View Full Version : Sorry to start another Underpainting/blending thread

11-11-2012, 09:51 PM
I did some searches on WetCanvas, and I found and read a few of the major underpainting/blending threads, but I'm still having trouble.

1) With regard to underpainting, I find that as soon as I dip the brush and place it on the paper, it dries, allowing me to cover very little area. I have to keep dipping my brush over and over, and the end result is very choppy, with lots of visible brush strokes everywhere. It's impossible to get a smooth, even tone over a large area. I've seen some video demos, and I don't see the brush drying so quickly for others. I'm using a bristol brush, Nupastels, and I've tried both water and rubbing alcohol. For paper I've used Canson Mi-tient and Hahnemuhle bugra. Is there anyway to keep the brush from drying so rapidly?

2) As concerns blending, I have not tried blending with my fingers (to avoid touching chemicals), and instead I've use a regular Bounty paper towel and a chamois (or however you spell that). I find that both pick up too much (at least 30%) of the pastel, which seems counterproductive. What is the best blending tool, in terms of blending without picking up the pastel?

I'm wondering if maybe these problems are both due to that papers I'm using (Canson Mi-tient and Hahnemuhle bugra)? I know a lot of you artists on Wetcanvas have complained about the former, and few even mention the latter.

11-12-2012, 01:30 AM
sounds like there is too little liquid in the applicator or too much pastel on the surface .

any ' blending tool ' that has fibers will pick up the pastel crystals until they are filled up , and then the crystals will be caught by the paper's fibers = ' tooth '.

' underpainting ' and ' blending ' mean something different for pastel compared to wet mediums .
> ironically , while pastel is opaque , an underpainting is meant to spread out the dried crystals to colour , or ' stain ' the paper for the underlying colour and/or large massing/values to build the painting .

' blending ' with pastel is not the same as pre-mixing wet media on a palette .
pastel crystals will intermingle on the surface directly to some extent and appear as a different colour -
a sense of touch is important so that the crystals aren't mushed/compacted together and in so doing diminish their brilliance .

hope that helps . if there's stuff that might be described another way , lemmie know , and i'll try .

Ed :}

Merethe T
11-12-2012, 05:30 AM
I don't do underpainting with brushes so I can't help you with that. For blending I have a couple of suggestions that work, and allows you to use your fingers. I haven't found any tools that work well, they seem to move the pastel around too much, and also removes a lot of the dust. The best way is using your fingers...if you don't want to touch the dust you can use disposable gloves, or a barriere cream ( gloves in a bottle). It will protect your fingers, but works just as well as fingerblending.

11-12-2012, 06:40 AM
You don't say where you live... But I use pipe insulation which is readily available here in the USA. It's the black foam that you wrap around plumbing, you just tear bits off and use then throw away when you have finished. Works really well. Some people use packing peanuts, but I don't find them to be so effective.

11-12-2012, 10:53 AM
Without experimenting, my replies are just guesses, but...

I would think the paper will matter a great deal. Your papers are both uncoated and absorbent, so I would think that papers such as Pastelmat, Uart and Wallis will work better with a wet underpainting. Those papers are also thicker and less likely to warp and buckle allowing you to use more liquid. Again, just guessing.

However, since the underpainting will be covered with pastel, I wouldn't worry if it was choppy and full of brushstrokes.

I would use a nice wide watercolor brush rather than a bristle and see if that matters.

As far as finger blending is concerned, using a barrier cream as others have mentioned might be a good idea. It takes a bit of practice, but using a hard pastel (such as your nupastels) is a good way to blend, as well as add some of the new color. In other words, blend with the pastels as you mix the colors together. You could also use tortillons or blending stumps - which I believe are just strips of paper rolled up to a point.

Hope this helps.


11-12-2012, 11:20 AM
Don's right, you have the wrong paper for doing a wet underpainting. Even when using Uart I use a watercolor brush as Don recommends and alcohol. There is a british pastelist that uses the Canson paper and a dry underpainting, I don't remember his name. He uses the ball of his hand to blend and press the pastel into the paper, he appears to use a fair amount of pressure to embed the pastel dust into the paper fibers to tone it. Probably a much messier method than you care to adopt.


