Pastel Pointers | Underpainting Techniques to Enliven Your Paintings

As a painting medium, pastel is amazingly diverse. Some artists apply it in a fashion more closely associated with drawing, while others apply it as boldly as any wet-painting method, such as oil. Artists have experimented with a variety of techniques to achieve the final outcome they desire. Many of these techniques rely on an underpainting in advance of dry pastel application. The methods used to achieve these underpaintings can be divided into these basic categories: pastel completely dry, pastel made wet, and pastel over mixed-media.


For this plein air pastel done, I used a “pastel completely dry” technique. To create the dreamy underpainting effect, I loosely applied a layer of pastel, smeared with a paper towel, prior to heavier applications of dry pastel.

  • Pastel Underpainting 1—A Dry Application: Pastel completely dry refers to pastel that is applied to a dry surface and kept dry throughout the painting process. Any wetting of the pastel throughout the process would transform it into paint, thus losing the character of dry pastel. Even though the wetting agent will eventually evaporate and leave a film of dry pastel, it was altered and manipulated wet, often with a brush, which is akin to paint. This is why many pastel artists that work with a completely dry technique of application prefer a pre-toned surface.
  • Pastel Underpainting 2—A Wet Application: When pastel is made wet, that means that at some stage of the painting, pastel has been made wet with an agent such as water, mineral spirits, rubbing (or denatured) alcohol or fixatives (especially ones that are casein-based). These solutions are generally brushed on over a layer of pastel but can also be misted with the use of a pump spray bottle. Some pastelists also dampen an area and apply pastel directly onto it while it is still wet, creating a paste. Depending on the surface and consistency of the pastel, a variety of intriguing effects can be obtained.
  • Pastel Underpainting 3—A Mixed Media Application: Pastel over mixed-media refers to a technique in which pastel is applied dry over an initial underpainting done in another medium. Since the time of Edgar Degas, pastelists have experimented with a variety of media such as watercolor, casein, gouache, acrylic, gesso, ink, graphite, charcoal, various mono print methods, and even thin washes of oil paint. These mixed-media underpaintings may show through to varying degrees or end up being covered completely by the application of dry pastel.
  • Smeared Underpainting: One technique often used to simulate the transparent effects achieved through wet underpainting methods is to drag or smear pastel in advance of subsequent pastel applications. Tools frequently utilized for this purpose include a strong, but soft paper towel (Viva brand is popular), a leather chamois or piece of foam pipe insulation. The lighter in value the surface, the more translucent the effect, although beautiful effects can be created on darker surface tones as well. Utilizing this technique retains the “pastel completely dry” philosophy, alleviating the worry of meeting the 80% dry rule required by most national pastel competitions.

Undoubtedly, artists will continue to invent creative techniques for the application of pastel. There are only two things that pastel absolutely requires: enough surface-tooth for adhesion and the final protection of picture-framing glass. Beyond that, the creative possibilities are limitless!




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