Most pastelists utilize some form of an underpainting technique to mass in the large areas of a composition. This under-layer acts as a stage for the over-layer performance of pastel. For some artists, the underpainting serves a very utilitarian purpose by representing the average value and color tones of the scene. It’s merely a simple block-in, making it easier to cover the painting surface without having to use an entire pastel stick. For others, the underpainting becomes a creative opportunity to indicate texture, atmosphere, rhythm, harmony, and emotion. In the end, major portions of the underpainting may show through providing a partnership and added dimension to the final painting.
Getting the Values Right: No matter which underpainting approach (utilitarian or creative) you embrace, there is one factor that can’t be ignored: if the general value (degree of lightness and darkness) is not represented in the major spaces of the painting’s underpainting, no matter how beautiful the colors are, it will ultimately have to be covered. It brings to mind the old adage: “Value does the work and color gets the glory.”
Being a pastelist who enjoys the serendipitous interaction of a spontaneous underpainting and yet understands the importance of value doing the work, I have continued to experiment with techniques that provide the best of both. This is an example of one such method.
Step one: Select a surface that is capable of accepting moisture without buckling. Examples would be: watercolor paper, gator board, or any ridged archival surface that may be suitable. For this demonstration, I used multimedia pastel board, an excellent lightweight surface that has a soft pastel tooth applied to one side. Taking a sepia brown colored pastel pencil (or hard pastel stick), I drew the scene onto the surface and mildly indicated the major value variations.
Step two: Using a brush, I applied Liquitex Clear Gesso over the pastel drawing (other transparent pastel grounds commercially available include Art Spectrum Clear Pastel Primer and Golden Acrylic Ground for Pastel). I prefer not to thin the clear pastel ground with additional water, although it’s perfectly acceptable to do so. The texture created from the brushed-on ground was accentuated in areas to add effect when pastel is ultimately applied.
Step three: After the clear pastel ground dries, a permanent value underpainting is produced. Various transparent layers of color could now be applied without fear of losing the general value structure of the painting. In this example, I used watercolor washes from a limited palette of one yellow, one red, and one blue. Limiting my choices and allowing colors to flow over edges and combine throughout the composition achieved a more harmonious outcome. I allowed for splatters and drips, which adds to the playful nature of the underpainting.
Pastel will next be applied to build just enough reality to produce the impressionistic effect I hope to achieve.