In the Dark | A Place for Black in Your Pastel Color Palette

The Winter Solstice will fall on December 21st this year. For those of us residing in the Northern Hemisphere, it will mark the shortest period of daylight for the year. Conversely, those of you in the Southern Hemisphere will experience your longest period of daylight. Creatively, this time of year forces many of us northerners indoors to paint within the confines of our well-illuminated studios. As I eagerly wait for the lengthening of the day and the inevitable warmth it will bring, I thought it appropriate to discuss the importance darkness has played in pastel painting.

Half of a pastel strip darkened with workable fixative and a few of the rich darks offered by today’s manufacturers.

The Art of Color: The definition of darkness is the absence of light, or blackness of a color. As painters, we are dependent upon pigment to represent the natural world. It is physics. The variety of pigments available at any given time governs an artist’s capacity to create. Wet media painters have an advantage over dry pastelists when it comes to mixing various pigments together to achieve a desired hue, intensity or value. With as little as four or five tubes of paint, they can represent the full spectrum of light. Oil painters have an added advantage with the richness created from suspending pigment in oil. Depth is further accentuated when a finished painting is varnished. Pastelists, on the other hand, must rely on pre-mixed sticks of pigment to achieve a similar outcome. This has led manufacturers to offer as many as 525 individual pastel sticks within a brand. Since every pigment, in its purest form, has an innate value, an addition of a contrasting pigment or black and white pigment must be added to extend its value range. Many traditional manufacturets offer an individual pigment in shades (black added) and tints (white added).

Using Black: Recent innovations with organic pigments have greatly extended the intensity of pastel offerings. These pigments with strange sounding names, like phthalocyanine, quinacridone and naphthol, have created extremely bright colors and are capable of producing darks, often blacker-appearing than traditional earth black. This has allowed the pastelist to produce paintings with rich darks that rival traditional oil paintings. Sennelier, Terry Ludwig and Unison pastel brands are famous for their dark pastel offerings.

Dark Pastels: Another technique that many pastelists have relied upon to produce strong darks is the use of workable fixative. While heavy fixative applications are typically avoided at the completion of a painting, they can be used to great effect in the early stages. Start by applying a thin application of rich dark pastel and then spray it rather heavily with a workable fixative. This will darken its appearance by one to two value degrees. An added benefit is that it produces a hard surface, making subsequent pastel applications stand out. This is also why many pastelists enjoy working on a black pastel ground (something we will discuss in a future posting).

While I am not a proponent of over-using darks in the landscape, there are times when intense rich darks are useful. So don’t avoid black as a pigment and workable fixative as a tool. They have served the pastelist well. Experiment with the new organic pigment pastel offerings. They will expand your painting possibilities.


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