Monday, February 20, 2012
CHAPTER TWO -- SURFACES AND EFFECTS
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.
Soft Morning, buttercup Pastelmat, 8.75 x 13.5"
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.
RECIPE FOR GESSO AND PUMICE MIXTURE
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.