As a painting medium, pastel is amenable to a variety of techniques. When archival processes are employed, individual innovation is unlimited. One of the most intriguing techniques is that of starting with an underpainting. Simply defined, it is the initial lay-in, the start, or setup, before additional pastel is applied.
Artists have employed a variety of methods to underpaint. Some smear pastel, creating an ethereal soft focus. Others wet pastel with solutions, creating a painted look. Many employ a mixed-media technique with a suitable medium like watercolor, gouache or even extremely diluted oil (see my previous blog post on the subejct). No matter what means is employed, having a clear purpose to the underpainting will help in deciding what to put down. The purpose might be very utilitarian or serve as a major part of the finished appearance of the painting. When I do a demonstration, the most frequently asked question is: “Why did you choose to place that color or value in that location?” The simple response would be that I wanted to, but the truth is that those intuitive decisions are based on experience. Many miles of pastel have to be spread before these choices become spontaneous.
One way of expediting the process is to pick a subject you’re quite familiar with, something you have painted before, so you don’t have to solve all the intricate choices of composition, value relationships and color harmony, and then do a series of paintings employing a variety of underpaintings. Work small; this is an exercise, not a series of monumental finished paintings. Start with value choices. Work on white, then a mid-neutral gray, and then black. Next explore color temperature by working on a mid-value warm surface (like a dull orange), then a mid-value cool surface (gray blue violet works well). Follow these with a combination underpainting of warm and cool in a full value range started on white (ultramarine blue and burnt sienna work well for this; intermix them as needed).
Next, paint a value sensitive underpainting with local color. Follow this with an underpainting in which complementary colors are chosen (orange under a blue sky and red under green foliage). Finally, and this must be saved until the end of the exercise, do what you feel. Make choices of value and color simply by following your instincts.
By doing these nine studies, you internalize the important roll value and color can play in setting up the underpainting. You discover there are no “right” or “wrong” underpaintings, just possibilities. It becomes something to respond to, providing a partner in the dance of painting.