Discovering Texture for Pastel Portraits
by Gwenneth Barth-White
Originally published in The Art of the Portrait Journal 3rd Quarter 2021
I was feeling a vague frustration and a need for something un-named, something new, for the background of my portrait. I had a somewhat clear idea that I needed a strong horizontal element to balance the verticality of the portrait that I was painting for a demonstration video. I left the sitting and wandered into my studio.
I saw an unopened jar of Daler-Rowney’s texture paste gathering dust on my studio shelf. It never occurred to me before to combine this with a portrait!
An incredibly exciting world of delight had opened up for me, and I feel like I have a whole new dimension to explore. I’m so excited about the effects, and I now find myself researching books that previously I had not paid attention to, and I am amazed by the seemingly unlimited possibilities that exist with textures in pastel. Combining this with the relative precision of a portrait is a dream.
Growing up in Switzerland, and loving Jean-Etienne Liotard’s luminous pastels in Geneva’s art museum, pastel has held a certain magic for me. Even though many of my patrons preferred their portraits in oils, those who asked for pastel would sometimes own centuries-old portraits of their ancestors in this medium. On their living-rooms walls, those portraits were as fresh as if they had been painted yesterday.
Pastel technique depends largely on the substrate used. With pastel paper like Canson Mi Teintes, I start with pastel pencils: Caran D’Ache and Stabilo – these can be used throughout the work to gently refine a softer layer.
Hard pastels like Nupastels and Rembrandts come next as a base to nourish the tooth of the paper, and I proceed with progressively softer pastels: Unisom and Girault, until reaching the very softest: Sennelier, Schmincke, Great American – and Ludwigs for the very dark colors. This ensures good adhesion that requires little fixative.
Unlike in the past, pastelists now have a wide array of archival papers and boards at their disposal. Depending on my project, I’ll use Clairfontaine Pastelmat or UArt paper mounted on archival board, but I mostly work on Dakota’s Pastel Premier Museum board.
All of these offer the delightful opportunity of first creating an underpainting wash, either in diluted pastel, watercolor, or oils. This wash sinks in and becomes one with the substrate, allowing transparencies or multiple layers in the subsequent application of pastel – a process that is hugely fun and inspiring. The painting can also be nearly complete at the wash stage and then just finished with the pastel. This versatility is what I love about the medium.
Applying pastel on these surfaces is also more adaptable. Artists can, paradoxically, start with softer pastels on the gritty boards and then develop this first layer with the help of harder ones.
Many pastelists create their own substrate: with gesso and pumice or marble powder, or the ready-made commercial jars of the same applied first as a base – the possibilities are manifold; pastel can be applied to wood, canvas, aluminum, or the gesso boards used for oil paint. Liotard’s pastel paintings are on parchment. Leonardo da Vinci’s pastel (attributed to) is on vellum. (These last two substrates are unfortunately very expensive.) The archival attributes of pastel need to be addressed, as many portrait patrons seem to be suspicious of its powdery qualities.
Pastel is the oldest, most permanent, and purest painting medium. According to the best professional pastel brands, a pastel stick is comprised of: pure pigment – the same pigment as in oils (except the lead and metal-based, for safety reasons) a natural gum, and, for the lighter colors, pure white chalk. Some other brands add pigment-absorbing Kaolin, which is a Chinese clay. Pastel remains the same over centuries – it doesn’t oxidize, crack or yellow.
As artists we need to educate our portrait clients so they know that a portrait in pastel on a quality substrate and framed with UV filtering glass, will stay as fresh as the day it was painted, for several centuries. In the 1930s it was discovered that the high acidity in wood-pulp based paper caused fast aging and yellowing when exposed to light. Many pastel works on non-rag based, inferior papers and boards by masters from before that date, such as Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, for example – are presently displayed in darkened rooms in museums in New York and Paris. I believe that this has caused a misunderstanding about pastel’s archival qualities, as the medium, not the substrate, is inevitably perceived as being non-permanent, which is far from being the case. In fact, you will find many museums use UV filtering glass for framing their masterworks that have been created in oil as well as pastel, to expand their quality for centuries.
Essential Tips for working with Pastel
Any unwanted layer of pastel can be removed with packing or painter’s tape, simply press sections onto the parts to be removed.
Kneaded erasers will pull the pastel off, ‘magic rub’ erasers knock it off.
A medium-soft synthetic paintbrush can be used to modulate and equalize the first pastel drawing, afterwards it knocks the pastel off.
A diagonally cut section of foam core pipe insulation can be used for blending at the beginning stages of pastel application.
Pastel pencils can be sharpened with a cutter knife and refined with a drywall sanding screen. This screen is also handy for sharpening all pastels, just attach it to a foam core tray with a clip.
I only use fixative very lightly upon finishing a work. Many artists use it during their process, to open up a saturated pastel layer allowing for additional applications.
Images 1 and 2: For my portrait in pastel demonstration video I’d set up a very intriguing, rather dark lighting on my model Richard, and felt that a landscape would best fit the mood of the portrait.
Image 3: This is the beginning of a piece of two women that I’m still working on. For the background here I used Golden’s acrylic lightly textured transparent ground for pastels, but non-diluted.
Image 4: This is one of the interesting effects that the texture afforded: I first rubbed completely over it with a soft Siena pastel, then lightly grazed over its tops with a hard light turquoise one. Everything is very delicate. If I decide not to use any of these effects at all, I can simply cover them with a coat of pastel.
Image 5: Without added texture on Dakota’s archival 400 grit pastel board, I felt the need for cross-hatching the background at left to keep it related to the rest of the painting. The painting’s complementary color choice was red and green, giving me the opportunity to delicately feed those colors, lightened, into the model’s face.
Gwenneth Barth-White lived most of her life in Geneva, Switzerland where she attended the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux Arts and graduated from the Geneva University of Art and Design. She’s a master pastelist and vice president of the Société des Pastellistes de France (the French Pastel Society), a master pastelist of the Pastel Society of America, and is part of IAPS’s Master Circle. She now lives in Florida, teaches summer workshops in France as well as her workshops in the States. Her portrait work is in collections world-wide: her client list includes royalty, leaders of industry, government and diplomacy. She has produced a portrait-in-pastel DVD in French and English. For more information, visit her website at: