The Visual Relationship Between Pastel and Surface

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Different value and color surfaces with the same pastel marks.

Many pastel artists have witnessed the “pop” pastel can have when applied to certain surfaces. This is, of course, an optical illusion. The pastel stick hasn’t changed, just the relationship it has to the surrounding area. This perceived change is the foundation of the theory of “simultaneous contrast” (described in July 30, 2007 blog post). The phenomenon can be summed up this way: Everything is affected by the opposite of what it is next to.

To better understand this, and ultimately harness its power, do a series of experiments. Select an assortment of surface scraps that have various value and color differences. Next, choose various pastel sticks that also have variation. Apply similar pastel marks on all the surfaces. You will instantly see the differences. A pastel stick applied to a dark surface tends to look lighter. On a lighter surface it appears darker. Color bias, or temperature, of the stick will also appear to shift depending on the color of the surface. Warmer toned surfaces make pastels look cooler, and cooler surfaces make things look warmer.

We respond to these perceived shifts while painting and that is why pastel selections vary from situation to situation. There isn’t a perfect pastel for blue skies, green trees, or flesh tone. It is all relative to it surroundings. What worked perfectly in one painting situation can be a failure in another. Next time you feel like the mountains are not dark enough, try lightening the surrounding sky and see if they change. If the flesh tone of your portrait appears too dull, try weakening the chromatic intensity (brightness) of the background. There is a reason most classic portrait painters begin with a dull warm gray-green undertone and traditional landscape painters have relied on a warm undertone when starting; they both create a base tone for the color choices that follow.

Our pastel paintings are nothing more than a series of relationships. The tones we choose to work on set up a situation for the pastel to interact with. Some painters may prefer to work on dark surfaces, while others prefer light. Some prefer warm hues, while others prefer cool. By practicing on a variety of surface tones, you will gain experience on how they affect your pastel choices, allowing you to be better equipped to respond to the various scenarios your painting adventures may get you into. Viva la Difference!


Richard McKinley’s column “Pastel Pointers” appears reguarly in The Pastel Journal. See the latest issue here. Look for downloads of his articles on Grounds & Supports and Fixing Mistakes in our shop.

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