11-12-2012, 11:29 AM
If you are applying alcohol or water to a dry pastel "block-in" so that you have an underpainting, you probably will find the end result to be choppy. As the underpainting is just that, an underpainting, most of what you do will be covered with pastel. It is just a starting point, something to respond to. When I do an underpainting I don't try to achieve anything resembling a finished look. I just want to block in some color, either to have some peeking through at the end, or I do it to give me a starting point, and some instant color. The beauty of pastel is that it is opaque, so it will cover any and all of those uneven brush strokes as you wish.

I'm not sure Canson MT is the best paper to use for a wet underpainting. I think it will buckle. I am not familiar with the other paper you are using. I find wet underpaintings work best on sanded surfaces like Uart or Wallis Museum Grade, or Art Spectrum Colorfix. I've heard Pastelmat also works well with wet underpaintings. Prepared watercolor paper works well also (prepared with a pastel ground, usually having grit of some sort in it).

Another approach to underpainting is to use watercolor or gouache on the sanded surfaces and prepared watercolor paper that I mentioned. You would then get a more painterly look, less choppy. I also know people use very diluted (with turps) oil paint (extremely thinly applied) to do underpaintings. Richard McKinley is famous for it. I haven't tried it though, so I couldn't give you pointers on how to do it.

Hope this helps.

Donna T
11-12-2012, 12:41 PM
I've had luck doing underpaintings on printmaking paper (non-sanded) by using my softest pastels on their sides and lightly dragging them aross the paper. Then I use a Viva paper towel to gently rub the pastel into the paper. The paper towel does pick up some of the pastel but I find that the softer pastels do a better job of coloring the paper without needing too much pressure or rubbing. When I'm happy with the look that I want I lightly mist the underpainting with rubbing alcohol from a spray bottle. A fine, light spray sets the pastel into the paper and does not cause it to buckle. I like the soft edges and smooth transitions from one area to the next - with no choppiness! :)

11-12-2012, 07:37 PM
All very good tips from our friends.
Another thing you might look into is Pan Pastels. These are pastels in containers and you use a sponge tool to spread the dust.....you don't have to touch with naked fingers. They are great for underpainting and the pastel spreads fast and even.
here is a link: http://www.panpastel.com/
our very own Deborah Secor does a demo.
Good luck.


11-12-2012, 10:06 PM
Thank you everyone for your interesting ideas!

11-14-2012, 04:38 AM
I think you need to understand why you are doing an underpainting.

If you are doing it to give yourself a colour beginning to a painting, with blocked in large shapes, then the choppiness of any strokes will not matter one bit, because your next layers of pastel will cover all those early strokes. So why are you bothered by the choppy marks?

If you want a "runny" look, which you plan to incorporate into the finished piece, which is what Richard McKinley does, then you cannot do this easily on Mi Teinte, it is a thinnish paper, and will buckle as you work. It will flatten out eventually, as it dries, but to get a runny look with drips you do have to use quite a lot of wet product - whichever you choose to use - and that means the paper will get soaked and will be affected unless you use much more solid product like Mi Teinte Touch, which is much thicker than Mi Teinte paper and will accept wetness without buckling.

If you dont want to touch the pastels, then buy yourself some of the latex gloves used by dentists. They are available in chemist shops here in the UK, and are not expensive. I use them all the time, and they making blending with fingers easy and quick. If you use tissues or cloth,you will simply pick up the pastel particles, rather than rub them into the paper.

I sometimes drench my early pastel marks with SPECTRAFIX fixative (non toxic) small areas at a time and blend with a stiff brush, this works well, and when dry, you have a blended area which is also fixed so it is great to work on top.

If you use hard pastels in the early stages, they blend easily and do not lift anything like as much as soft pastels, nor do they fill the tooth of the paper as much. then you can fix, and carry on with soft pastels.

Here is an early stage of a painting, with the colour blended by hand (gloved hand): I stayed fairly true to the colours I would eventually finish with, rather than using complementaries or alternatives, but it would have worked with alternative colours too. You can see how "soft" the underpainting looks, just a lightly blended layer of colour which gives me a good "map" for where to go next:


Here is the next stage, with softer pastels being used to begin to create foliage texture:


lots more steps in between but here it is, 90% done. No sign of the original underpainting, so even if it had been "choppy" like step 2, it would not have mattered.


And here is an alternative approach. I worked on Mi Teinte paper. The "underpainting", or first layer, is done with hard pastels, using them on their sides mostly; leaving the marks loose and not blended other than visually - I suppose these are almost choppy, but perhaps not as crude as the kind of choppy you get with brush blending and wetness:


I added more darks after this, and I didn't bother with blending, I moved into soft pastels after giving that underpainting a burst of Spectrafix, just to hold the marks firmly in place. Here I am using softies over the top tho you can still see some of the hard pastel layer:


and here is the finish, with shapes and details completed. The underpainting is not obvious, but is still visible in places. You can also see how some of the darker areas are brought to life with lighter tones on top.

