Pastel Techniques | Representing Color Harmony With Pastel Layering

One of the most alluring aspects of painting is color. Science has proven that the appearance of color is based in light. White light is made up of a full spectrum of color. A trifecta of energy, surface and human perception come together to produce the phenomenon. Since no two individuals perceive color in quite the same way, no two artists will represent it in the same fashion. Some choose to paint with bold expressive palettes of intense color saturation, while others choose a subtle, more muted palette of neutral color. Ultimately, what makes the representation of color work in a painting is the appearance of harmony.


My pastel painting, Winter Moonrise, is an example of an experimental pastel incorporating many layering techniques.

Color and Light: It can be said that color harmony exists wherever there is light. Seeing it and portraying it with pigment on a surface is the tricky part. This is especially true for the pastelist whose color choices are derived from individual sticks of pigment. Laid down in a raw manner, these colors can easily appear isolated from one another, producing a discordant painting. To address this issue, pastelists have developed various application techniques based in layering.

Pastel Layering Techniques: The act of layering pastels is as old as the medium itself, beginning as a necessity to achieve the subtle variations of color required to accurately represent a scene. Just as a wet media painter is required to mix various pigments together, so too must the pastelist working with a limited palette. Since pastel is dry by nature, this is best facilitated by the application of broken strokes of subsequent color. Check out these previous posts on blending, scumbling and glazing, and hatching, cross-hatching and feathering and dusting (January 23, 2012) are a few of the most popular techniques discussed in these blog posts. An underpainting, whether done with pastel or mixed media, is another technique often used as a setup for subsequent pastel layers. When any variation of color is applied over another, allowing a degree of the previous color to show, a foundation of color harmony is initiated due to the fragmentation of solid color.

The consistency of the individual pastel stick and surface has an impact on one’s ability to build layers of pastel. Course-sanded surfaces tend to accept more layers of pastel. It is useful to experiment with various brands of pastel sticks and to alternate methods of application between harder and softer pastel brands. When a gentle whiff of color is required in an area, a bit of pastel can be placed on a finger and lightly tapped into an area.  Workable fixative can also be utilized to set a pastel layer in advance of subsequent pastel layering. If heavy layers of pastel have been applied, experiment with a gentle scratching of the top layer with a blunt instrument, allowing underlying layers to reappear.

These layering techniques allow pastel artists to beautifully represent the opalescent quality of natural light. Experiment with what they have to offer; put them together is various ways; and—by all means—invent your own!

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