Pastel Pointers | Getting Started With an Underpainting, Part 1

Beginning a pastel painting with an underpainting is one of my favorite techniques for getting started. It sets the stage for the subsequent applications of pigment and provides something upon which to respond. An underpainting can be both utilitarian and serendipitous in its intention. One focuses on blocking in the large value and color relationships, making it easier to respond with detail. The other provides a more accidental/spontaneous happening, which often leads to new creative possibilities. Marrying these two concepts into one application can be a frustrating procedure. Either a solid value/color ground is achieved and creative spontaneity compromised, or an exciting spontaneous underpainting is achieved and a solid value/color structure is lacking. With practice, though, these two concepts can come together into one underpainting. Until that level of technical ability is achieved, there are a few techniques to employ that will provide a solid value foundation upon which a serendipitous application of color can be applied.

Underpainting—A Pastel Method: After the initial drawing is placed on the surface, mass in large value shapes with a fairly neutral tone. This can be done with harder pastel sticks/pencils, charcoal, or graphite. Set this neutral value layer with an application of workable fixative. A personal favorite is Daler-Rowney Perfix Colourless Fixative. Other brands of workable fixative may be suitable but should be tested to see how they respond to subsequent underpainting layers. Give the fixative a minute to dry and test it by rubbing gently with your finger. If tone comes off, give it another application of fixative. Once it is set, thin applications of pastel can be smeared with a soft rag, or wetted with either water or mineral spirits depending on what the surface can accept.

Underpainting—A Mixed Media Method: Various other painting media are frequently used for underpainting in advance of pastel application. Watercolor and extremely thin oil paint washes are two of the most popular. They can be utilized singularly, applied over the above-mentioned “Pastel Method”, and alternatively overlapped to produce an interesting effect. One technique of overlapping the two is to start with a value underpainting in watercolor done in a neutral tone, typically a warm brown or dull violet. Once this is dry, an extremely thin application of oil paint diluted with mineral spirits or, if you don’t wish to use oil paint, a thin layer of pastel wetted with mineral spirits can be applied over the watercolor value underpainting. Color can be pushed around with abandon and even blotted off with the use of mineral spirits without disturbing the underlying watercolor value design.

mixed-media underpainting part 1

Mixed Media Method: This shows the initial value underpainting done in sepia watercolor washes on white Wallis pastel paper.


mixed media underpainting for pastel

Here, I applied thin oil paint washes diluted with mineral spirits over the dry watercolor value underpainting.

Next week, I will continue the discussion with other examples of value underpainting techniques. By experimenting with the various techniques, you will eventually find the one that helps you get things started and best suits your personal pastel style. Few painting media give us more options than pastel—what fun!



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