Because the underpainting was a loose network of lines and pastel particles, it allowed for a feeling of texture and in the case of the distant trees, there is a sense of light filtering thro the darker parts of the trees, rather than dense, solidness which is what you can get with a lot of blending:


NOW it is fully possible that your intent, for your finished works, is quite different to mine...but I showed you these two examples, to show you how different kinds of underpaintings can be employed, and also to show you how the kind of underpainting you use, whether it is choppy or smooth, should not have that much impact on the finished piece. It is purely LAYER 1, and because pastels are opaque, subsequent layers will cover up most of what you have done.

11-14-2012, 07:58 AM
Jackie, I hope this goes into your blog, it is excellent!

I've tried mineral spirits (white spirits, outdoors) on Canson Mi-Teintes, and it doesn't buckle the paper, but anything with water in it definitely does. And I avoid anything with fumes (don't like the migraine...), so I usually do a dry underpainting. It works as well as a wet one.

Sanded paper, splotchy initial layers, and quite often I work on top of that, placing other colours inbetween the marks already there:


Then I take one of those disposable "wash-cloths" made out of foam that is used for baby bottoms and just rub the dust in, and wipe off the excess. A foam brush would work as well. And I get a smooth underpainting that acts as if it isn't there, i.e. it saves one layer:


Yes, I prefer wide margins, cut to the size of the frame, that way the painting doesn't slide arund under the mat in the frame. And no need to tape it to backing board or mat. The margins are perfect for testing colours too.

11-14-2012, 09:55 AM
excellent methods and photos .

this is quick and cheap with a make-up removal swab on 50 lb paper and the darkest ( .3 ) rembie blue-violet .
yeah , the swab loads up , but it can be re-used with the same/similar colours .

Ed :}

ps. some areas have been lifted/lightened w a kneaded eraser b/c the finish colour there will be a much higher value .


11-19-2012, 09:48 AM
Oh my God, you guys are amazing. I'm so sorry it took me so long to read your responses, but I hadn't been checking my email for updates.

Thank you both for experimenting with Mi-Teintes specifically. I especially like the smooth underpainting effect Colorix got with the mineral spirits. But what Jakie Simmonds points out about about Layer 1 not really mattering is a point well taken!

Thank you!

11-19-2012, 11:03 AM
You're welcome, just one clarification: in the images, there is a completely dry underpainting, with pastels only.

12-05-2012, 12:43 PM
I was also having the problem of blending tools removing the pastel. I've been working exclusively on Wallis. It just seemed to me my finger was the best tool, except the Wallis paper takes your skin off too. I bought some of those really soft deer skin type work gloves. I cut off the fingers. Now I just slip one of those over my finger, and can blend away.

Moises Menendez
02-12-2013, 09:09 PM
Anyone have experience doing under painting on portraits?

02-13-2013, 02:53 AM
I have done only ONE underpainting and that was part of a plein air workshop on what turned out to be a very humid day; in fact we had a heavy downpour during the middle of the day. After applying "blocks" of color with pastels, I used rubbing alcohol and a bristle brush on Canson Mi-Tientes paper (98 lb paper) to complete the underpainting. The pastels used in both the underpainting and the "overpainting" were a combination of Rembrandt Soft Pastels and NuPastels.

I have to say that I was quite pleased with the results and plan to do underpaintings in the future as the situation allows. I thought that the Canson MT paper held up very well to the alcohol and the bristle brush. The alcohol allowed the paper and pastel to dry very quickly and the potential buckling seemed to be minimized. I have since then acquired some PanPastels and will probably try them (with the alcohol and bristle brush) for an underpainting in the future.

With regard to blending, to me the best tool for blending is the pastels themselves. I do not use my fingers, blending stumps, or any other device, just the combination of the Rembrandts and the NuPastels to get the results I want. This technique was expounded upon me many, many years ago by Harold Stevenson, and more recently by Donna Harlow Moraff. I have found that the NuPastels allow me to do almost like a glazing technique.

I am not claiming to be any kind of expert, just relating my experience so far.

