Soft Pastel and Clear Gesso Technique

Easy six step process.

I want to give credit where credit is due. In a workshop with Diana Sanford a few years back, I was introduced to this soft pastel / clear gesso technique.  Since then, I have incorporated this procedure in many of my pastel paintings as well as passed this method on to fellow artists. I love the idea of sharing knowledge or lessons learned with fellow artists. I personally use this in my abstract soft pastel paintings and Unison Colour pastels work especially well with this technique. You could use this technique on other mediums as well.  For pastel use, the result is an overlay of color on top of color, depth, texture and a visually more interesting painting.  

Step 1: Supply List

  • Soft Pastel(s). I prefer Unison Colour pastels.
  • Soft flat wide paint brush.
  • Clear Gesso – I prefer Liquitex.
  • Heat Gun (not your hair dryer) various brands are available at your local hardware store.

Step 2:  Apply clear gesso over art

Soft Pastel and Clear Gesso Technique 3

Pour clear gesso into a container – use your soft flat paint brush to gently apply the gesso on top of your pastel work. Use gentle flat strokes as not to (muddy) the gesso you are applying. Too much pressure with the brush and it can end up looking like mud and lift the pastels off the paper. You want each stroke to be thick enough to cover the areas you want texture, but not applied to excess.  Nice smooth layers. Thin layers will dry clear, thicker layers dry a little cloudy, but offer greater texture. It all depends on the effect you are wanting to achieve. I typically will do thin small sections of gesso on different areas of my painting, instead of applying to the whole painting as not to overwhelm the artwork.  

Step 3: Applying Gesso, ready for the heat gun

Soft Pastel and Clear Gesso Technique 4

Use the heat gun very carefully, as the tip gets extremely hot. I use the lowest setting on the heat gun. Keep the head gun moving, gentle sweeps across the area you have applied gesso. Do not leave heat gun in any one section too long, the excess heat will buckle the paper. If buckling does occur, after the gesso has dried, place the paper flat with flat weight on top, it will eventually level out. What you will notice using the heat gun is that bubbles, wrinkles, and ripples will emerge. The more times you sweep over a section, the more ripples you will have. Let it sit to cool before applying pastel.

Note: Once done with your heat gun, always unplug it from the wall. Place the tip of the heat gun away from anything it could melt or catch fire as the tip will remain hot for some time.

Step 4 Application examples

Soft Pastel and Clear Gesso Technique 5

For demonstration purposes, with the closeup shown above, you can better see where I have applied the gesso very thin as well as very thick. The thin area has dried clear, the thicker area is a little cloudy, this is acceptable if you want a lot of texture in your work.

Step 5  Single layer vs. multiple pastel layers

Above you can see the different effects you can create, floating single or multiple layers of soft pastels over the clear dried gesso texture.  Whether using single or multiple layers of pastels, the original background colors of the artwork are still visible. Applying thin or thick layers of gesso are really up to you, I suggest lots of practicing before putting this technique into use so you can see the different effects for yourself. I have found there is no wrong way to do this, well unless you have caught your paper on fire, lets hope not!  I enjoy incorporating this technique into my pastel paintings as it is a fun way to add depth, texture and make your paintings more interesting.

Soft Pastel and Clear Gesso Technique 8
A close-up section of a final piece of work using Unison soft pastels along with the clear gesso technique. I particularly like the section in pink and peach. You can see bits of color inside the tiny bubbles of texture, color float.

Result; interesting shapes, texture, and depth.

Be safe and have fun, I hope you enjoy this soft pastel and clear gesso technique.

Abstracted Compositions

When it comes to working in the abstract style, one might think there is no process, no structure, no thought, or plan on what goes into the creation of abstract art.

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21 Responses

  1. Really enjoyed tho one for a change. So much more interesting than all your artists so preoccupied with photographic representation!!

    1. I thought that at first then realised the point of the heat gun is that it creates texture as it buckles. Presumably you could also create texture by disturbing the gesso as it dries naturally. Scrubbing or combing it perhaps.

    2. Hi there Diane, if you just allow the gesso to dry on its own, it will dry flat vs. textured. The heat gun super heats the gesso, giving random bubbles or burst of texture.

  2. Great blog Cory. Thought I’d heard it all but not aware of that technique. I can imagine it working really well in a stormy landscape scene. Will have a go!

  3. I use Gesso clear on white gessoed decorators lining paper. Let it dry naturally and apply loads of layers of soft pastel as another idea.

  4. Love the colors of the abstract. I used this technique after watching another artist who uses it to repurpose paper from bad paintings. Scrub off original, apply gesso and paint again. Really lends some nice texture.

  5. Thank you for this great step by step process, Cory! I have heard of the process, but believe your directions will prompt me to try your technique soon. I appreciate the info!!

  6. I like this idea! Thank you for sharing, it makes me wonder how I can incorporate this method into my work too! Good post!

  7. Your work and technique are an inspiration. I paint in watercolor but I just started working in pastel and prefer the more abstract method you are using! I think I could try using the watercolor, pastel and clear gesso together.

  8. Love your abstract picture. I use transparent gesso over old watercolour paintings to make a surface for my pastels, and some interesting base colours, but I haven’t tried the heat gun. Tomorrow’s project! Thank you.

  9. Interesting technique indeed. What type of paper/board is used, to withstand the heating effect, without issues like warping etc ?

  10. Fabulous and the example you posted finally is stunning..I use lots of mixed stuff always looking for surprise and possibility ,but Iv never tried the heat gun other than on wax, so thank you , brilliant!

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