Pastel Pointers | Reclaiming Pastel Surfaces

pastel pointers with richard mckinley

Water and blotting can be used to reclaim a pastel surface, allowing for a new beginning.

In addition to conducting a year-end review (which I discussed in the previous blog post), the new year also prompts me to reorganize my studio. One of the ways I do this is to segregate unfinished pastel paintings into three categories: will finish, might finish, and time to let go. Paintings that may have been in the “will finish” pile one year often end up in the “time to let go” pile after a year of neglect. It isn’t that they don’t have any merit and could even be completed to a satisfactory outcome; it is that the inspiration and motivation to do so has been lost. After considerable time passes, every painter needs to realize that he or she has changed. What inspired, and the methods and technical abilities employed then, has been left to the past. It is time to look to the future.

       While artists of all media are well served to do this purging, many hesitate due to frugality. Art supplies are expensive. Reclaiming an expensive linen canvas support for oil painting or a large sheet of 300-pound watercolor paper is not an easy feat. This is where the pastelist has an upper hand. Most of our surfaces can easily be reclaimed with little effort, providing a fresh start.
       Once a decision is made to reclaim a pastel surface, the first step is to determine the makeup of the surface. Most commercial or homemade gritty surfaces can take quite a beating and aggressive removal techniques can be employed, while soft paper surfaces may need a gentler approach. When there is a thick layer of pastel to be removed, it is best to keep the painting in an upright position and gently drag a utility razor blade down its surface, letting the dust gently fall into a receptacle. The pigment can be saved and reconstituted into a pastel stick, if desired, or disposed.
       For health concerns, avoid using a brush or canned pressurized air to remove pastel: Pigment should never be made airborne. A wetting and blotting technique is by far the safest method. Wet the pastel with a large brush and then blot. Avoid rubbing on gritty surfaces. Repeat this as many times as necessary to expose the underlying surface.
       Dry pastel can be liquefied by any number of solutions. The two most commonly employed are water and mineral spirits. If a mixed-media underpainting technique was utilized, you will need to determine which material to use. If you want to remove a layer of pastel and retain the majority of a watercolor underpainting, use mineral spirits. If mineral spirits were used for the underpainting, use water. If you wish to remove the majority of both the underpainting and pastel layer, use the same solution that was employed for the underpainting.
       Most surfaces, no matter how vigorously scrubbed and blotted, will be stained. If the previous painting’s ghost image is too intrusive, you can turn the surface upside down or sideways for the next painting. The serendipitous outcome may even provide inspiration and spark a much-needed flame of creativity. Instead of just being an exercise in letting go, it could potentially be a new creative beginning!


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3 thoughts on “Pastel Pointers | Reclaiming Pastel Surfaces

  1. MarshaSavage

    Very good post. I am always reclaiming pastel boards and papers. I love painting on the ghost images and pulling out negative spaces that it inspires me to do. So funny about the three “groups”… I do that also and so many times I am like Lee and need to put the “work on” into the “reclaim” pile because I never got around to it. Thanks Richard!

  2. Lee McVey

    Richard, your articles are always thought provoking. I have a lot of paintings in the “will finish” pile that should now be in the “time to let go” pile. I’ll most likely never finish them and I could use the space they would vacate.

    I don’t usually reclaim a pastel paper. Maybe I am rubbing off grit when I think I am just blotting, but it feels like the paper’s tooth fills up too quickly after I have blotted off pastel.

  3. jwditri

    I like your comment about health concerns regarding airborne particles. I am sure we should all be concerned about those hazards. It is good to be reminded. There is no prize for he/she who dies with the most colorful lungs.