Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Sanded or unsanded pastel surfaces are very different to work with. In addition to this, some papers have a different texture on each side. The painting above, Two Irises, was done on unsanded gray Canson Mi-Tientes paper using the textured side.
Canson Mi-Tientes is a paper that's available in 60 colors now. It's a traditional non-sanded pastel paper used by many artists because it's available almost anywhere that carries art supplies. It has a woven texture on one side and a smooth texture on the other. The smooth texture is toothy and will hold a few layers, much better than regular drawing paper. It's very easy to blend on and most artists who use it will have some blended passages that become muted and soft combined with strong bold strokes that contrast with them and sparkle.
Blending breaks down the crystalline structure of the pigment particles. When you make a stroke with a pastel stick, you're laying nearly pure pigment on the paper. It sticks better if rubbed into the surface and gives easy soft blended gradations but will be more muted. The combination can be used to great effect. I deliberately blended the first layers so that I'd still have plenty of tooth on the surface when I went back for later layers on the irises themselves.
That also pushed the leaves back into the background and pulled the flowers forward with their stronger strokes. It's much harder to get used to the textured side of mi-Tientes but it can be very rewarding. The speckles created by the woven texture make "broken color" effects easy just as the soft surface makes finger blending easy.
Canson Mi-Tientes is also inexpensive like many unsanded pastel papers. Strathmore pastel paper and Fabriano Tiziano have similar handling properties and some of those papers even have a woven side. You'll gain control on the smooth side, as I'll show in the third example where I used an unsanded paper without a woven texture.
The other advantage of unsanded pastel papers is a great range of colors. By using a mid value neutral ground, I was able to make both the darks and lights of the irises pop out from the background. On black paper, the dark lower petals might almost vanish. On white paper, the light colors of the white petals might make them vanish and lose their intensity.
When you try unsanded papers, get a variety of colors and test them with simple compositions. Choose an easy subject and try the same sketch or painting on a light color, white, a warm mid value neutral, a cool mid value neutral like this gray or a blue gray, a dark color and black. Once you have tried many different paper colors you'll start to understand what each of them does with your pastels.
Terry Ludwig pastels are super soft. Many artists prefer hard or medium-hard pastels such as Nupastel for unsanded paper. If you have a light touch, you can use even the softest on unsanded paper.
I always use a fixative when I'm working on unsanded paper because it's more likely to lose powder or smudge than sanded papers. Fixative can also give back the paper tooth so you can add one more layer at the end after using fixative.
My choice is SpectraFix non-toxic fixative. It's casein based - milk solids mixed with drinking alcohol. I used the concentrate and mixed Everclear with it in the small mister bottle I bought along with the concentrate. The resulting spray doesn't leave a cloud of toxic vapor in my unventilated room and it smells pleasant, as if I just poured myself a drink. Unlike conventional spray fixatives, my cat doesn't try to leave the room as soon as I spray it.
When using SpectraFix, expect to allow a few more minutes for the spray to dry completely than you would with Krylon and other aerosol fixatives. It's healthier for the environment, for you and your pets but does take a little patience between multiple coats. It can also cause thin paper to cockle unless you tape it flat to a drawing board while spraying.
Storm Behind Spire, Red Rocks in the Desert is on a sanded surface. I used exactly the same limited palette of 14 Terry Ludwig pastels on Richeson Premium sanded hardboard. Richeson also makes a paper with the same coated primer and it behaves the same.
The difference in how they handle is striking. I didn't blend my early layers at all for this painting. I worked over the rocks with a dozen layers, sometimes pressing hard to mix colors with their underlying colors and sometimes scumbling them lightly over the surface.
Because the sanded surface is fine grained, I was able to use the corners of square sticks to get fine detail even on a small 5" x 7" painting. Richeson Premium is about average for sanded surfaces - fine grit, a lot of tooth and holds many layers without the use of fixative. It comes in several colors, this painting is on Light Umber, a medium warm neutral. I covered the surface completely especially in the focal areas, though a few grains of the original color may show here and there in textured areas.
It's much easier to work on a sanded surface. Corrections are easier. If you don't like an area, brush it off or lift a bit with a kneaded eraser or work right over what's there. Light goes over dark easily.
