Pastel Q&A | How To Overcome Artist’s Block; Painting on Velour; Sharpening Pastel Pencils

Q. Back in the mid-1960s, I was introduced to drawing portraits in charcoal and pastels on velour paper. I purchased the paper locally in a variety of colors—it was the best paper I’ve ever used. But after a few years my interests turned to engineering and slowly my stock of paper ran out. I haven’t been able to find the velour paper anywhere since. The only identification I can offer is that it was manufactured in Sweden. I’ve enclosed a small sample and wonder if you could put me on the right track to find more of this wonderful paper?

A. I’ve never seen this particular paper, and have been unable to locate a supplier. The only velour paper I’ve been able to find is made by Hahnemühle, a company based in Germany. The surface of the Hahnemühle paper is slightly thicker than the sample you provided, and the backing is different. I’m afraid the paper you once used may have been discontinued. (Hahnemühle paper is available from most art supply stores and mail-order catalogs.)


Q. Lately I’ve been experiencing an artist’s block. Everything I start to do feels like a painting I’ve already done or seen. How or where can I find fresh subject matter?

A. Fresh subject matter may not be the answer—you may just need a fresh approach. After all, you could say that almost every subject has already been painted by someone. Try doing something very different from your normal procedure. If you work indoors from photos, go outdoors. If you paint children, find a model who’s a senior citizen. If you paint traditional, formal still lifes, try painting a pile of rocks, twigs and leaves.

Or try some of these ideas: Turn your surface upside down and block in your painting that way. Try working with only the sides of fat pastels. Another idea: Take all your favorite colors of pastel sticks—the ones you use all the time—out of the box and paint only with what’s left. It’s always good to try painting a subject with a limited palette—pick a dozen colors and do the whole painting with those.

If you generally go right to the subject without painting an underpainting, try a complementary color underpainting. If you work on a sanded surface that accepts liquids, you can brush in the underpainting with Turpenoid, alcohol or mineral spirits to keep the complement from muddying future layers. Consider a monochrome for an underpainting; if you’re painting a landscape, for instance, do an underpainting all in reds or oranges.

Experimenting with different approaches and techniques may not only move you out of a blocked stage, it may change the way you paint forever.


Q. Can you recommend a good sharpener for pastel pencils, one that will accommodate the fatter Contés as well as the slimmer CarbOthellos? I can’t seem to get a good point on my pencils and have difficulty with the tips breaking off in the sharpener due to the softness of the pigment. In addition, it seems as though after one or two uses the sharpener itself needs to be replaced. Any suggestions?

A. Matching the size of the sharpener opening to the size of the pastel pencil being sharpened is critical. As you’ve observed, many sharpeners will only accommodate the slimmer CarbOthello pencils.

Electric pencil sharpeners are usually made for school and office use, with an opening that’ll only work for smaller pencils. My experience is that once jammed, the sharpener cannot be repaired.

An alternative is to use a manual pencil sharpener. One possibility is the Boston KS pencil sharpener, which accommodates eight sizes of pencils. It mounts to a desktop or wall with screws. (Available for $24.18 at your local art store.)

The same company makes a heavier-duty, manual pencil sharpener (Boston Ranger 55, $41.99). Its adjustable pencil guide sharpens a wide selection of pencil sizes. It’s very sturdy and has been available since 1947.

If you need a sharpener for traveling, Alvin makes an all-metal sharpener with two holes, one for standard-size pencils (8 mm) and the other for large-size pencils (101⁄2 mm). It’s available at most art retailers for around $1.

Dahle makes a small, hand-held pencil sharpener with two holes, one for standard-size pencils, and the other for large-size pencils. The sharpener, which has a clear plastic shavings receptacle that’s easily removed for cleaning, is available for less than $5 from most art retailers.

Some artists I’ve talked to have had good success with unconventional sharpeners, such as sharpeners for eyebrow pencils or carpenters’ pencils. These tools are usually inexpensive and can be discarded once the blade is dull. I recommend any sharpener with a removable blade that’ll allow you to unscrew the blade and remove a jammed piece of pigment.


Have a pastel question of your own? Write to us at

Read more Pastel Q&As by clicking here.




Watch art workshops on demand at ArtistsNetwork.TV

Online seminars for fine artists

Instantly download fine art magazines, books, videos & more

Sign up for your Artist’s Network email newsletter & receive a FREE ebook

You may also like these articles: