Thursday, 9 December 2010

Oil Pastels

I do love oil pastels, they might just be among the most flexible art materials in existence and I quite honestly can't believe how little we see of them in the public arena. I realise to make such a statement is to invite derision from certain circles, but please allow an indulgence...
Although I had previously dabbled in oil pastels and noted their potential, the image 'Luca' (left), a portrait of my lovely Godson, is the first oil pastel painting I ever completed. It was painted with what I now know are considered 'student quality' pastels, usually characterised as containing more wax and less pigment than artist quality pastels - you can see the hard waxy marks, which I think actually add something positive to the painting, so their lack of blending qualities isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The image used up my supply and the search for replacements unveiled other brands. In the UK the three most popular art shop brands I found were Royal Talens Van Gough pastels, Caran D'Ache Neopastels and Sennelier Oil Pastels. Although there seems to be some confusion, I would consider the Van Goughs student grade simply because their colour chart states that all pastels are marked either +++ or ++ for lightfastness. The first equates to 100 years lightfastness under gallery conditions and the second 25-100 years. Although a century sounds a long time, I'm guessing anyone considering an art investment would prefer a little longer. After all, if you are mixing ++ with +++ you are surely not promoting ++ to +++, but rather demoting +++ to ++, which could mean there is a chance your artwork may disintegrate within the lifetime of the buyer. Probably not good.

The Senneliers and Neopastels, however, are in a different league. You can tell just by using them and perhaps the best way I can describe both types is to say they feel more like oil paint in stick form, particularly the soft buttery Senneliers. Where the Van Goughs blend into mush when painting white over dark, for example, the other two brands are beautifully opaque and most of the time the white sits atop any colour like oil paints. But even where this is not the case, because oil pastels contain wax, they never dry like paint. This means you can rework an area simply by scraping off parts of the painting or use fixative over areas you want to amend. It also means you can employ really nice sgraffito effects.
Sparkle - Senneliers
There are differing opinions on whether oil pastels should be fixed or not. Some people prefer to keep them unfixed but mounted behind glass. Others use fixative spray such as Sennelier's. I like to rub slightly watered down acid free PVA glue over the finished work with a finger. Slightly unnerving as it is white when applied, but very quickly dries clear with a satin finish. The pastels are stable enough not to be disturbed by the light rubbing action.

Backlight - Sennelier/Neo
Although they never dry, oil pastels are also never wet, which means they are perfect for open air painting (en plein air.) Not that I'm an expert on the subject, but lately I've been trying to make a point of going out to paint on the spot because it is both good practice and good for the soul. There are no levels of abstraction to wrestle with such as paint tubes/pans, brushes, pallets, water, rags, oil or turps. No time spent pencil sketching, applying or removing masks, no pre-mixing colour since it is all done directly on the painting surface, no waiting for layers to dry. All I need to pack is a multi medium sketchbook, an old crayon tin full of pastels, a craft knife, a blending stump and a sheet of kitchen paper. The image 'Backlight' (above left) nicely demonstrates the medium's directness. While walking through Edinburgh Botanics I wanted to catch the low Autumn sun. I only had perhaps 15 minutes before the sun moved
One For Sorrow - Sens/Neo
behind the background building, so speed was an issue. In the time it takes to pull a sketchbook and a tin from my rucksack, maybe 10 or 15 seconds, I was painting. 'Backlight' and 'One for Sorrow,' also an open air painting finished in studio, both demonstrate the opaque nature of artist quality pastels where light colours are overlaid on dark. Applied pressure and a twist of the wrist creates really nice impasto strokes. The finer branch, leaf and grass highlights are the result of scraping away pigment - sgraffito.

Self Portrait - Sennelier
On the subject of speed and convenience, for various reasons I quite often find myself waiting in the car for small amounts of time. You can wait and do nothing or you can wait and sketch. Sometimes that means whipping out my ipod touch and firing up ArtStudio, but that is another subject for another day. On this occasion I started sketching the car mirror with grey pastels and soon realised I was in fact drawing myself. I really like this image, don't know why.
Self Portrait 2 - Sens/Neo
On yet another occasion I just could not sleep. You know, lying there in the dark, restless, brain won't switch off and legs won't stop twitching. Well eventually I just got up and started sketching Self Portrait 2 (right.) The light source was a single bedside lamp. It isn't an exact likeness, but I like the fuzzy sketchy quality, particularly around the eyes, which are normally the first point of contact for viewers and therefore rendered sharp. The whole thing nicely sums up that restless quality our friend insomnia sometimes brings. 
Click on images to enlarge.