Portraits of Rebecca and Christopher, 2000/2001.
Pastel on paper mounted on calico, 32x22 inches.

The original sketches and photographs for Rebecca were done at a harp event. It was not possible to arrange further sittings, so the remainder of the work was done in the studio.

To make these paintings I first obtained a large sheet of acid-free rag paper from Falkiner's Fine Papers in London (+44 (0)20 7831 1151). I selected a paper that was already coloured a slightly cool mid-brown, to give the flesh tones a head start and to lend unity to the whole design, since inevitably some of the paper colour shows through the thinner passages. Thus the paper colour serves in a similar way to an imprimatura in oil painting. Falkiner's were able to assure me that a similar paper had been tested by the Victoria and Albert museum and found to be lightfast (BFK Rives 280T).

Christopher in Air Force cadet uniformRebecca and harp

The paper was squared up and the composition sketched in with charcoal, both as an outline and tonally. Then a piece of strong calico was stretched on a wooden stretcher, in the same way that a canvas is stretched for oil painting, and the paper mounted on the calico using animal glue (in this case ordinary gelatine). When dry, further work was done in pastel.

If you want a portrait done in pastel it is important to understand how much more fragile the medium is than oils. A charcoal drawing I did of another sitter was destroyed by a cat walking on it, and the surface of pastel can be damaged just as easily by anything touching it. I hand out detailed instructions on framing: specifically that the glass must on no account touch the painting, and less obviously, that glass must be used not acrylic, because of the risk that static electricity will pull particles of pigment off the surface and onto the back of the acrylic. A backing board is recommended to help reduce fluctuations in humidity and temperature, and to reduce the risk of damage when the picture is moved. Having said all that, a pastel painting does have a soft and gentle presence that is harder to achieve in oils, and the pigments can be more intense because they are not covered with a layer of varnish.

Although it is probably reasonable for an artist to use a little fixative on the lower layers of a painting to enhance stability, the eighteenth century originators of the pastel technique did not do so. Degas in the nineteenth century fixed the lower layers but not the top layer. You will find that fixing the top layer of a pastel will destroy the highlights, since the white becomes effectively transparent. Therefore, never use fixative on a pastel unless you are the artist and know what you are doing. The Sotheby's guide to looking after antiques says that fixative is also likely to darken with time.

As to lightfastness, I increasingly make my own pastels so that I know what pigments are in them. That way, I can restrict myself to pigments of proven durability. This painting was completed mostly with home made pastel sticks, although I did have to use some commercially made ones. I hope to publish some recipes for pastel sticks on this web site when I am able to get more consistent results with making them, and if anyone out there has any recipes they have tried, please let me know. A pastel stick can cost a pound as against only three pounds or so for a whole bag of pigment, so making your own saves money too! Interested artists may obtain pigment from Cornelissen in London (+44 (0)20 7636 1045).


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All images copyright 2000, 2001 Martin Dace