lightest highlight and then start filling in mid tones and details from there. For this piece, I used my favorite Unison set, the 120 piece Half Stick Starter set.

Alisa's 120 Half Stick set of Unison Colour pastels.

I find I constantly reach for this set since it has a fantastic selection of nearly every color family I typically work in. I like to tip the pastels in their foam as I work so I stay organized and know which colors I have chosen as this helps me paint more quickly.

The composition I chose for this example is my interpretation of the “Bluebonnet” painting by the wonderful Texas Impressionist, Julian Onderdonk. You’ll see that I used simple shapes and an impressionistic style to create the field of Bluebonnets. The mark-making is simple, but effective for this interpretation of an impressionistic landscape. For this painting the 120 Half Stick set had every color I needed with the exception of a semi-soft NuPastel in a pale, pinky- lilac to blend the distant sky and a very dark (almost black) green to paint the trees.

Bluebonnets- Master Copy of Onderdonk by Alisa Semones
Bluebonnets- Master Copy of Onderdonk by Alisa Semones

Once your painting is complete, you can initial the front if you like, most pastelists don’t try to sign a full name in this small format but rather use initials. Remember, your signature will already be on the back of the work and on the backer board too. To preserve and protect your painting, place it inside a clear ATC bag. To do this without smudging, place the same sized backer board behind the pastel, then very carefully slide your painting and the backing inside the clear bag while holding bowing the bag slightly so it doesn’t smear your work. Once it is seated in the bag, pull the adhesive strip cover off, fold to the back and seal tightly. This will keep your card from becoming smudged in the clear bag. Visit my video if you want a visual of how to place your newly made ATC into a clear protective bag as well as how to use Frame Cards to display on a tiny easel:

Frame cards, custom cut backing board and clear bags for finished work are available online.
Frame cards, custom cut backing board and clear bags for finished work are available online.

Since the ATC is a very popular concept, many supplies exist for the 2.5” x 3.5” size, including picture frames, clear protective bags, paper, pre-cut mattes and backing board; all of these can be found at most art supply stores. The Strathmore Frame cards turn your ATC into a greeting card or you can just use them to give the look of a framed piece while displaying your ATC on a mini easel.

Viewpoint makes custom pre-cut mattes that can showcase your collection.

Viewpoint mats.
More Viewpoint mats.

Painting ATC’s is a great way to use up small pieces of pastels and hone your mark making skills. I hope you will give them a try. A few things that will make it easier to do these little works is to start setting aside your small broken pastels in a shallow tray or box to use for your mini paintings. Also, pre-cutting your paper in advance will enable you to jump right into making art when you have time for a mini session or want to warm up before starting a larger piece of work without wasting valuable studio time.

If you like the look of a table top display, the tiny easels from the art supply store can be paired with ATC’s to display your work. They are nice to include when you gift or offer your ATC paintings for sale. Artist Trading Cards make wonderful Christmas gifts when you want to give something personal and special. Every time I give them as gifts, they have been enthusiastically received with surprised expressions when they find out they are hand-painted art, not a print. Do remember to tell your recipient if they want to remove the pastel from the bag to please cut the bag off carefully so the work isn’t smudged in the removal. I hope you will give this little format a go, and if you do I would love to see your work on the Unison Colours Facebook group or you can DM me on Instagram or email me directly at [email protected]

Have fun making minis!

The finished ATC's.

Links for supplies (US)×91.html

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15 Responses

  1. This is wonderful. Very informative yet concise. I’m definitely going to try these now I have this info. I’m a person who needs to have it spelt out to me to get started and then I’m usually ok. Thank you.

  2. (Translated)Alisa, how cute it is! Great idea for a gift, first learned! As all thought out, envelopes, transparent window!!! Such a charm, I apologize for the banality … I still can’t find the paper with the spray, only to sand my fate))). My dream is pastelmat, where are you?. Such is the serpentine truth of life of novice artists in small towns! One hope for the internet is to help us! Thank you Unison for every amazing news, for new names of talented artists! It’s a toast!

    (Original)Алиса, как это мило! Великолепная идея для подарка, впервые узнала! Как все продумано, конверты, прозрачное окошечко!!! Такая прелесть, прошу прощения за банальность… Я до сих пор не могу найти бумагу с напылением, только наждачка моя судьба))). Моя мечта пастельмат, где ты?. Такова сермяжная правда жизни начинающих художников в маленьких городах! Одна надежда на интернет нам в помощь! Спасибо Юнисон за каждую потрясающую новость, за новые имена талантливых художников! Прям тост получился!

    1. Наталья, возможно, вам это поможет: поддерживаю совет Алисы сделать заказ на Jacksonsart, сама неоднократно заказывала оттуда, и Почтой России и Boxberry все приходит в приемлемые сроки в отличном состоянии, там есть и Pastelmat и другая абразивная бумага для пастели, и чудесная пастель Unison (надо сначала зарегистрироваться на сайте, выбрать страну доставки Россия, и тогда ценник станет ниже, чем до регистрации), может смутить только стоимость доставки – на габаритные товары, в том числе на бумагу больших размеров, доставка дорогая, можно поискать в интернете промокоды. А ещё Pastelmat теперь продаётся на ozon.

      To Alisa:
      Such a helpful and inspiring article! I’m in love with your minis 💖 I will definitely give it a try. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Love you idea and beautiful painting. I did a challenge of creating 30 paintings im 90 days and decided to go small as 5”x7” but will never have thought going 2.5”x3.5”. I’ll give it a try for sure. As you mentioned, we learn alot doing those small painting.

    Thank you very much.

  4. You’re so right, Michele! That is an impressive number of completed paintings, I’m sure you learned a lot from painting that frequently too. Thanks for the kind comment.

  5. Such a fabulous use for all those tiny bits and bobs! I had no idea this was a thing. Thank you, Alisa, for the wonderfully clear and concise tutorial, as well as the fun video!

  6. I have had a pack of these blank trading cards in my Studio for a few years now and was never tempted to do them until now! Thank you for the great idea and useful information !

  7. Great idea and what a wonderful gift or birthday card for family and friends . I will certainly give it a try . I did do a couple for an SAA project a couple of years ago . Hope I can get the mounts here in Wales as they really finish them off for sending or giving .

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