I’m passionate about pastels!
I love to paint with them, and I get enormous satisfaction from teaching and inspiring others to express themselves by painting beautiful pictures of their own. There is nothing quite as rewarding as sharing my love of pastels with a fellow enthusiast and seeing their excitement as I help them to master a new technique.
The technique that I’m going to share in this article is wetting pastels. Painting with pastels using a solvent such as water or alcohol to create wonderful underpainting, when I apply it, it is akin to oil paint in consistency. I’ve chosen this technique because, as an artist who loves to paint seascapes, it is one of my own favourites. But also as a teacher I see the excitement of my students as they discover this new way of working with pigments, and use it to loosen their technique and extend their creative range. My painting with pastels introduction session helps you explore the technique, it’s then up to you to explore it, play and make it your own.
The basic technique is simple. You lay down a layer of soft pastel on your painting surface, wet it, work with it and let it dry thoroughly. Then you continue with your dry pastels or, if you wish, add another layer and repeat the process.
Liquefying your soft pastels (and they must be soft pastels!) works so well because pastels begin their lives life wet. They are made from pigments, a binder, and water. Together these form a paste which is formed into a a pastel stick and left to dry. Different manufacturers have different recipes for pigment and binder, but the basic process remains the same.
If you temporarily dissolve the pastel’s binder using a suitable solvent then you can work with the liquefied colour, after which you let the wash dry before adding subsequent layers of pastel. If you wish then you can draw with your dry pastels on the surface before it is fully dry. You can make some interesting marks in this way.
Wetting your pastels and creating a wash of liquefied pigment is particularly suitable for subjects such as skies and clouds and seascapes. Simple compositions are the best ones to start with. However, once you have mastered the technique and gained confidence then there is no limit to the subjects that you can apply it to. You can wet the whole picture, or just parts of the page. You can add layer upon layer of wash, letting the paper and pigment dry each time. My students find that wetting pastels helps them loosen their mark making, and it is sometimes the catalyst for them moving on from feeling like a beginner to discovering their own personal style.
What are the secrets of success?
First, use the right pastels. For this technique you need to use your softer, more luxurious pastels. Quality is important here, not only to the effects that you will be able to achieve, but also to your enjoyment of the process (and so your enthusiasm for keeping on painting and building your skills!). I personally use Unison Colour soft pastels, which are rich, gorgeous and very consistent.
Be bold in applying your pastels to the paper before wetting them. You want to lay down a nice thick layer. If not the result when you add the liquid will be watery and disappointing.
Use a surface that can get wet without losing its tooth and without warping. There are some very good pastel papers and boards that you simply cannot allow to get wet without ruining them. And there are others that you can wet and leave to dry again and again. Read my top tips for materials here.
Find the right solvent for your pastels.
Many people use water. Others use proprietary products such as Fisher 400. My own preference is to use vodka, which I apply using a small spray bottle or paint brush with the picture flat on the table. The advantage of alcohol is that it evaporates more quickly than water. After I have wetted the appropriate part of the picture with the vodka I then work it up with a lovely soft broad paint brush.
The important thing is for you to experiment with the liquid and the means of application until you find the approach that works best for you. Of course there will be failures along the way. But never be afraid to fail! By trying things that do not work out you will be broadening and deepening your understanding of how your materials and tools work together and thereby you will become a better artist. And some of your happy accidents may become your best-loved pictures!
I find that there is an exciting element of unpredictability to the way that pastels, liquid and paper work together. If you like serendipity to play a part in your creative process then working with liquefied pastels is definitely for you. On the other hand, the more you experiment with different pastels and solvents the better you will understand how to achieve the effects that want to incorporate in your art. You will find, for instance, that some brands such as Unison Colour are quite consistent in the way that they respond to wetting across the whole range of colours, while with other brands the response can differ between colours and in their response to liquid or alcohol.
Practice makes perfect.
As with any skill, this is a technique that becomes easier and better with practice. So when a picture does not turn out quite as you would have wished, paint it again. And when a picture turns out well, paint it again! With time and hours at the easel you will find that this is a technique that you can use for wide range of effects and subjects. You will be able to use it to increase your repertoire, and have a lot of fun while doing so!