A close up of “dusting” on a pastel painting surface.
Pastel is one of the most diverse painting media that artists can use today. Since prehistoric man first gathered pigment from the earth and formed it into a stick for cave drawing, aspiring artists have found innovative ways for applying it to a variety of surfaces. One of those methods is a technique often referred to as “dusting.”
Last fall while instructing a workshop in the beautiful St. Louis, Mo., area artist Garry McMichael reintroduced me to this historic technique. He, like many of us, had found “dusting” referenced in Bill Creevy’s book, The Pastel Book, first published in 1991 by Watson-Guptill. Degas, the father of many innovative pastel techniques, also utilized “dusting” to achieve a glimmering effect in his work. The technique does not rely on a direct application of pastel. Instead, pastel is shaved, and the produced pigment dust is allowed to fall onto the painting surface. To adhere the dust to the surface, it is most commonly pressed. A variety of pastel colors, tints and shades can be dusted into an area. As the diverse pigment particles are flattened, a serendipitous, intriguing texture will appear.
When attempting the process, it is best to lay the painting flat. To better control where the pigment dust will fall, sections can be masked by gently laying barrier paper to isolate areas. A sharp utility knife, straight edge razor blade, pocketknife, painting knife, wire screen or sand paper can be used to shave the pastel. The blunter the edge of the shaving implement, the chunkier the pigment particles will be. Larger pigment chunks will produce bigger spots when flattened into the surface and visa versa. The relative hardness of the pastel stick will also have an effect on the quality of the dust. Harder pastel sticks often produce finer dust, while extremely soft pastels may break away easier, producing chunks.
There are various techniques that can be used to flatten the dust. One of the most common method is to take a fairly large painting knife and use the flat portion of the blade to press the pigment into the surface. A gentle swipe of the knife can also be used to slightly smear the outcome. A method I often employ is to place a sheet of glassine paper over the pigment dust and roll a printmaker’s rubber brayer, crushing the surface. This flattens the pigment dust without overly affecting the surrounding soft pastel. Workable fixative can be applied between layers of “dusting” to better adhere the pastel and can also be applied to better stabilize the final painting if desired.
Another interesting method of adhering “dusting” is to wet an area (either with water, mineral spirits or liquid fixative such as SpectraFix), and add the dust to the surface while it is wet. Once dry, the painting should be placed in an upright position and gently spanked from behind to dislodge any loss particles. Note that spanking is also useful for any finished pastel in advance of framing.
While “dusting” is not one of the most common techniques being used by pastelists today, it definitely has its usefulness. If you have never tried it, or haven’t utilized it in years, I encourage you to give it a whirl. Through experimentation with various methods of pastel application, we ultimately become more self-expressive painters. And isn’t that what it is all about?