Different sanded papers and surfaces do vary in tooth. The toothiest is Kitty Wallis paper, either Pro or Museum. Wallis Pro comes in white and a mid-dark neutral called Belgian Mist. Wallis Museum is always white but it's primed on 100% rag watercolor paper so it's easy to use any wet underpainting technique whether that's watercolor, turpentine-thinned oils, alcohol wash over dry pastel or "dry underpainting" by scrubbing pastel dust into the paper with a foam sponge.
Wallis paper can hold up to 25 or 30 layers. I have yet to find its limits. The down side of Wallis is that blending with your fingers may make you bleed into the painting. Blend with a tool and expect that tool, chamois or tortillon or sofft sponge to wear down quickly. Wallis will also chew through your pastels faster, they wear down quicker the more toothy the surface.
Colourfix sanded paper is my personal favorite. It takes about as many layers as the Richeson surface, comes in 20 useful colors along with matching primers that come in pint jars. Using the primer, you can create either good Colourfix paper on 100% rag watercolor paper or cheap practice paper on the cheapest watercolor pad with exactly the same sanded surface. Clear Colourfix Primer or Colourfix Supertooth primer can be painted over a watercolor underpainting.
Another sanded primer I haven't tried but heard good things about is Golden Pumice Gel. It comes in three grits and is also clear, so it's just as good as Colourfix for covering a failed watercolor to turn it into a pastel underpainting. Make your practice paper by priming bad watercolors to turn them into good pastels! If you don't like using it as an underpainting, just use one of the opaque colors of Colourfix primer to turn it white, black, sienna, anything you like.
Sennelier La Carte coated pastel paper acts like sanded paper but is a little softer. The main drawback is that you can't get La Carte wet at all, even the moisture of a sneeze will cause the coating to come off and reveal the white card underneath. This can be fixed with a dollop of Colourfix primer for those that love LaCarte.
Sanded surfaces make it easier to add more layers. Colourfix Supertooth is nearly like Wallis, it has a harsher tooth and will hold more layering than regular Colourfix primer or paper. They're easier for beginners to work with than unsanded paper and most of them are very forgiving, even La Carte is if you don't sneeze at it or spill anything on it. Sanded pastel primers give a beginner the advantage of cheap practice paper with a professional sanded surface. Color selections aren't as wide a range but clear primers allow underpainting directly on watercolor paper to any color you like.
Tree Reflections was drawn on Aquabee Recycled Rough Sketch Paper. This unsanded paper has a lot of tooth compared to other drawing papers. It's a great inexpensive recycled paper. In some ways its texture is similar to a brown paper grocery bag.
Before you laugh, there are pastel drawings by Impressionist masters done on brown grocery bag paper. It has a beautiful warm neutral color and an amazing amount of tooth for something so cheap. The problem is that when it's real grocery bags, it's never been intended to be archival. So it's harder to preserve than the acid free drawing paper that has a similar surface.
I recommend this paper for pastel sketching, especially with hard pastels. I used a Color Conte 12 stick set to create this small landscape. Without a mechanical weave texture, it's easier to create small curves and details while still getting a lot of tooth.
Try many different pastel papers and surfaces. Each of them has a different character. Different colors give different effects. Also, every artist's "hand" is different. Using soft pastels on an unsanded paper takes a delicate touch, less is more and it's important to choose your colors carefully because you won't be adding more than at most three or four layers to combine colors.
Hard pastels on an unsanded paper can go over each other easier. Crosshatching is a good way to create optical mixing - place a row of lines going one direction, sketch over that in the opposite angle with another color, vertical lines in another and back and forth till you fill the tooth.
On this piece I layered directly. Using a limited palette meant that in some areas I mixed four or five colors. Going over other colors heavily blended them together and I sometimes alternated colors to mix them. I let my strokes show because I chose to, but if I wanted to conceal them it wouldn't have been that hard. The lack of a regular texture allowed plenty of detail.
Pastel pencils also work well on any of these surfaces but will leave distinct linear marks unless you shade them in very lightly.
Velour paper is another specialty surface that deserves its own article. It can be very dramatic but it's also easy to goof up and lose a day's work to the pastel dust falling out of the pile. Never tap velour paper or boards on the back to shake loose extra dust, most of the painting may fall on the floor. It works better with hard or medium pastels than softer ones.
Enjoy and get dusty!