Moises Menendez
02-13-2013, 09:04 AM
I don't blend with the fingers or any other tool, but I use either pastel pencils or sharpened Nu-pastel sticks to pull the color and mix with the rest of the painting. I am afraid of causing mud if I blend with fingers or tortillons. Again, i wonder if anyone has had an experience applying pastel underpainting on portraits. Thank you.

02-13-2013, 12:02 PM
Hi Moe, check out this thread of mine; here my monochrome underpainting serves as a value roadmap. Try it out!


Moises Menendez
02-13-2013, 08:27 PM
HI Dorothea, thank you for the information. I checked the thread and you did a great job with those two young girls! The idea of underpainting is to cover the paper with color before the application of the pastels, is that right? I read that some people use alcohol or turpentine to dissolve the pastel and when dry you can paint with the pastels. Does the paper buckle after it gets dry?

02-13-2013, 09:14 PM
Hi Moe, depends on the paper: Wallis, UArt, Art Spectrum Colourfix don't buckle, but I would be careful with Canson Mi-Teintes, because it's thinner and more absorbant. The best thing would be to get a few samples of different papers and try it out.
Jackie Simmonds has given a lot of useful information in her post here in this thread; worth reading!

02-13-2013, 10:42 PM
I think that I might be concerned if I was using water on Canson MT paper to create an underpainting, but I am not concerned using alcohol especially if the paper is taped down on all four sides.

02-14-2013, 01:18 AM
Some things I have found with underpainting:

Wallis pro will buckle, even if taped down. Wallis museum grade will not buckle, that would be my choice if using Wallis.

Uart doesn't buckle, it works very well with either alcohol or water. I've done watercolor, as well as pan pastels sprayed with alcohol.

Canson has buckled for me when using alcohol. I find it to not be sturdy enough for my taste when it comes to underpainting. I use it strictly with dry pastel only. I wouldn't use water with it at all, and alcohol buckled for me.

I believe Colourfix paper might buckle with underpainting, much like Wallis pro. Both papers have the surface applied to cardstock, which buckles. Wallis museum grade is made with watercolor paper, which is why it doesn't buckle. I don't know what is used for Uart, but it is very sturdy and doesn't buckle.

Ampersand pastelboard won't buckle, it's a board. I do think you have to be careful with the surface though, I remember reading somewhere that alcohol might cause a problem with the surface being removed. Not sure though, just something I think I remember.

Pastelmat is supposed to take wet media very well for underpaintings.

There is a multimedia board I've heard about that accepts wet media. I've never used it, but I've heard it works well.

When doing an underpainting, stay away from chalky colors that have white in them. You will get the best results if you keep the colors pure.

The reasons underpaintings are used are various. Some reasons are to give you a head start on values and colors, to unify a painting with color, to be able to leave the underpainting showing, thus using less pastel, to tone a paper with a specific color, just to name a few. I don't think there is a specific way to use an underpainting for portraits versus any other subject, it really is up to you to decide what you want and why. If you use a paper that is very forgiving and accepts many layers as well as wet media (like Uart, I like Uart 400), you can give it a try and see what happens. I don't underpaint my portraits, I just go in with dry pastel and paint away. I don't like to experiment on commissions, though I think I would definitely try an underpainting on a portrait that I'm painting for myself. I do underpaintings all the time with landscapes, florals and I've also done them on still life, just not portraits (yet).

I would suggest trying it first by just toning a piece of Uart 400, then do your sketch, then pastel away! Hope this helps to answer your question.

Here is a watercolor underpainting I did on Uart 400 for a landscape:


Finished painting:


02-14-2013, 06:32 AM
Chris, I use AS Colourfix all the time and never had problems with buckling when doing a wet underpainting.According to the company they use watercolour paper as a support.

02-14-2013, 10:48 AM
Chris, I use AS Colourfix all the time and never had problems with buckling when doing a wet underpainting.According to the company they use watercolour paper as a support.

Thank you Dorothea, I didn't know that. I really believed they used cardstock but I wasn't sure, which is why I worded it the way I did. I've used Colourfix, but it's not a favorite of mine so I don't have as much experience with it. Now I know! :D

Moises Menendez
02-14-2013, 03:46 PM
Hi guys,
Thank you Theodora and Allydoodle.
Thank you for the information. I guess underpainting is mainly for landscaping and still life.

02-14-2013, 05:25 PM
the issue , collectively , seems to be making a foundation of dominant colour/value/mass .

