When Homemade Is Best

36-making-surfaces.jpgWe’re fortunate to be painting in a time when there are so many wonderful pastel surfaces commercially  available. In the Dark Ages of pastel—not so long ago actually—it was a necessity to know how to make your own, especially if you required a sanded surface. But even with the proliferation of available surfaces today, there are times when a homemade surface fills the bill. 

To create a homemade, sanded pastel surface, you’ll need the a substrate and the ground components (binder, grit and, optionally, a tone):

Substrate: This is the surface that the abrasive material will be adhered to. The major consideration here is the archival nature of the product. Heavy paper or hardboard surfaces are favorites. When choosing a paper, make sure it’s strong enough to withstand your technique and the wet application of the sanded grit. If it’s too thin, it will buckle and warp. This can often be remedied with a thin application of acrylic binder to the backside. Watercolor and printmaking papers of 100% cotton-rag content work well. If a rigid surface is your preference, wood-fiber hardboards or Gatorboard will be more to your liking. Both of these substrates should be sealed first with a coat of acrylic to protect the surface from acidic migration over time. A quick coat of acrylic gesso or painting medium will suffice. Apply the sanded grit and you’ve produced a rigid pastel sanded board that’s easy for travel and easy to frame.

Binder: An acrylic polymer works well. Strong, yet flexible, it holds the grit and dries quickly. Acrylic gesso produces a white surface that’s nice for most underpainting techniques, and acrylic painting medium can be used when a clear solution is preferred. These can be used full-strength, producing more textured results or thinned slightly with water to smooth. Many artists enjoy using creative brush strokes when applying the ground mixture, as they utilize the brushstroke texture in their finished work.

Grit: Traditionally, pumice or Rottenstone powder have been the grits of choice. Pumice comes in varying degress of coarseness: 2F, 3F and 4F are the most widely used. Experiment to see which works best for you. Pumice can be found in most hardware stores and many art supply stores, such as Dakota Art Pastels. Marble dust (calcium carbonate), also available at most art supply stores, can be used when a softer grit surface is desired.

Tone: Toning the surface is achieved by the addition of any acrylic color. Remember that acrylic dries slightly darker than it appears when wet. Mix colors together until a desired result is achieved.

Finding just the right proportion of the above ingredients in your ground mixture is an individual choice. I recommend starting with 1 cup of binder and adding 3 tablespoons of grit. Weaken this with as little water as necessary; too much water and the binder may be broken, compromising the adhesion. Test this result, and then adjust the proportions to suit your needs.

The mixture may be applied in a variety of fashions. A smaller paintbrush will produce more brush tracks and texture, while a larger brush will provide a more even application. Bristles brushes tend to create a slightly uneven appearance while nylon brushes produce more uniformity.

My favorite homemade surface is on Gatorbaord using a ground made up of acrylic gesso and pumice, toned with either a warm brown or a warm green acrylic (see photo of materials and finished boards). If I need a black surface, I use acrylic medium and black acrylic paint with the pumice. I prefer to brush it on using a soft bristle brush, alternating the application direction between layers. This produces a soft woven appearance similar to portrait grade linen.

Feel free to experiment. Try new surfaces, binders, grits, and tones. The bonus to a homemade surface is it allows us to accommodate our individual style, and we don’t have to worry about them being out of stock or discontinued!

If you’d like to read more of my thoughts about choosing supports and my favorite recipes for ground mixtures, see the special report “From the Ground Up” in the August 2006 issue of The Pastel Journal.

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