Recently I’ve had several conversations with other artists about dry pastels, and found that many of them think pastels are a fairly difficult medium to use, due to their “permanent” nature.
While it’s true that the bright pigments of soft pastels are durable and long-lasting, there are still quite a few ways to correct mistakes or make changes as you go. The following three tips are my favorites for working with pastels:
1. Prevention goes a long way
When I first began using chalk pastels, I painted with abandon, working the lights and darks in with heavy strokes and paying little attention to my overall plan for the painting. Unfortunately, I would often reach what I think of as the “awkward middle” stage of the painting, and realize that I wanted to make significant changes.
While significant changes can be made, reworking an entire painting of thickly painted pastel becomes time-consuming and frustrating. I’ve since learned to slow down, work in lighter layers that can be deepened as I go, and keep my final goals in mind as I work.
If you do this, you’ll catch most of your mistakes before the marks are too dark or impossible to correct.
2. Pastel can be erased
It’s true—if done at the right time, with the right method, pastel marks can be removed from paper. The most important thing is to adjust your erasing style based on the type of paper you’re using.
For example, if I’m painting on toothy paper, I can use a bit of masking tape or a soft brush to flick stray pastel away without damaging the paper. This only works for lighter pastel marks however. If I need to wipe out an area of pastel that was applied a little more heavily, I’ll break out the erasers.
If you have pastel pencils, the erasers on the pencils often work just fine. Many artists prefer kneaded erasers, but if you’re out of those and you’ve got some fresh bread handy, it too can be kneaded into ball and used as an excellent erasing tool.
I also keep a white vinyl eraser handy, but it’s pretty easy to smear the pastel, so be careful if you use something like this. First, brush any loose pastel away, or use a kneaded eraser to lift it away. Remember that erasing can affect the texture of your surface, so make sure to work gently to lift the pastel away rather than scrubbing at it.
3. Knock it back with a brush
I love to use brushes to blend my pastels with water, but I also keep them around for reworking my dry pastel paintings. If you want to make big changes to a soft pastel painting, you can take a stiff brush and knock the pigment back by going over the painting with short, strong strokes.
(This will produce a lot of excess dust, so be careful to dispose of it without breathing it in as you brush.)
There will still be plenty of pastel on the paper, but with a light layer of spray fixative, you can essentially paint over your first layer, making whatever changes you desire.
The number of times you can use this method in one painting depends on the durability of your surface and the quality of your pastels—I try to limit pastel paintings to one major overhaul if I feel the need to use this method, since the paper can only handle so much abuse. It really all goes back to prevention, and trying to work mindfully so that I don’t lose my way as I paint.
Hopefully these tips will help you feel more confident and ready to take on pastel painting in the future—I know they’ve helped me! Good luck!
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