Monday, February 20, 2012


(With thanks to The Pastel Journal, where this chapter was originally published, with additional material included here.)

One of the biggest frustrations I experienced when I started using pastels was learning what to expect from various surfaces, which is one of the most basic starting points for all artwork. What surface should you use? There are papers and boards, sandpapers and soft papers, fuzzy and sharp coatings, flat and rigid mounts, thin and thick coatings -- the array is dizzying. I found myself thinking back over my career and realized that after many years of painting in pastels I’ve only scratched the surface of surfaces, if you’ll pardon my pun.


I began painting exclusively in pastels in the 1980s, first using Canson Mi-Teintes, as have so many others. I found this fine-textured, lightweight paper modestly priced and readily available. I enjoyed the great assortment of colors. At first I was a little baffled by the texture, which varies from front to back, with a slightly smoother feel to the backside. The screen-like grain on the front (the side that bears the watermark) left so many tiny holes in the painting that I often found myself blending too vigorously and far too often. In some ways this texture might be one of the great drawbacks to Canson, since I tended to over-blend colors, making mud, as well as making some serious dead spots in the surface from my heavy-handedness. This almost discouraged me from continuing my explorations in pastels until I turned the paper over to the softer backside to paint. Soon I realized that I had to carefully plan and execute my paintings, with an eye to the number of layers and the amount of blending it would take, and then began to enjoy success.


A couple of years later I found another surface that opened new possibilities. A workshop with Master Pastelist Albert Handell introduced me to Ersta. Imported from Germany, Ersta is a fine-grained sandpaper with a soft roughness reminiscent of a cat’s tongue. Handell showed us a special technique he used to color the paper when he didn’t want to paint on the light buff color. Using a brush, he painted a light application of Turpenoid over layers of pastel, transforming the dry pigment almost magically into paint. I was liberated by this surface, set free to layer more colors, able to do a certain amount of judicious blending if I was careful, yet discouraged from doing so by sanded-sore fingertips. I found I could achieve fine lines and details that had eluded me before, making soft transitions of color by allowing a lower layer to peek through from below, as well as using techniques such as feathering to quickly mass distant portions of the landscape or give the illusion of reflections in water. I’ll never forget watching Handell swiftly feather a long stick of charcoal over my roughly laid-in creek and suddenly seeing the soft glisten of reflections appear to float out from under his hand. This paper seemed nearly miraculous! I began a long season of working on Ersta, enjoying its strengths and learning about its limitations. Perhaps most disturbing was finding out that the backing paper, made from acidic wood pulp, was not archival. Nonetheless, I enjoyed painting on Ersta for many years. (Note: You can now enjoy the new version of Ersta using UART, which comes in several different grits, and is no longer acidic in content.)


Light From Above, Wallis Professional grade, white, 17" x 12".

At a convention in the mid-1990s I found a new surface introduced by artist Kitty Wallis. She covered her booth walls with her recently developed bright white, deeply toothed sandpaper, tempting the artists who walked by to experiment with pastels strewn across the tables. The walls soon became filled with doodles, swipes, dabs, scribbles and drawings, blended and layered, some areas exquisitely painted, others primitively conceived. It became part of each day to check out what had been done. All of us walked through the vendor’s hall clutching our samples, talking about our plans to use it. My Wallis epoch continues to this day. This incredibly versatile paper is my choice for about ninety percent of my work. I’ve used both the museum grade, which is slightly heavier and a little smoother, and the professional grade, which I recommend for my students. It will take almost anything I give it. I’ve used water to tone it, variously texturing the look by dabbing into the wet pastel mixture with paper towels, spraying into it, scrubbing it with a 3-inch brush to make a scumbled ground, or layering more pastel while the paper is damp, resulting in a rich impasto stroke. I’ve laid it on my rocky driveway and sprayed it with my garden hose to remove a painting, soaked it in the bathtub under water, or simply brushed out offending work with a foam house painting brush. In fact, my experiments with this led to a technique that I’ve found most useful, in which I tone Wallis paper with pastel by vigorously scrubbing it in with a foam brush, making a lovely overall tone in any color, reminiscent of Handell’s toned Ersta. I’ve found that this technique actually allows me to erase portions of my paintings as well, recovering a version of the original color.


