Underpainting Possibilities for Pastel Paintings


An example of underpainting.

Most pastelists that come to work with me are interested in the technique of underpainting. Technically, the term refers to a painting stage that is used to set the stage for an additional application of paint. Historically, this would be done to avoid the pitfalls of working on sterile blank surfaces. These underpainting techniques were utilitarian in purpose. They were not intended to play a major part in the final appearance of the painting. As more artists employed underpainting techniques, more expressive methods evolved which led to techniques where the underpainting became a creative partner playing a major part in the artist’s process.


Another example of underpainting.

For educational purposes, I like to separate pastel underpainting possibilities into two categories: utilitarian and creative. The utilitarian underpainting relies on major shapes of dominant value and color choices to set-up the painting for easier pastel application. The underpainting becomes the body upon which the pastel clothing is draped. The creative underpainting, while still utilizing value and color, relies more on techniques that often open doors to new creative responses. Luminosity, atmospheric perspective, negative space, and texture are possible outcomes. These underpaintings often show in the final painting, becoming a useful partner.

With the array of surfaces and mixed media possibilities afforded the pastel artist these days, underpainting possibilities are almost limitless. Artists can work with pastel either dry or wet. Water, rubbing or denatured alcohol, and odorless mineral spirits are popular methods of wetting pastel, each producing a unique effect. Some artists even spray these solutions directly onto their paintings, producing very interesting effects. It is to be noted that some surfaces do not accept alcohol-based solutions. You should experiment in advance on a scrap before committing to a large painting. Watercolor, gouache, acrylic, or thin applications of oil paint are popular mixed-media methods. If these are applied thinly, not filling the tooth of the surface, pastel can easily be applied over top.

As long as archival rules are not broken that would compromise the longevity of the painting, underpainting possibilities are limitless. Experiment and find what works best for you.

On Tuesday, November 30, at 1 pm (Eastern time), F+W Media—the company behind The Pastel Journal, North Light Books and the North Light Shop—will be hosting an online event with me, titled “Three Stages for Successful Pastel Paintings”. Stage two will focus on underpainting possibilities. This one-hour LIVE webinar event, in which I’ll share excerpts from my new book, Pastel Pointers: Top Secrets for Beautiful Pastel Paintings (on sale now in the North Light Shop) is FREE. It will wrap up with a question-and-answer session during which you’ll have an opportunity to pose your questions. You must register to participate. To do so, go to: https://www1.gotomeeting.com/register/848107976.


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3 thoughts on “Underpainting Possibilities for Pastel Paintings

  1. Willo Balfrey

    Another great blog Richard. I find that the process of underpainting has given me the ability to see so many possibilities for the painting. The first stage of applying the underpainting takes away the "fear of the first stroke" and allows me to relax and enjoy the process that follows.