Pastel Q&A | How To Blend Colors in Pastel

Q. Having worked in oil and watercolor, I’m having trouble blending colors in pastel. How is it done?

A. I don’t blend very much. Pastel pigment is crystalline in structure, which is one reason pastel paintings can be so luminous. Blending, especially with your fingers, breaks down that crystalline structure, dulling the surface. I blend in only two areas: the sky, which I want to soften and push back, and still water with reflections, which I blend very lightly with quick, downward and horizontal strokes.

If you’re working on a heavily sanded surface, blending a lot with your fingers can abrade them to the point of bleeding. Some people wear gloves or finger cots while blending, but I prefer the control of an uncovered finger. I protect my hands from the pigment with an application of Gloves in a Bottle, a liquid barrier, but that doesn’t solve the abrasion problem. Blending tools can be useful in some cases. A tortillon is a traditional blending tool for pastels, but you can also use a colour shaper, which looks like a brush but has a rubbery tip instead of bristles, Styrofoam packing peanuts or pieces of Fome-Cor with the paper layer removed from both sides.

The best way to blend, though, is with other pastels. A layer, or layers, of soft pastel can be blended with a slightly harder pastel. The advantage of this method is that color is added instead of lost. If you use pastels of similar values, you’re less likely to create a muddy look.


Q. I’ve heard various views on using fixative. What’s the problem?

A. The main problem with using fixative can be the darkening of the pastel. If you’ve layered light colors over dark—and the ability to do that is one great advantage of the medium—applying fixative may cause the dark to bleed through, diminishing the light layer.

This effect can be used to your advantage, however. For example, if you’re having difficulty getting dark enough values in a certain area or if you decide at some point that the entire painting is too light in value, a careful application of fixative can solve the problem.

Fixative can also be useful when you need to prevent blending. Recently, near the end of a painting, I decided that I needed to make a change in the clouds in order to direct the viewer’s eye to the focal point. Placing the pale yellow clouds atop my already-painted deep blue sky, not surprisingly, resulted in greenish clouds instead of yellow. A quick application of fixative to just that area allowed me to apply the yellow again without its turning green.

Opponents of fixative often mention its smell or the dangers of inhaling it, but you shouldn’t have a problem as long as you apply it outdoors or in a well-ventilated area. (Some brands have less odor than others. I use Lascaux, which I prefer because it seems not to darken or discolor quite as much. I don’t think it has much less odor than other brands, but I always spray fixative out doors anyway.)

Some people misinterpret fixative as being a substitute for glass, which it isn’t. No amount of fixative will completely prevent smudging of the surface. The way to protect a finished pastel painting is to frame it under glass. (See “A Clear-cut Guide to Framing,” December 2004.)

Finally, the application of fixative isn’t quite as easy as point and shoot. The can should be shaken well, and a test spray applied to a surface other than your painting. Some artists advise laying the painting flat and spraying a light “cloud” of fixative above it, allowing the particles to settle gently onto the surface. If you want to apply fixative to only a specific area, cut a stencil to cover the other areas of your painting.

New Orleans pastel artist and instructor Alan Flattmann, who uses fixative for every painting, says, “Fixative is just another tool. I believe you should use all the tools you have available to create the effect you want in your painting.”


Q. How do you achieve really deep darks in pastel?

A. The most important thing is to put the darks down first. While you can put a light value over a dark, if you put dark over light it’ll never be as dark as if you placed it first. A dark over a light can also get muddy.

Underpainting can also help you achieve rich, dark values. I like to block in shapes with pastel and then wash with Turpenoid—try this if you’re working on a surface that can accept wet media. (See “Scratch the Surface,” December 2004.) After the Turpenoid/pastel mix dries, you can go over your dark areas again with broken color (several colors of the same value) and get strong, lively darks. If you’re having trouble getting an area dark enough, try applying black pastel and then covering it with color to keep it lively.


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