I feel so silly.
For years, I've considered myself a bit of an 'expert' on working with pastels, and now I realize that all the while, I was only working in one dimension with the stuff. And worse yet, the information has been right in front of me all this time, but I haven't had my eyes open!
Well, no more of that.
A while ago, I was doing a bit of research online about the problem of how in the world to keep my chalk pastel works from smearing when finished. Yes, there is fixative, but I seriously hate that it muds up the color and darkens it at the end. What I found out at that point is that while I had only used paper as my base in the past, many artists use board instead of paper, and put on it a base of gesso first; this gives the pastels more "tooth" to stick to, allowing for less smearing at the end, thus the need for much less fixative. The embarrassing thing is that this is really old news to artists. As in, probably, centuries old.
I then came across a blog by an amazing pastel artist, Sarah Bee, who explained her process. She talked about not only using gesso, but also laying in a base of acrylic underpainting before the pastels. Then I found more information from many more artists about this, and also that I could even work with the pastels with a wet paintbrush! It was getting more and more interesting!
As I was doing this research, I was struck by a photo on a friend's website with which I resonated so much. It seemed to just capture the essence of this particular autumn for me. The gorgeous photo was taken of the Gapstow Bridge in New York City. Somehow when I saw it I felt like I was there, and I could see, feel and hear the scene. It was one of those moments I mentioned earlier in this blog in which I just needed to capture it. It would be the subject of this first experimentation.
I had some hot-press watercolor board by Canson that I decided to use. First step was to sketch in the scene, and then layer over with some clear-drying gesso. This was explained in the blog I read, and so I knew what to do. The board I was using was fabulous, because it curved downward just a bit on purpose, so that when the wet media dried, it was flat. If I ever do this again with just plain old mat board, I will take the advice of some of this research, and paint both sides to prevent curling.
What happened next was a complete experiment, so I'll just explain my thought process and the results.
Next, I blocked in the scene with acrylic paint. I didn't worry at all about perfection. I focused on what inspired me about the subject and went crazy slapping down the color. This layer would mostly be just to back up and bring out what happened on top of it. The sky and water were at this point most important to me, since I felt here the wetness of the paint was most important. I didn't really know how the pastels would work at this point, and I needed that liquidity to come through. The sky needed to show through the leaves of the trees. For the bridge, I thought about the cement color between all the gorgeous stones. For the water, I tried to do a bit of blocking in what was reflected.
After that dried, next step was laying in the pastel. The good news was that it had that "tooth" to grip to, as described earlier. The bad news was that it had that "tooth" to grip to...What I mean by that is, the tooth was great because it would not require as much fixative at the end, but it was quite a bit harder to actually blend the pastel colors into the base. Of course, if I really scrubbed the pastel enough to get a lot of dust, then it would blend easier. But, it was a little bit of a shocker. While I thought that I could blend the pastel into the acrylic base (i.e., the clouds into the sky) without creating a blue sky with pastels, it was a little bit less seamless. It felt rough, more like when I do sidewalk chalk paintings. However, I was still just experimenting so I decided just to have fun with it. The cool part about it NOT blending as much was how it worked with the trees- I could just simply drag the side of the chalk onto the base and create 'leaves'. That was enormously fun. I created the stones of the bridge in the same way, just a gesture of their roughness, touching down the blending of the beautiful colors of the stones.
Then came the really amazing thing. After laying in the pastel in the water area, I puzzled a bit about how to make it look like 'water'. I've done this in many media. In pastel, it's just a matter of applying color to describe the reflections of the trees and sky or whatever is seen, and rendering all the ripples in terms of those reflections and shadows/highlights. But or course I was used to blending with my fingers. Because of this "tooth", it would require me to lay in a lot of chalk over the underpainting and then really scrubbing hard with my fingers. But I thought I'd try a different approach- since it was water, and I've read that I can get the pastels wet, maybe I'd try using the paintbrush on the chalk! And it worked marvelously! Now, I will say that when I first wet the chalk it darkened it a lot, and I had to wait for it to dry to see what would happen. I also discovered that it was really important not to mud up the color by letting the brush get too saturated with the darker colors. I needed to work light into dark, and rinse the brush a lot. But I was really happy with the possibilities.
Last step was laying in those grasses and cattails in the foreground. I will say that by then I was getting a bit philosophical about the whole process- Should I make the grasses wet? Are they wet or dry? Well, they ARE in the water. In the end, I laid it all in with pastel, and wet down some of the darker shadows in the green grasses, and left those dry grasses with the cattails dry. But the cattails themselves, I did touch them with the brush just a bit to bring out the amazing color. This foreground was what struck me first about the photo. I just love cattails anyway, and I loved how their color reflected the bridge and the trees beyond.
In the end, what I had read about was true: It really wasn't smearing! I just touched it with a light coat of fixative and it was good to go.
My son told me that it was his favorite piece I had ever made. He said, "You have to make more!" I told him, pointing to a new board on the table, "I plan to!", and he said, "Well then get to it! What are you waiting for!?" What a beautiful thing, to know that I have only just scratched the surface (pardon the pun) of a technique I've been using for years, and also, I have not just an excuse, but an order to keep on painting!
Thanks for reading!