Surfaces for Pastel Painting | Fibrous Vs Sanded Pastel Papers

The interaction between a painting medium and surface plays an integral part in an artist’s painting technique and the final appearance of the artwork. This is especially true with pastel. While wet media, such as watercolor and oil, are applied with a brush that is capable of pushing pigment into a porous surface, pastel is applied dry, relying on the textural nature of the surface for adequate adhesion.


A selection of various pastel surfaces in my studio.

Two Kinds of Pastel Papers: Pastel surfaces can generally be separated into two categories: fibrous and sanded.

Fibrous Pastel Papers: Fibrous surfaces are those made from substances that inherently have tooth, such as cotton rag and various other vegetable fibers. Depending on how these papers are manufactured (milled), they can manifest considerable tooth. Many of the historical paper mills of Europe are still producing legendary papers that pastel artists have been utilizing for centuries. When looking for fibrous pastel surfaces in your local art supply store, don’t limit yourself to the pastel section, or papers solely labeled for pastel usage: instead, peruse the watercolor, etching, and drawing sections for possible candidates. As long as the surface has a high archival rating and is strong enough to withstand your pastel painting technique, it can be a candidate. Heavier weight fibrous papers can often be made more receptive with a light rubbing of fine sandpaper. This will break the upper surface of the paper, making it softer to the touch and allow it to accept more pastel. The final results can mirror the effects of velvet, which has been another surface utilized for pastel.

Sanded Pastel Papers: Sanded pastel surfaces are those in which the upper layer has been altered with the addition of a gritty, granular substance. Commonly, this is silica sand or metallic crystals suspended within an adhesive upon the surface. Depending on the substrate, glue and grit product, a wide variety of abrasive textures can be produced. While similar to industrial sandpaper, sanded pastel surfaces must utilize a PH-neutral, non-acidic substrate to meet archival standards. There are a couple of manufacturers offering popular archival-grade sanded pastel surfaces but many pastelists continue to prefer to produce their own homemade versions (see details in this previous post from December 12, 2011, and this one from December 19). The inherent texture of the chosen substrate plays a part in the final feeling of the surface. Harder surfaces, such as wood fiber hardboard and resin based gatorboard, will produce a crisp, rigid, pastel surface. Heavier weight watercolor papers, or cotton fiber rag-boards, will generally produce a softer pastel surface. The introduction of acrylic-based adhesives has also had a profound effect on an artist’s ability to produce a wide variation of surface textures. Acrylic being flexible and less prone to cracking when dry allows for a textural application that can retain brushstrokes, or may be thinned with water to produce a flat/even appearance. Acrylic binders can also be easily tinted with additional acrylic tube colors to produce a desired tone.

Just as there is no perfect brand of pastel stick, so too is there no perfect pastel surface. Be adventurous: Experiment with various fibrous and sanded surfaces. If you find yourself becoming predictable, switch it up for awhile.

[Note: In next week’s post, I’ll discuss the characteristics of a few of the recent commercial pastel surface offerings. It’s a good time to be a pastelist!]




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