Pastel Pointers | The Effects of Alcohol


An underpainting with pastel and denatured alcohol on Wallis museum-grade paper. Painting is unfinished.

I know what you’re thinking: “Is he going to discuss the horrifying effects of over indulgence with alcoholic beverages on an artist’s work?” While that might be an interesting topic, it’s not exactly what I had in mind. Instead of discussing alcohol’s effect on the artist, I want to discuss how the artist can use it for interesting effects int heir painting.

Since the time of Edgar Degas, pastel artists have utilized many methods for spreading pastel. The underpainting techniques that have developed from these experimentations have lead to new heights of possibility, making pastel one of the most expressive media available today. It seems that artists have experimented with just about every form of liquid; water, mineral spirits and alcohol are some of the most popular. Personally, I have experimented with all of these liquids on various surfaces with diverse outcomes and recommend that you do the same.

Many pastelists swear by the method of wetting a layer of pastel with alcohol. It is to be noted that since many of the binders employed in preparing a sanded grit pastel surface are acrylic polymer based, and alcohol is capable of softening acrylic, surface texture can be potentially compromised. The alcohol being referenced is hardware-store grade denatured alcohol or pharmaceutical grade rubbing alcohol. Denatured alcohol is ethanol and may contain: methanol, isopropanol and gasoline. Rubbing alcohol is isopropyl alcohol and water. Common percentages are 70% and 90% isopropyl. Both are toxic when ingested. Due to the chemical nature of denatured alcohol, prolonged exposure to skin is also not recommended.

In the past, I had avoided Wallis paper when using alcohol for underpainting, because a couple of years ago, the paper’s binder had changed and with an application of alcohol, it would begin to soften. This winter, I decided to experiment with the process again to see if there was a potential benefit from this slight softening of the surface grit. With experimentation—and an open mind—new doors of underpainting possibilities were opened. While the prolonged application of alcohol can have an adverse effect on the surface consistency, a quickly brushed application onto a lightly applied pastel underpainting makes the pigment adhere to the surface, producing a nearly permanent image. Once dry, pastel can easily be applied without mingling with the under layer, or mixed-media techniques with watercolor can be applied without disturbing the initial alcohol/pigment underpainting. The rapid drying nature of the alcohol also produces a more fragmented, loose brushstroke appearance that is an interesting effect to which to respond.

Rubbing alcohol and denatured alcohol will both embed the pigment into the softened surface, but with differing effects due to their chemical makeup. While a good high-proof vodka or gin may produce a similar effect, but I would save those for other creative endeavors. Possibly something that involves ingestion. Cheers!


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4 thoughts on “Pastel Pointers | The Effects of Alcohol

  1. Robert Sloan

    Richard, your comment about using the alcohol wash first and then a watercolor toning wash afterward sounds gorgeous. Now I have to try that combination approach. Good thing I have some Wallis to experiment with!

    Another good reminder to read the comments threads on your blog as well as your great entries. Thank you for doing this blog!

  2. Robert Sloan

    Thanks for the quick rundown on alcohol washes. I didn’t know they had that effect on Wallis. I’m going to have to try that sometime, got an extra mister bottle for use with rubbing alcohol.

    When you mention drinking alcohol as a solvent, that reminded me of the SpectraFix fixative which is casein solids in a drinking alcohol base. The concentrate gets mixed with vodka if you use it for travel purposes, since it’s legal to carry the concentrate and you can get vodka or Everclear etcetera anywhere. Someone reported just brushing the concentrate on a first layer to wash it in gave good permanent results.

    That might be worth an experiment too. I like the SpectraFix anyway since it’s non toxic. Of course there’s always using the cheap vodka in your art and the good vodka in the artist! Not all potables are worth drinking, but I doubt flavor really affects its use as a painting medium.

  3. richard mckinley

    Nancie, You are so right about the quick dry time. It really helps when on location when working on a quick sketch. What I have especially enjoyed lately, is the ability for the pigment to embed with the Wallis surface. It allows me to do an additional watercolor wash over the top, like stain glass layers, without affecting the original pastel/alcohol wash – great fun!

  4. Nancie King Mertz

    LOVE the alcohol/pastel technique for plein air painting! I always used very light oil w/ lots of turp to tone my studio pieces but needed to simplify for traveling plein air. I’ve used this technique for years on many different surfaces outdoors and it dries instantly vs. the turps since time is an issue outside!