Wednesday, 5 December 2012


I have just finished an article for The Artist magazine (UK) called Impressionist Techniques for Pastels, and my research got me thinking.
The Impressionists preferred a light ground to work on, unlike the Masters of the past, who would often work on a dark surface for their images, which depended a great deal on “chiaroscuro” – light AND dark –often more dark than light.  The Impressionists, who usually worked in front of nature,  felt that the white of a canvas, or a very pale ground, would “illuminate” their work – they wanted to capture effects of light and they tried to see colour in the shadow areas.  This got me thinking about coloured supports and how they affect our work.
Most pastel beginners start with simple pastel papers rather than prepared boards or painted surfaces.  The papers come in all sorts of colours, from very light to black.  When I was teaching, I advised my beginners to use a simple grey tone, or oyster colour, since this would not cause them any problems, it was neutral in both temperature and tone and would blend nicely with whatever colours they chose.
Some of the coloured papers are in fact brilliant tones – reds, bright greens, rich blues….but a word of caution if you decide to try some of these.  The papers may be lovely colours – but the inks used to dye the papers are often fugitive and will fade after a time when exposed to light.  It is vital to cover the paper as much as possible if you want to avoid this.

So if you plan to cover the paper………..why does the colour of the paper matter?
Well, pastels are opaque, yes,  but the papers also have a certain amount of “tooth” (texture) and the pastel marks will skip across the very top surface and leave tiny areas of paper untouched.  If you do not fill those areas, the paper colour WILL influence the final image. 

Here are a few examples, each created with the same sticks of yellow and purple.  You can see how the paper colour does matter. The central yellow patch looks almost green on the black ground;  the purple surround, and the yellow patch, are extremely warmed up by the red ground.  Only the grey ground has given fairly "true" colours.


Using a strong paper colour makes a great deal of difference in the early stages and will alter the atmosphere of the picture quite dramatically.  You need to take this into account.  If you want a light, airy atmosphere, and plan to use fairly light tones throughout, then using a light tone of paper will aid you rather than hinder.  If you want a dark, moody image, then using a dark paper will help to create the desired effect.   If you want a distinct temperature – for example, a snow scene – you can find that using a warm colour of paper will give just that little hint of contrast, somehow making the cold colours seem even colder, while a cold colour will blend well without that contrast.  Why not use green for a landscape image with lots of foreground grass?  Well, you could….but again, you will lose those lovely hints of alternative colour peeking through from underneath, which add variety and interest to your passages of green.  Artists use this layering of alternative colours to great effect.

In this marvellous portrait of Van Gogh, the painter Toulouse Lautrec used a web of pastel marks which not only allowed previous layers to show through, but also the colour of the cardboard on which he worked can be seen in hints - cardboard is a neutral tone, which would not have "argued" with the layers of pastel added to it.

"Portrat des Vincent Van Gogh" by Henri Toulouse Lautrec   54x45cm

The image at the top of this blog is another by Toulouse Lautrec, "Woman in a corset".  He has left a lot of the original  "under" colour to be visible, and see how beautifully it works in contrast with the cool colours used in the upper half of the image.  This was clearly not a random choice.  I absolutely love the unfinished nature of this drawing, I hope you enjoy it too.

Rather than pick out a random sheet of colour for your pastel paintings or sketches, without thinking too much about it, it is worth spending a little time thinking carefully about the colour wheel and how the paper colour might influence you work, also spend time considering the overall effect you want to achieve, then choose a colour which will help you achieve your end aim.


  1. Thanks for this article. Beautifully illustrated, as I do love M. Lautrec.

  2. Perfect, excelent article, I learned a lot, thank you.

  3. I had an opportunity to see some original pastel paintings by Degas, Renoir, C├ęzanne, etc. in person at Milwaukee Art Museum, and I was very surprised by how little effort was made by the masters to cover the paper completely. When using pastels on sanded paper, a lot of effort is made by the artist (including myself) to make sure the brown paper doesn't show at all. These works clearly show that that's not necessary.

  4. Thank you for another excellent article! I haven't tried pastels yet, but what you write about usually applies to other media as well, and it makes me think about what I am doing and how I am doing it. I am so glad I discovered your blog. I really appreciate your generosity with your time, effort and knowledge!

  5. thanks everyone, lovely to receive comments.

    Just one thing...Prashant....those master paintings may have been painted on UNDYED papers, like cardboard. today's papers do fade, sadly, the inks are not lightfast. So caution is essential if you do not want a faded area under the glass in a few years' time.


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