Pastels: Choosing the Right Surface and Undercolor

It all starts with the surface. In the September 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, five masters of the medium describe the ways they prepare the surface for pastel. The following is free preview by Peter Seltzer—click here to buy the issue and learn what Sydney McGinley, Tim Tepe, Sam Goodsell and Paul Murray had to share.

Edge-to-Edge Pastel
by Peter Seltzer

Threads 4 (pastel, 241⁄8x241⁄8) was a departure from my usual way of working. The shear number of elements demanded more compositional organization up front in order to sidestep chaos. The strong verticality needed to be balanced with a horizontal thrust, and so the idea for the tape measure was born. This element also provided a way to connect the two planes so they weren’t so separate.

After playing around with a lot of surfaces for pastel, including ones I make myself, I’ve come to love Sennelier La Carte. Its gritty surface provides plenty of tooth upon which I can build many, many layers. The grit that holds many layers allows me to attain the subtlety and nuance of color and value that I’m attracted to.

There are really only two choices when considering the relationship between pastel and paper. One is to allow the ground color to show through the final layers of color—making the ground color an active participant in the final look of the painting. In that case, of course, the selection of the color of the ground becomes vitally important. The other approach—my preference—is to have the end product be solid pastel, edge to edge. For the paper, I select a neutral color of a middle value so I can really see my darks and lights, as the neutral color doesn’t impact my perception of color I’m putting down the way a strong color would. I often work a multitude of strokes in all directions, allowing these to knit together in a solid mass. It’s most often the side of the pastels that I use to develop my backgrounds.

For The Pink Lady Levitates (pastel, 20x20), the composition wasn’t locked in. The folded blue paper seen through the frames was an afterthought. Even the idea behind the painting was open to revision. Originally the pink lady apple was to sit comfortably and solidly on one of the frames. The idea of floating the apple came later—giving a humorous twist to the painting as well as its title.

Strive for a full range of values. Don’t frustrate yourself. Purchase as many pastels as your budget will allow. Concentrate on collecting a full range of values from dark to light. Evaluate a pastel set first and foremost in terms of the range of values. Then play. Experiment with different surfaces to discover which works best with your developing touch.

Peter Seltzer won the Dianne B. Bernhard Gold Medal Award at the Allied Artists of America show at the National Arts Club in 2009. To learn more, visit

Read more about choices for pastel paintings in the September 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
Click here for the digital version.
Click here for the print version.

Free preview
See an award-winning artists’ approach to landscapes. Click here for a link to a free preview of Color Harmony for Luminous Pastels with Colleen Howe from


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