An Incremental Approach to Pastel Painting

As any artist that has worked with pastel can attest, pastel is an extremely versatile painting/drawing medium. The techniques used for its application are unlimited and easily reflect the personalities of those working with it. There are three major external components that affect application and appearance: surface tooth (how easily the surface grabs the pigment); undertone (the general tonality of the surface or underpainting); and the relative softness and shape of the pastel stick being applied. The hand of the painter then governs the method in which the pastel is applied. Some artists use very light pressure to gently drift pastel onto a surface; while others aggressively trowel it on the surface. The gesture and size of the pastel strokes also cover a wide gamut of artistic personalities. They might be large swipes that are similar to hefty paint stokes; angular hatch strokes that retain line and texture; or tender breathes of pastel that are reminiscent of glazing techniques. Add to these the potential to smudge, smear and blend, and we begin to understand the unlimited potential of pastel application.

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This example of a detail passage of a painting in progress shows incremental pastel applications.


Combatting the Christmas Ornament Effect: An unwanted side effect of pastel application, no matter the technique of application, is that subsequent layers can take on a disconnected appearance and look artificial if not nuanced. This is due in large part to the dry nature of pastel, which makes it harder to fuse than wet paint. I refer to this as the “Christmas Ornament” effect. The additional pastel marks begin to stand out too much, looking more like garish ornamentation. A little ornamentation can be effective, creating interest, but too much and the painting starts to look fake. To remedy this I’ve developed what I call an “incremental approach” to pastel application:

  • Instead of leaping to the desired final color or value of pastel, I go forward in gradual steps. Let me give you an example: If I need to darken an area, instead of selecting the final dark pastel that I want the area ultimately to be, I will gradually step down to the desired value. Sometimes this may take several graduating steps.
  • This holds true for color shifts as well. If a drastic change in color temperature is needed, I’ll go incrementally around the color wheel until landing at the desired hue. Think of this like traversing a bridge. To get from one side to the other, a bridge is built that connects the two. To travel across, some steps are involved. When taken in stride the steps are gentle and non-jarring. When a giant leap is taken, it can be jolting, potentially creating discomfort.

More Tortoise, Less Hare: This incremental approach to pastel application allows for a minimum amount of blending, which can easily create dull, dead passages. It provides a subtle, gradual transition between contrasting areas that better represents the bending/refracting of natural light. Ultimately this produces a more realistic representation of nature. An incremental approach is not meant to hold back artistic expression. Bold ornamental pastel strokes have their purpose. But, sometimes a little more of the tortoise versus the hare wins the race.






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