Creating Textured Brushwork in Pastel

55-brushstrokes.jpgPastel has a close kinship to oil: Both are opaque and often hard to tell apart when viewed from a distance. Obviously, oil and pastel have their differences. Oil is wet and applied with a brush or painting knife, and pastel is dry and applied directly in stick form. Oils’ ability to retain brushwork is what marks its major characteristic. This brushwork becomes the signature of the artist and has been masterfully utilized over the centuries by artists like Rembrandt van Rijn, Diego Velázquez, John Singer Sargent, Robert Henri, and Nicolia Fechin. The bold bravado stroke of the brush filled with thick paint imparts a sculptural appearance accenting the painting’s topography. This accentuates the appearance of texture and depth, creating a painterly (in the fashion of paint) appearance. 

Pastel, being applied by the stick, doesn’t easily produce the same qualities. It goes on solid, only appearing to have texture when interacting with the ground it is placed on. As artists like Degas began to push the medium beyond the realm of sketching and into fine art, they experimented with a variety of textured grounds, producing painterly results (check out some of the ballerina paintings of Degas to see how masterfully he utilized the texture of the ground).

Today’s artists are still experimenting with textured grounds, producing the appearance of bold, bravado strokes that have as much visual power as the finest oils. Modern acrylic mediums have made this task easier and more archival, allowing heavy textured buildups that retain a degree of flexibility and are non-acidic. Manufacturers like Art Spectrum, Lascaux, and Golden Acrylic Company provide a series of pastel grounds that are ready to apply. Some artists prefer to make their own by combining an acrylic medium with grit (pumice powder or marble dust are widely used for this purpose, refer to blog post “When Homemade is Best”). Depending on the thickness of the ground, a heavy or light brush texture may be produced. Hog hair bristle brushes work well, imparting the same “swept” appearance as they do for the oil painter. (See the photo above for a close-up look at a heavy brush-textured ground with pastel raked over the top.)

Whichever pastel ground you end up choosing, it will need to be placed on to a suitable surface. Make sure it is sturdy and ph neutral (non-acidic). Experiment with different strokes and find which best suits your individual style. Then get ready to deal with the comments, “I can’t tell your pastels from your oils.”




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