Beginning a pastel with an underpainting is something I enjoy. It sets the foundation for subsequent applications of pastel and allows me to quickly get to the important marks of pastel while retaining a painterly appearance. When deciding what to put down, some pastelists make value the governing influence, while others choose color as the impetus. No matter which of these is your preference, there are basically three techniques to choose from for the underpainting: a mixed-media technique with watercolor, gouache or any other suitable media that will facilitate additional pastel application; pastel applied to the surface and then made wet with water, mineral spirits or rubbing alcohol; or pastel applied to the surface and then rubbed around dry.
Recently, while on a plein air painting trip, I was reminded of how beautiful and beneficial a simple dry pastel underpainting can be. I knew I was racing against the light and didn’t have time to set up a mixed-media underpainting or wait for pastel made wet to dry, so I decided to employ one of the techniques I frequently used years ago—a dry application of pastel. The same value and color choices govern this technique as the wet methods. Ask yourself, “What do you want underneath as a setup for the pastel marks?” It is best to start with harder pastels so as not to fill the tooth of the surface; it takes very little pastel to create a foundation. Avoid overly dull pastels, as the smearing will naturally weaken the color. Depending on the surface, a strong paper towel, chamois rag or foam pieces (like pipe insulation cut into smaller pieces) will suffice. Be messy. Let the smears mingle across forms. It is much easier to define an edge as the painting evolves. Let the underpainting be the dream that you build reality on top of.
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