Pastel Pratfalls
Twelve Common Mistakes Pastelists Make--And How to Avoid Them

Margot Schulzke, PSA, KA, PSWC-DP, APOW © 2000

Whether you are a novice in the medium or have broad experience, here is a "heads-up" on common mistakes. Is there one--or two or ten--you are guilty of?

1) Planning to Fail by Failing to Plan-- A problem in any medium, but this cannot be overlooked. To do great work, do great planning. Pre-design your work; the so-called thumbnail sketch is the minimum requirement. Use a sketchbook. After a long career of painting and teaching, I still do that. The design element is critical, and rarely accidental. Make it look spontaneous by planning well.

2) Choosing the wrong surface, also known as a ground or support-- Pastel surfaces have proliferated as the interest in the medium skyrockets. We no longer have to settle for surfaces that don't quite cut it. Considerations: tooth and texture, color, toughness, archival quality, flexibility, availability and cost.

Tooth refers to how much pastel pigment the ground will hold, texture means the weave, appearance or feel of the surface when pastel is applied. Certain papers, like the various Ingres, have a delicate, attractive linen-like texture, but a limited tooth best used for light sketches. One popular paper has a texture that has been described as a screen door. Velours have a sumptuous texture, but often have a fickle tooth and do not hold the pastel well.

Some have ample tooth to hold several layers of pastel. They may have a fine, virtually invisible texture, but grab the pastels. These are usually the sanded (rolled, sprayed, etc.) surfaces, which may or may not be archival, depending on the process and the make. More tooth is usually a plus, although you may get so much in some of the surfaces that you feel your entire assortment of pastels is going to be consumed in a day (don't worry, it won't be). If you are after tight detail, an ultra-toothy surface may be rougher than you want. I prefer a rougher surface to keep me from getting too tight.

3) Filling the Tooth Too Fast-- A common error. Start with harder pastels, like NuPastel, Conte, Faber Castell Polychromos, or Rembrandt. Use a light touch to begin. When blocking in, try using an "open" stroke--loose, random strokes that leave the ground exposed. Save the bold, heavy strokes and the softest pastels for the final layers.

If you apply more of a color than you want, blow the excess away with a carefully placed shot of air from a can. More on this below.

4) Blending-- Or should I say over-blending? Some blending is necessary in some paintings. There are various ways of achieving it, although extensive rubbing-in with finger or rag is rarely the way to go. Layering of pastels strokes gets the job done in many cases. Styrofoam packing pellets make a good free, disposable blending tool, allowing you to keep your fingers out of it.

One of the great joys of pastel is its textural, lively, refractive quality. Extensive blending (or fixing) obliterates that, and we end up with an effect like that of soggy, overcooked vegetables. The answer is, if blending is a must, do it lightly, first laying on enough pastel to make it work. I avoid it in the final layers altogether.

5) Overworking-- Akin to over-blending. Don't finish paintings, just make them better. Leave some open surface; keep it fresh. One of the great French masters is quoted as saying that "every painting needs two artists, one to paint, and one to say quit." Spend as much time evaluating strokes as you do applying them. Leave the studio; take a break. Read the news. Put this one face to the wall, and work on another painting.

6) Staying Too Close to Middle Values-- It is hard to depict lights light enough. Don't use stark white if you can avoid it, but get close. For this purpose, nothing does it better than the Schmincke pales. They are supersoft and delightfully opaque. Keep a Schmincke white on hand, you can glaze hints of NuPastel or other color into it to get a tint you don't have. Darks: Don't be afraid of black, just be careful with it. It is rarely appropriate out of doors, but often correct to use for indoor scenes. You can work other color into it to give it depth or distance. (Red makes black seem deeper, blue and soft yellows provide a sense of air and luminosity.) Contrast is what gives your work carrying power, what draws the viewer across the room to take another look. Push contrasts.

Be wary of the blacks in photographic references. Cameras do lie. Those shadows are not as dark as the camera tells you. Hold photos up in front of a bright, single light source; it will work almost like a slide. You'll see more in those shadows than you thought possible.

7) Repetitive application-- Overdone blending is one mistake; lack of variety in the application is another. For example: while it may work to apply the entire surface with angular, long strokes, it may improve the work to swirl or dab or crosshatch in some areas. Don't lock onto one stroke to the exclusion of all others. Experiment, again, keeping it in harmony with the treatment of the rest of the painting. The most interesting textures, the most dramatic contrasts and the finest development of detail, belong in the focal areas.

8) Timidity about color and other risks-- Just like the failure to go light and dark enough, there is a reluctance to go bright. There are two ways to correct this. Start bright, and work back if need be. Or work brighter toward the finish. Again, the extremely soft Schminckes or Senneliers are ideal for this purpose. If you think you've gone too far, you can blow it away, or glaze with its opposite. Color was meant to be luscious: look at a rose as it bursts into bloom. Make your colors sing.

If you refuse to take risks, you won't grow. It is o.k. to fall on your face, as long as you get up and go again.

9) Using fixative at the conclusion of the work-- Rarely desirable. Framing under glass (or plexi if necessary for shipping or weight considerations) is the way pastels should be "fixed". You can give your pastel paper a good rattle before mounting or framing, or thump a board on the back, to dislodge loose dust. Fixative is good for extending the tooth of the surface, so you can layer further, and for isolating one layer of work from another. But don't fix later than 30 minutes to an hour before you are through. If you use enough spray to actually "fix" the work so it won't smear, you have liquefied the pastel particles and sunk them into the surface. That not only darkens and dulls color, it destroys the refractive quality of the pastel; the light no longer dances off the multiple surfaces of the pigment. Be sure to put a recessed spacer behind your mat, to allow dust that flakes off during handling to settle behind the mat, instead of in front of it.

10) Making mud-- Mud has at least four sources. One is layering warm over cool colors, or vice-versa, without spraying to isolate the layers. Another, more common cause is above: overworking. A third cause is failing to correct an underlying passage, and trying to make changes on top of it. Remove what is wrong, down to the bare surface if possible. Then make your correction. A fourth is using brown when something else will do. Brown is ready-made mud.

11) Being "self-taught"-- One of the biggest mistakes, in any medium. There is no weakness in acknowledging that someone else may know something that you don't. Even for those at a high level of expertise, there is probably someone out there, not far away, who has something to offer. Maybe they don't teach pastel, but they are dynamite on design or the human figure. Ask if they'll let you work in pastel in their class. They probably will.

12) Blowing Dust Off in the Studio, and other health risks-- The most toxic pigments (such as lead) are not used to make pastels, but you still have some that you don't want to breathe. So don't blow. If you use more than a short shot of compressed air, take it outdoors. Since I can't stand to wear a mask, as some do, I use a small fan at right angles to the easel, with a powerful air filter positioned a few feet away. I still don't blow or brush off extensively indoors. If you use fixatives, do that outside. Always.

You may want to use gloves. Don't eat or drink near the easel or paint next to exposed foodstuffs. (A chemist friend of mine who has handled many of these substances every day for some thirty years says "there is unnecessary hysteria" over these hazards. Don't panic, just use common sense.)

This list isn't meant to be all-inclusive. But here's hoping it steers you clear of some of the common mistakes pastelists make.

© 2000, Margot Schulzke, PSWC-DP, PSA, KA

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