Pastels are often regarded as the poor cousins of oil painting and watercolors. No doubt those cheap and nasty pastels in the stationery store add to this idea. There are also much fewer pastel paintings on display than oils and watercolor. This has added to the perception that pastels are not equal to other media.
Pastels may however be making a strong comeback. They should and here is why:
The versatility of pastels is second to none. They can be used as a basic drawing medium. Pastels are handy to plan a painting as you can draw, establish values and settle color plans before embarking on a painting.
Pastels can be used as a painting medium too as you can layer and mix pastel colors easily. The control of this mixing and placement of color makes pastels ideal for loose impressionist work or highly rendered realism. You choose.
Additional variety can be obtained by using various forms of underpainting. For example underpainting in watercolor or diluted acrylics can create exciting effects to subsequent pastel layers. Alternatively the first layers of pastel can be mixed with a brush using water or artists spirits. This is especially useful in establishing darks for later pastel layers.
Note that artists pastels bear no resemblance to cheap and nasty oil pastels found in some stationery shops. The latter are simply oil crayons and are best avoided. Artist's pastels come in three main varieties - hard, medium and soft. The hard pastels can be used for underpainting or drawing the composition. Medium pastels and soft pastels will be used more often for the painting stage. Unison make excellent medium pastels while Sennelier are famous for their soft pastels.
What about pastel paper? The main issues here are the tooth and tone of the paper. Tooth refers to the texture of the paper while tone is the color of the paper. The texture should not be too rough, but still have enough texture to hold layers of pastel. A fine portrait canvas will work too.
Pastel paper can be expensive so experiment with good water color paper. I have tried this to good effect. Try mounting watercolor paper onto board to get a painting panel similar to an oil painting panel. You can prime watercolor paper with gesso on the rear of the paper before sticking it to a board (MDF or similar good quality board). This gives an excellent painting board that can be transported in a painting carrier outdoors. The paper will not buckle once framed either. I frame these boards without a matt board, but more on this my next article on framing pastels.
I also enjoy the fact that I can paint outdoors very comfortably with pastels. Setting up is easy and there are no liquids to worry about. But make sure you can transport your finished painting in a panel carrier to protect the surface.
So give pastels a try. Oils are still my first love, but pastels are fast becoming a regular part of my painting process.