“Ay, there’s the rub.” —Hamlet
To rub or not to rub is a personal artistic choice. Different surfaces, pastel brands and tools will create varied results. Experimentation is always recommended. When choosing a tool, many simply use the most convenient—the hands. If you do use your hands, you should employ some precautions. Sanded surfaces can be especially brutal, often leading to major skin abrasions, and you want to avoid any chance of assimilating any toxic pigments into the bloodstream. Artist barrier creams, such as Gloves in a Bottle, are helpful and should be applied in advance of a painting session. Latex gloves are another popular solution. Personally, I’ve never been able to get use to the feel of gloves when painting, so I opt for the barrier creams and frequent hand washings.
Other favorite tools for rubbing include a leather chamois, foam packing peanuts, plastic grocery store bags, foam pipe insulation and paper towels (see photo above). When using a leather chamois, you’ll find that it responds very similarly to human skin. Since it becomes dirty easily, frequent cleaning is a necessity. Holding on to one corner, beat it against a rigid surface—and be careful not to inhale the dust. Foam packing peanuts, foam pipe insulation and plastic grocery bags share a commonality: They don’t pick up a lot of the pigment; they tend to push it into the surface, instead of wiping it off. Artist Terry Ludwig, maker of Terry Ludwig pastels, introduced me to the foam pipe insulation a few years ago and it has become a personal favorite. Simply tear off a little piece (a tube from the hardware store will last a lifetime) and push the pastel around as if you were using a brush. A general softening will occur with minimal dusting.
Paper towels have been another favorite of many artists and, without a doubt, Viva brand is the most popular. Once the towel is allowed to pick up a little of the pastel off the surface, it becomes a very useful tool for softening and smearing the pigment into the surface. I keep a piece in my left hand at all times and gently tap the pastel stick I’m using against it before returning it to the palette. This habit has helped to keep my sticks clean.
The physical action of pushing, smearing and rubbing pastel can create a soft, ethereal quality often associated with the medium. For this reason, many shun the practice and prefer layering one pastel color on top of another, producing considerable vibrancy. Just as wet paint worked with a brush produces a soft, melted appearance that can easily become muddy, so too can an over-rubbed pastel. Yet, there are times when a softened appearance will strengthen the finished statement and serve the purpose of an underpainting. For these reasons, pastel artists will continue to experiment with an array of objects to spread, smear and rub the pastel around their working surfaces, often leading to fascinating techniques and beautiful outcomes. If you have a special way of pushing the pigment around, please post a comment. (To post a comment, click the Comments link below. It will prompt you for your email address, but it isn’t required to submit.)