Pastel Pointers | Homegrown Pastel Surfaces, Part 1

pastel homemade surfaces

Photo of various substrates upon which pastel grit-ground is applied.

With the number of commercially available pastel surfaces on the market today, many pastelists find little need to make their own. It has become somewhat of a lost art. When I began working in the medium, this was not the case. Outside of Canson Mi-Teintes, there was nothing being manufactured specifically for pastel, especially if you wanted a gritty, sanded surface. The only choice was to compromise archival standards by using commercial-grade sandpaper (which is not pH-neutral) or to make our own with a grit recipe. These homemade surfaces consisted of three major components: the Substrate, the Binder and the Grit.

Today, I will focus on the supports often utilized as a substrate for the application of a pastel grit-ground. They are generally divided into two categories: natural fiber surfaces, made of 100% rag paper, and rigid hardboards made from compressed or treated wood fibers. Suitable natural fibrous surfaces consist of 100% cotton rag or linen.  One of the most popular choices for pastelisits is 300-pound hot-pressed watercolor paper. Lighter weights, like 140-pound, can also be used but must be stretched if any water-based products will be introduced to prevent wrinkling. Cold-pressed, or “rough” papers can be substituted when more surface texture is desired. Etching papers, like BFK Rives, are another popular choice. They are pre-sized, making them less prone to wrinkling when wetted and  are also lighter in weight. Raw canvas and linen, purchased by the yard, can also be utilized as a substrate for the application of a pastel ground. While this has fallen out of fashion among pastelists, it was a very popular surface historically. For a more rigid substrate with a fibrous surface, watercolor, illustration or mat boards that are 100% rag or pH neutral cored, will work. Note: For archival purposes, all of the fibrous surfaces must be 100 percent rag or pH neutral; otherwise, they will need to be sealed (sized) in advance of applying the pastel ground.

Rigid hardboards, such as Gatorboard brand, and MDF (medium density fibreboard) such as Masonite, are made up of wood fiber byproducts and require a sizing to protect the pastel surface from acidic migration. One or two coats of acrylic gesso or PVA (polyvinyl acetate) sizing, available from most art supply outlets, will suffice. Slightly roughen the surface with fine sandpaper before applying the sizing to ensure adequate adherence. After this dries, the pastel ground of choice can be applied.

As technology advances, new substrates have become available. One originally made for use in the tech industry that has found fans among many pastelists is Multimedia Artboard ( Made from paper and thermal-set resin, it provides few artistic limitations and does not require sizing. The two sides of Multimedia board are white and present slightly different surface texture. Multimedia Artboard also offers a version of their own pastel grit surface, silk screened to the smoother side of the board, which is very nice.

When selecting a surface for the purpose of pastel grit-ground application, the most important factors to be considered are archival makeup and inherent texture. Once the substrate is selected, it is time to consider the components of the pastel grit-ground and how it will be applied. In next week’s blog, I will discuss the Binders and Grits most commonly employed when making a homemade pastel grit-ground.

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