Since artists first applied sticks of pigment to surface, they’ve experimented with a variety of techniques. Many of these adventurous artists were first trained in what was considered a more traditional medium—oil. With alla prima oil painting, meaning “all at once,” it’s imperative to work thinly in the initial application, working up to heavier layers as the painting progresses. Otherwise everything becomes mud. With each layer of application, the volume of paint becomes heavier and thicker, gently interacting with the one below.
This process can easily be mimicked in pastel—which shares so many similarities with oil—by beginning with harder pastel sticks in the initial block-in stage and progressively working towards the softer brands for the final layers. The other means of retaining control in oil paint is to allow each layer to dry before applying additional layers. Pastel
artists may employ a similar method by applying layers of fixative to settle and solidify the pastel before applying additional pigment. If you prefer softer pastels and wish to work in layers, the initial pastel application can be rubbed or scraped down—another technique employed by our oil painter friends—to allow for subsequent layering. Depending on the support, this can be an effective means of producing bold painterly pastel paintings that have as much substance and visual weight as an oil painting.
To make things easier when selecting pastel sticks for those beginning strokes, many artists segregate their harder pastel brands from the softer pastel brands. This works well in the studio where multiple palettes of pastels can be arranged, but when working en plein air, it can become cumbersome to carry two palettes. If you wish to work hard-to-soft with your travel palette, I have two tips that might prove helpful. First, select harder sticks for the darker regions of the palette, as discussed in an earlier August blog post called “Downsizing a Palette for Travel.” Typically our first strokes are in the darker, dull shadow areas of the painting. Having more of these darker, harder sticks in our palette makes it easier to utilize the softer, brighter, lighter sticks as the painting progresses. The second tip is to take one section of your palette box and segregate a selection of harder pastels, in a variety of hues, values, and intensities.
If you have a heavy hand when applying pastel, working hard to soft might be the solution for you. It has definitely been part of my painting arsenal, helping me navigate through many a painting battlefield.