Friday, 22 February 2013

Pastel-tastic!

This workflow is a definite keeper first devised back in May 2012 on the painting, 'Mor Bheinn from Culcrieff.' Rather than applying Sennelier oil pastels like crayons in the conventional way, it involves mashing them up on a palette and applying with a palette knife, just as you would paints. With a little manipulation the pastel mush goes a lovely soft buttery consistency. I know what you're thinking. Why bother? At the time it was mere idle curiosity, the immortal question responsible for humanity's stratospheric rise: 'What happens if..?' I simply wanted to see if it would work, it did. But much as I liked the technique there seemed no substantial advantage to using oil pastels in this way until a couple of days ago. Read on.
I'm no plein air painter. Cue tenuous link to tiny random sample of amazing outdoor painters: Ken Howard, Haidee-Jo Summers, James GurneyDon JuskoJack Frame, Emma Holliday, wow that is a long long list of bookmarked inspiration. At the risk of sounding like someone who is not prepared to suffer for their art though, I just can't be bothered carting all that stuff around! :D There is obviously more to it than that but I can rarely resist the opportunity to deliver a facetious remark. The truth is, most of the time I actually prefer taking my crop of reference photos back to the studio, mulling over them, seeing what features best match the feelings I had of being there, often splicing elements of several photos together to best represent those feelings. I love sitting in front of a blank canvas and going through the mental process of deciding what to paint next. The photo references are a trigger to remind me of a moment. The momentum to start and finish a piece comes from trying to re-capture something of the ephemeral tranquillity and pure joy of experiencing the awesome delights of nature.
I always take a shed load of photo references in any given situation, but sometimes painting a scene adds to the pleasure of being there. As mentioned in previous posts, I like taking oil pastels out because they are so simple to set up, to use and to pack away. There's no need for easels, water, oil, turps or other mediums. Intense colour and inherent opacity means that most of the time you can apply lighter colour over dark. They're not wet so the ham-fisted among us don't have to worry about getting paint everywhere, yet they never dry which means you can work and rework whenever you like. Once a piece is finished it can be put behind glass or, my preferred option, fixed with either Sennelier's spray fixative, acid free PVA glue or acrylic mediums. Of these options, I find the acid free PVA works best, but it must be high quality archival PVA. Roberson have a suitable product.

Beech Scene
However, despite all the oil pastel positives, the recent painting, 'Beech Scene' highlighted a few drawbacks which made me wonder whether the workflow could be improved. I'd started painting on the spot in the conventional manner, but for some reason was getting slightly irritated! The first thing I realised was that despite the improved convenience, I still had to find a place to sit/stand which would accommodate the tin of pastels, blender stump and kitchen paper. It was a bright blustery day, so this and that was being thrown and blown here and there. The pastels are well used and no matter how hard you try to keep them clean, the heat of the sun or your hands inevitably mean they get soft enough to smudge, and although they're still a lot less messy than paints, do end up staining fingers which, as any painter will tell you, often results in cracks and callouses. In addition to this I noted the constant swapping of pastel sticks was a bottleneck; here paints do have an advantage because only one painting implement is used making it more efficient to load and apply different colours. I got to a certain stage before giving up and finishing the piece back home, but all the while mulled these admittedly slight issues round and round until a eureka moment in which the use of that Mhor Bheinn palette knife technique came back to mind. I immediately switched to a palette knife to finish Beech Scene and by the end came up with a possible solution.

Pastel Port!

The above image shows my first attempt at ironing out the niggles. No doubt it will get refined over time, but I love the low tech approach because it is so quick and cheap to put together there'll be no problem replacing parts along the way. I have no name for the device yet, for now lets call it a Pastel Port. Deluxe. :) Here is a list of the raw materials:
1 x Piece of hardboard (masonite) cut to a size which fits your bag. In my case that means a piece 25cm wide x 32cm high.
1 x small folding palette, which by sheer chance I found in the UK high street book/craft shop, The Works at £1.99. Link. You can also get the same thing at SAA or in the US, Dick Blick. Of course there is nothing stopping you from preparing several palettes. Because they're so light, cheap, small and only attached by blu-tack, it would be a doddle carrying extras in your bag and would take mere seconds to swap.
1 x small diamond headed palette knife or other implement of choice (blending stump, colour shapers etc.)
2 x elastic bands
Blu-Tack
Kitchen paper
Masking tape

Canvas board testers
In practice so far, this simple solution works brilliantly. It solves all the above niggles and even allows the painting surface to be wider than the hardboard, as long as it is stiff enough to accomodate blu-tacking. For example, I have an Arches 30cm x 15cm watercolour block which overlaps the sides, but is solid enough to be stable in use. The palette knife handle is wrapped with kitchen paper and masking tape to soak up stray pastel stains.
One issue did come up right away when testing a small canvas board - I'd forgotten to apply an undercoat of acrylic paint and in situ found it a struggle to lay down the first layer of pastel on a relatively course canvas texture. The white ground added to the struggle. This first blocking in stage should be quicker, so to solve the problem I gave a second tester canvas board a coat of burnt umber paint, followed by a layer of Atelier Interactive acrylic impasto gel which filled the weave depth nicely, but still left enough texture to allow a canvas texture to show through in places. Also worth noting is the fact that using a palette knife to apply light colour over dark works even better than when using conventionally, which is a real bonus for impasto lovers!

Sgraffito
I give supports a dark undercoat to take advantage of another oil pastel benefit; the ability to scrape away applied layers, a technique known as sgraffito. This allows me to add fine twig tracery by scraping out the sky.
Job done then? Not quite, there is one last delight to report. Sennelier, in their infinite wisdom label all their pastels with colour index codes. This means that you can make informed decisions on which pastels are likely to be the most lightfast, opaque, toxic, etc. I noticed none of their earth colours use the single pigment PBr7, probably due to dwindling supplies. But since Sennelier do sell a transparent medium pastel and I happen to possess all the PBr7 earth colours in pigment form from Cornelissen, I tried mashing the two together and so far, this is working really well. All the neutrals you see on my palette are made by mixing French Ultramarine PB29 with one of its mixing compliments, PBr7 Raw Umber. I have also made an Ultramarine Violet which works very nicely and am awaiting some Quinacridone Magenta pigment to get a true lightfast cool red. Endless joy.
Please feel free to try this out. I'd love to hear from you if you do. Perhaps you might find ways to improve it further, or simply just want to show paintings made using the Pastel Port. :) In the unlikely event I get any, I'll post them.

With added archival PVA
EDIT: Now that I have oil pastels in this form, I took the next obvious step and wondered what would happen if I mashed in the archival PVA just before adding the colour to a painting. To my surprise, the two emulsify very well despite one being oil based while the other is water based, and what you essentially get, is quick drying oil pastel. Colour dries fast with a hard skin (dependent on how much PVA you add.) You'll have to ask a chemist about the long term prospects of such an emulsion, but my current gut feeling is that because archival acid free PVA is a long lasting and stable glue, the resulting colours will be stable under conditions in which you would keep original paintings (not in direct sunlight, or over a radiator, or in the freezer...)