Pastel Pointers | Getting Started With an Underpainting, Part 2

As I mentioned in Part 1 of Getting Started With an Underpainting,  pastel painters encounter a dilemma when attempting to combine a utilitarian underpainting with a more serendipitous underpainting. Either a solid value/color ground is achieved and creative spontaneity compromised, or an exciting spontaneous underpainting is achieved and a sound value/color structure is lacking. One way to combine the best of both underpainting mindsets is to establish an underlying value design that will not be affected by subsequent over-layers, allowing the artist to spontaneously express him or herself with color, producing a solid yet creative underpainting upon which to paint with pastel.

Here are a few more techniques to consider trying:

India Ink Method: A simple way to create a value underpainting is to use permanent India ink, consisting of carbon black, gum and shellac. Utilized since the Renaissance as a means for creating a permanent drawing in advance of over painting, a pastelist can dilute the ink with water to produce a variety of value washes. Once dry, various colored underpainting techniques can be applied without altering the underlying value design. If you plan to use water-based techniques over the value underpainting, be sure to obtain the permanent version of India ink.

In the alcohol method, I've blocked in the initial values on Wallis paper using a dull violet hard pastel set, which I then set with denatured alcohol and a brush.

Alcohol Method: Denatured or isopropanol rubbing alcohol are used by many pastelists as a method for “setting” initial layers of pastel. Since alcohol is capable of softening certain acrylic products, and most gritty pastel surfaces utilize acrylic in their binders, it is best to test its effects before committing. Some commercially available surfaces accept it with no visible signs of change, while others demonstrate extreme change. One popular surface that falls in the middle is Wallis paper. The application of alcohol slightly softens the outer layer of the surface, allowing the wetted pigment to become permanently embedded in the surface. Once dry, a number of transparent techniques can be applied with no visible effect on the underlying value underpainting. I like to start with a neutral-tone hard pastel (charcoal or graphite can also be used) to mass in the value design on the Wallis paper. Next, I wet the entire paper with alcohol to embed the pigment. I use a brush but a spray bottle can also be employed.

watercolor painting

Once the alcohol has evaporated, I can come in with watercolor to complete the underpainting.

Once dry, any number of underpainting techniques can be applied. One of my favorites is watercolor. Since the alcohol dries quickly, the initial value underpainting will have a broken brushstroke effect. This shows through the subsequent transparent washes of color, producing a painterly substrate.

It’s important to experiment with all the techniques I’ve described to make sure your surface can tolerate the procedure. Keep in mind that each underpainting layer will darken the appearance of value. If your plan is to apply many layers, it is wise to make the initial value layer one or two value shifts lighter. By starting with a permanent value layer, you will be free to creatively experiment without compromising the most important element of a successful representational painting—value.


Get more expert advice from Richard McKinley in his instructional videos. Watch a free preview here!


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