Pastelmat is a paper that’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite surfaces. I admit that on first touch I was dismayed, almost rejecting it as too soft and lightweight – wimpy, in other words. But once I put it on my board and made some passes using the flat edge of my pastel I was immediately taken with this paper. To the hand it’s somewhat reminiscent of velour or velvet, but pastel adheres to it like tape. Stick pastels, even very soft ones, seem to glide into the paper. For this reason the image needs no fixative, but conversely it isn’t easily erased. However, the depth of tooth allows you to over-paint it, making corrections in the early stages. PanPastels are a perfect match to Pastelmat, as the gossamer thin layers seem almost to fuse with it. Sticks can easily be layered over that, if needed. I’ve also found that you can paint on this paper. It tolerates wet media with no problems, as long as you stretch it as it dries. One thing to bear in mind is that the soft surface can be a little bit fragile, so it's a good idea to keep the glassine supplied with each sheet in place until you're ready to use it. Slight scores in the texture can be filled in with soft pastels, and once painted the paper seems tough and resistant to scratching. Of the eight colors offered my favorites are the buttercup yellow, sienna and dark gray. This paper is really a delight to use.

Soft Morning, buttercup Pastelmat, 8.75 x 13.5"


I’ve made several detours during my career using Canson, Ersta, Wallis and now Pastelmat, experimenting with surfaces such as Pastelbord (nice deep, even grit), Sabretooth (I prefer the white), Hähnemule Velour (extremely soft), Pastel Cloth (interesting textural possibilities), and have even experimented with my own coated boards. I’ve also painted on Schmincke Sansfix, Art Spectrum Colourfix, Rives BFK, Arches Cover, Somerset Velvet, and La Carte Pastel Card.

I don’t remember when I discovered it, but one of my favorites is the La Carte Pastel Card, which has a soft, sandy grain that’s deep enough to accept many layers and comes in pleasing and unusual colors. However, I’ve found that you must not allow any moisture to come in contact with this paper. I discovered this one summer day as I painted beside a mountain pond in Colorado. A storm was threatening, and as I sketched, a blob of white suddenly slid down the paper. I thought a bird had made a critical comment on my work until I realized that a large raindrop had washed away the grainy coating, revealing the bright white backing. Today I use La Carte only on dry days on location or in my studio. I find the springy softness of this surface is worth the drawbacks -- but I don’t even blow on it since others tell me the tiniest bit of saliva can cause trouble. However, you can repair La Carte if needed. One of my clients returned a painting to me, explaining that her dog had drooled on it. Sure enough, there was the telltale bright white. As she stood anxiously nearby, I carefully brushed a layer of Golden Fine Pumice Gel into the spot, let it dry, and then painted over it. It left very little evidence of ever having been damaged. Despite this drawback, La Carte is a delightful surface that lets me blend or paint a tight line, and yet gives a velvety softness when needed.

Years ago I tried Schmincke Sansfix, which felt a little too aggressive compared to Ersta. I recently used it again and this time I found the deep, sharp tooth very appealing. I suspect that years of painting on Wallis have taught me to cope with the spiky tooth somewhat more, though Sansfix is far rougher and sharper than Wallis. I like the slightly slick grainy texture that can be used for so many effects. I can finger blend, carefully of course, but the tooth is deep enough to grab pastel applied over it, arriving at a second, third or fourth textural layer. I particularly favor the dark charcoal color.

When I don’t want texture, however, I use a soft, deep paper such as BFK Rives or Arches Cover, which allow me to blend soft passages thoroughly down into the paper. I was recently introduced to Somerset Velvet, which is very soft, a little like felt. These surfaces require more planning than the sandpapers, which let you erase more readily, but the results can be quite satisfying.


