Choose Your Adventure: Two Ways to Powerful Pastel Underpaintings

It is always exciting to see how artists work differently within the bounds of a single medium or genre. As a wannabe artist, I know there is a takeaway worth learning in both scenarios, but I also stand the chance of discovering a way of painting or drawing that fits me lock-and-key. Take pastel underpaintings, for instance.

I know of two artists who with different processes for creating pastel underpaintings. I’m going to present them to you so that we all gain the knowledge and can go from here picking and choosing what works best for us.

Moonrise by Denise LaRue Mahlke, pastel

Underpainting for Pastel: Denise LaRue Mahlke

Denise LaRue Mahlke creates atmospheric pastel art that shows, more often than not, a lot of underpainting. She starts by spending a lot of time in the environment she is painting: taking in the quality of the light, allowing her own feelings and mindset to influence the way she sees, and noting what the weather is like.

Prepping Beforehand Is Key

Prepping before she does any kind of studio work, Denise gathers four kinds of inspirations that will be an asset in the studio:

  • Thumbnail sketches of the landscape and possible compositions
  • A color study of the area that can be abstract or more specific depending on what she sees
  • Handwritten notes of her impressions of the place she will be drawing
  • Digital reference photos that she will eventually display on her computer

Denise’s Way

Denise gives herself some time in the studio to evaluate these resources and consider how she might change or rearrange elements. Then she starts her pastel underpaintings.

  • This starts one of two ways: dissolving the first layers of pastel with mineral spirits, or by applying watercolor washes in complementary colors to the paper.
  • She does not always work from hard pastels to soft. If the color and value are right but the stick she holds is soft, Denise will apply it early on in a work, but use a whisper-light touch so the tooth of the paper isn’t filled too quickly.
  • Working the underpainting is a large part of the process. When she is in the zone, Denise only needs to develop a focal point or center of interest in subsequent layers, with the underpainting showing through in the rest of the piece.
  • On the other hand, she will create pastel artworks with as many as 10 to 12 layers of pastel.

Next Steps

When the underpainting is dry, Mahlke tackles the darks with hard pastel sticks, working her way toward medium values and finally lights in softer pastels. She also likes to drag a bristle brush through areas of her work to indicate more texture, or use the side of her little finger to soften an edge or blend a portion of the sky.

Launiupoko by Ann Sanders, pastel | Create Powerful Pastel Underpaintings | Artists Network

Launiupoko by Ann Sanders, pastel

Underpainting for Pastel: Ann Sanders

Ann Sanders is a practical painter with a doctorate in physics. Her work tends to be created in one go, en plein air. She takes reference photos to back up her vision, but about 90 percent of a painting is done on location.

Sanders is practical in both her materials and her process: She works on Wallis Belgian Mist paper because the good tooth and neutral tone allow her to easily apply pigment and to work in both directions from a middle value. She also starts with hard pastels and finishes with soft ones, as do many pastellists.

Ann’s Underpainting Tips

  • She works from dark to light in her pastel underpaintings with an eye toward evaluating the compositional success of the abstract shapes.
  • She fixes the block-in with a wash of denatured alcohol. “The alcohol brings the contrast down, especially with the lights, which are grayed way down,” Sanders explains. “I prefer alcohol over Turpenoid because it dries much more quickly.”
  • Ann uses local color for her underpaintings — except for foliage, which she believes benefits from being underpainted with a warm complement.
  • She does not blend colors with her finger or another tool, preferring instead to lightly layer colors to achieve blends.

OK, OK, I totally underplayed my hand because the truth is there are several ways to create underpaintings for pastel. I got you started with insights from Denise and Ann, but Bold Underpaintings for Lively Pastel Landscapes with Richard McKinley takes you all the way there.

This video workshop fleshes out so many of the ways you can approach this technique. Get your copy to “choose your adventure” and start creating beautiful pastel after beautiful pastel. Enjoy!