Walking on the dusty side

Recently I have been trying different mediums, I have been under less pressure to produce work as I have not long had baby boy so I have had more time to 'play' and learn. Its not an infinite experiment as starting up with a whole new medium and technique costs a bunch of money as you need to buy all the stuff. But for a while now I have had my eye on soft pastel and my little box of starter pastel sticks soon grew to be a shoebox of individually selected colours. It has kept growing and now I have an array of pastel sticks from numerous brands in many colours, plus pastel pencils and all sorts of pastel mat drawing paper. 

Working with this new medium has meant another steep learning curve and making lots of stupid mistakes and finding new ways of doing things. Apart from being dusty, it has been enjoyable and to supplement my own discoveries (and prevent any more 'surprises'....), I have gone online and tried to learn more about this thing called soft pastel. There is lots out there so I will try to summarise as best I can some of the main points about working with soft pastel and its properties.

What is it?? Soft pastel is NOT coloured chalk. It has similar crumbly, dusty properties to chalk but it is for sure, not chalk. Soft pastel is pure pigment mixed with a binder (most manufacturers are secretive about what and how much binder they add) - the more binder they use, the harder the stick becomes. Different colours have different hardnesses because of the properties of the pigment, more or less binder may be required to keep it in a stick. Sometimes some of the colours I use literally crumble into dust as I am using them - truly frustrating but another learning curve (e.g. the really dark browns are very brittle and crumble quickly, the soft pinks are really soft and can be pressed harder before they break up). So which manufacturer you use, will depend on your style of painting and how hard / soft you like your sticks to be. 

Pastel requires 'tooth' to stick to a page. A smooth piece of photo paper has no tooth, sandpaper has lots of tooth. If you were to use pastel on a normal piece of white paper, it would slide right off. The more tooth the paper has, the more layers of pastel you can add. Eventually the tooth on the paper becomes full and you cannot add any more layers of pastel. Unlike oil or acrylic painting where you can just keep painting over and over, you cannot do this with soft pastel. When you make a mark, you have to be fairly certain of it as there is very little overpainting available. You can mix by layering colour but it is difficult. It is why manufactures have between 300-500 colours available.

I use a paper called 'pastel mat' it is a paper made for soft pastel and has a lot of tooth to hold the pigment. You can use other papers, or boards primed with pumice or marble dust mixed into gesso, or even velvet! World is literally your sandpaper oyster, just be aware that you want a balance of good amount of tooth to a  relatively smooth surface, or your drawing will just be lumpy. 

So you've got your paper (or your velvet or whatever), your selected brand and colours of soft pastel, what happens once your masterpiece is created? Well, some artists choose to 'fix' their work by using a spray adhesive. I do not fix my work. I made the mistake once of fixing my work and all the colours changed and it even made some of the pigment particles clump together - it was a disaster (all part of the learning curve folks!). After that I found out that most artists do not fix their work either, because, well, see above.  If you touch the work at this point (or have a curious 4 year old who will do this for you) you will find that the work will smudge, you will have pigment on your hands and probably one of you will be crying.... 

Pastel can be stored flat under a sheet of glassine paper before getting it framed behind glass. This will need to be done by an actual framer who has experience with this sort of work. It will require a 'trough' between two mounts to 'catch' any pastel dust that will, inevitably, fall from the work over time and stop it from sticking to the glass or the mount making it look dirty. 

Speaking of dust...There is a lot of dust these days. The pastels are dusty things and when you are working close up, you will be inhaling a lot of the dust. Some manufactures advertise their products as non-toxic which is great but still, if you do not want pigmented dusty lungs in years to come, maybe look at buying a mask to wear while working or even nose filters (OK, this is something I didn't know existed but I think they may be the answer to my problem so I will soon be trying them out - watch my Insta space for reality review on nose filters. LOL) 

Because pastel is made almost of pure pigment and has no oil or agents in it that will crack, fade or yellow over time, (if cared for properly) pastel has the most longevity out of all the painterly art materials. Drawings made a few hundred years ago are still as fresh and bright as if they had been painted last week. Awesome I know! For some reason, Pastels have a reputation as being an 'amateurish medium' something that has obviously been an historic thing, but really, no more. Some of the artists working exclusively in this medium are incredible. My favourite is Zaria Forman. She is my complete art girl crush - look at her work, its outstanding! Not amateurish at all. It takes as much time, effort and control to paint with these as it does for watercolour, oil, acrylic or any other medium you can think of.  I am still at the start of my dusty pastel journey but with every piece I learn a bit and refine my technique a little more. 

You can view my soft pastel work here or if you are local to Northern Ireland, you can see them in person at the Black Canvas Gallery, Holywood.

Since it is a medium I am using quite a lot these days, look out for more blog posts on soft pastel work, tribulations, framing and nose filters.