Occasionally I’ve made my own surfaces when I want to achieve a deep texture, or if I want specific textures in certain areas of my paper. I make a gesso and pumice mixture (see recipe below) and paint it onto the front of museum board. Once it’s no longer tacky, I turn it over and paint a layer of plain gesso on the back to keep the board from curling. When that’s dry I add several coats of the gesso and pumice mixture to the front. I can actually contour the mixture so that the texture in the sky is smooth, the adobe wall has strokes running perpendicular to the ground, or the foliage of the tree is bumpy and uneven. I can use a brayer to roll out smooth spots, dab with paper towels in rough areas, or simply paint it on with a 2-inch brush. Many artists tone their gesso mixture with acrylic paints, which is perfectly acceptable, but I prefer to use a prepared ground such as Art Spectrum Primer when I want colors. My favorite is the Elephant color, a deep purplish-gray that seems to enhance every pastel color I put down on it.

Another experimental surface I’ve enjoyed making utilizes Wallis paper. For several years I’ve painted hummingbirds, which I want to look like precious jewels sparkling in the sky. I found a product made by Schmincke called Tro-Col, which comes in powder form and can be sprinkled onto wet Wallis paper to form a bright gold background. After the paper dries it’s a little like painting on glass, since the paint can be thick, and the gold will rub off to some degree, but with a careful hand the results are dazzling. It’s amazingly brilliant.

I can’t say I’ve tried them all, though I’ve experimented with many different surfaces. As a broad generalization, you won’t go far wrong in matching the feel of the paper to the look you want to achieve, using soft papers for soft subjects and sandpapers for crisply defined ones, but don’t make the mistake of relying on the paper alone to achieve such results. Try different things on various papers to see what appeals to you and what effects you can achieve. My future plans include trying suede board, a surface I know many artists enjoy, doing some further work on Pastelbord, a surface I’ve not used extensively, as well as continuing my experiments with gold and making my own textured boards. If you’re like me, you’ll find two or three favorites, yet have a wonderful time trying new and different surfaces all the time.


2/3 cup Acrylic Gesso
1/3 cup water
4 level teaspoons extra-fine pumice (or marble dust, not as gritty)

4-ply museum rag board

small plastic container with lid

1”- 3” brush

Mix gesso, water and pumice together, carefully breaking up any chunks. The amount of pumice may be adjusted. Keep excess mixture in a closed container.

You may find pumice available at art supply stores, ceramic supply houses, or online. I recommend the 4F (fine) grit.

Here you can see Wallis sandpaper, professional grade (white), Pastelmat (buttercup yellow), and UART 400 (beige). Click to enlarge and see the grain more clearly.


  1. Great chapter! Thanks for describing how you got the metallic gold background for those hummingbirds. It's spectacular. I feel the same way about trying new surfaces -- each of them has its own particular look and feel, favorite pastels and techniques. Wish they'd come out with non-water-soluble La Carte though, the colors in that are so great!

  2. Thanks, Robert. BTW, there's an article over on WetCanvas devoted to the hummingbirds, with photographs of the process.

    And I heard more than a year ago that there was a water-safe La Carte in the works.. Hope it wasn't just a rumor!

  3. Your chapters are so helpful, thank you. I look forward to each new one!

  4. I'd like say once again that YOUR book is amazing,and every time when I activate my computerI take look into YOUR page.Your paintings always excites visual attention.YOUR landscapes is so unballasted clarity the things and proclivity colours from light blue ,passionately red across the violet untill the deeply green.In ones word it's a fantastic.God give us everything what we need how can we give those which are in big necessary. Nataša from Croatia

  5. Deb, thanks for explaining the paper thing... It explains a lot! May God reward you a hundred fold for doing this for everyone.

  6. Thank you so much. I'm an old artist, mediums being mainly sculpture and paint, who wants to do pastels. Your book and your kind spirit are just what I need to get started. May God take care of you. You're very special.

  7. Thanks For sending me this link Deborah A great chapter very informative and exceptionally kind of you to publish and avail this for free I must say that you are certainly a true christian in every sense. and may god bless.

  8. Thank you so much for this book, Deborah! Am not really new to pastels, but definitely on the green side for the longest time. Apparently am very late and grateful... you are such a gift!

  9. As one cut from the same clothe as you I must say, I read your statement and I applaud your faith and praise the One who placed it in you, God Bless!-Mike an anonymous passer by:)


Thanks for your comment on Painting the Landscape in Pastels ~Deborah