Pastel Possibilities | Creating Foundation Darks with Fixative


An example of a dark passage produced with the application of workable fixative.

The creative pleasure of pastel is often based in its versatility. Because of its dry nature, it facilitates a multitude of techniques and applications. Since the time of Edgar Degas, the granddaddy of modern pastel, artists have experimented and come up with a multitude of interesting pastel methods: rubbed, not-rubbed, crosshatched, swiped, layered, wetted, fixed, etc. Add in the various surfaces upon which pastel can be applied and the possibilities for mixed-media techniques, and you see how diverse the medium can be.


Every painting medium is limited to its physical properties. As pigment ranges have expanded throughout history, new possibilities of color expression have been produced. One of the limitations pastel has had in the past was its lack of rich darks. Due to the dry nature of the medium, the luscious darks that were easily produced in oil paint were difficult to replicate. All you have to do is observe pigment made wet to see how much darker it appears. With recent advances, many pastel manufacturers are now offering a range of luscious darks. This has had an impact on how pastelists work. While these darks are definitely useful in expanding value range possibilities, they can also be hard to control, especially with softer pastel brands, often producing a muddied appearance with subsequent layers of lighter/brighter pastels.

Recently while visiting New York City, I had the opportunity to visit with author and master pastelist Bill Creevy. Bill has been an advocate of pastel possibilities throughout his career and his expressive work demonstrates his abilities to manipulate the medium. During our discussion, the topic of using spray workable fixative to set darks in advance of applying lighter/brighter passages came up. This is an old technique often used by pastelists since the time of Degas. It relies on what is often seen as the detriment of fixative application: the darkening of the layer of pastel upon which it is applied. To utilize this technique, begin by blocking in the darker passages with a rich pastel color. Once set, spray it fairly heavily with a good workable fixative. This will have a darkening effect on the pigment as well as making it somewhat harder, depending on the fixative brand and amount of application. This produces a rich dark area upon which lighter rich-tones can easily be applied. If you haven’t yet experimented with this technique, give it a try. You will find it a useful tool in handling dark passages and it will definitely expand your “pastel possibilities.”


Did you know that the instruction Richard McKinley has shared in the Pastel Pointers blog and magazine columns has been collected into a book? The book by the same name is available now for pre-orders and will be ready for shipping in late November. Click here to check it out in the new, expanded NorthLight Shop.

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One thought on “Pastel Possibilities | Creating Foundation Darks with Fixative

  1. Mike

    I like this. Don’t fight or discard something out of hand, take advantage of it. Too often I hear the mantra “I don’t use fixative because…” as if it’s an absolute.

    By the way, I looked at Bill’s work. He’s done a wonderful job of making his oils look like pastels.