Moe - with paper , a soft packing peanut will disburse colour with little affect on the tooth .
> ask around . one place gave me a 30 gallon bag full of them , just to take it off their hands . :D
>> there will be value changes b/c the pastel particles are spread/thinned out ,
and the ' sparkle ' will be reduced ,
but the particles will remain , to a degree , rather than wetted into the support .


02-14-2013, 06:42 PM
Hi guys,
Thank you Theodora and Allydoodle.
Thank you for the information. I guess underpainting is mainly for landscaping and still life.

Not at all. You can use it for any subject. I've just not used it much for portraits, but there are many that do and do it very well. I am sure I will give it a try on one for myself (not a good idea to experiment with commission work). I just need the time to do it. I have ideas swirlling around in my head, if only I had the time..... Right now I am knee-deep into a commission, maybe when I'm finished with it I'll try a portrait for myself using an underpainting. Who knows, maybe it will end up being a new approach for me?

The only way to know is to try, experiment a bit. I am sure it would work well, I see no reason why not. I would suggest you give it a try. If you end up using a wet underpainting, just be sure to choose a paper that will accept the wet media without buckling. My approach would be to apply an abstract underpainting, thinking about what color I want the background to be, and where the light is coming from. I like using pan pastels, spraying them with alcohol. I sometimes let them drip, giving a neat effect. I would then do my sketch, and then start pasteling away over the underpainting. Some of the underpainting might show through, depending on what happens. That's the way it goes with underpaintings, you just don't know until you get into it.

Happy painting!

Moises Menendez
02-14-2013, 09:46 PM
Allydoodle, Ed, Dorothea
Thank you again. I will experiment on my next work with portraits.

02-16-2013, 12:27 PM
One thing Moe, although Chris' example of underpainting was as neat and lovely as the finish it doesn't have to be. It can be quite rough. Just lights and dark values put in. Or one colour all over. When I use several colours and then wash the pastel in with alcohol or water the whole thing looks rather messy. There're streaks and brush marks. It doesn't matter as you will put the pastel over and cover all that. You can let some of the underpainting show through or cover it completely there is no right or wrong way. It is up to the artist to use as they find works best for their style. If you look in the Spotlight archives Don did one on underpainting that might help you.

02-16-2013, 01:26 PM
You are so right Jen. Underpaintings aren't usually neat. The only reason that one was is because I did it with watercolors which is easier to control. My pastel underpaintings can get messy too!

Moises Menendez
02-17-2013, 02:16 PM
Jen, Allydoodle:
Thank you for all that information. I will try it soon. The main question is: What would be the most suitable medium?

02-17-2013, 04:37 PM
I think the answer is is doesn't really matter. Some people use pastel dry and just rub it in. Deborah Secor covers her paper in pastel then takes a large sponge brush that you can get at the hardware store and rubs the pastel in hard with it and then just knocks off the excess.You can use pastel and wash with water or alcohol, some people use a watery wash of acrylics others WC. It probably has much to do about where you are. For instance if you were doing Plein air or only had water available. Alcohol dries quickly so that could be a factor. Really whatever works to get the job done.

02-18-2013, 03:44 AM
Pretty much what Jen said. If you have gouache you could use that too, it works great. I think it's a comfort level, as well as what you have on hand, and the paper you are doing it on. Dry underpaintings work with all supports, while anything wet needs to be done on the appropriate paper that can handle it. I do like watercolor and gouache, but I've used pastel sprayed with alcohol and liked the results also. I would recommend either, as well as a dry rub.

02-18-2013, 01:06 PM
Here's the Underpainting Spotlight thread that was mentioned earlier, which has many different examples. I think the method used is really up to the individual and doesn't matter that much in the end result. The main purpose (at least for me) is to cover the paper with a non-dusty layer of color that lays out the basic shapes.


One thing to keep in mind if using rubbing alcohol. Based on some results and experiments done, you want to make sure you use the 70% alcohol NOT the 91%. The higher percentage began to take off or alter the finish of some of the sanded papers.


02-19-2013, 01:17 AM
One thing to keep in mind if using rubbing alcohol. Based on some results and experiments done, you want to make sure you use the 70% alcohol NOT the 91%. The higher percentage began to take off or alter the finish of some of the sanded papers.


Thanks for this reminder Don, I forgot about that. I always use the 70%, and even once when I brushed it on Wallis paper even that started to alter the finish of the paper. It didn't ruin it, but you do have to be careful when brushing it on. I found if I played with it too much it started to have a negative effect. I believe spraying the alcohol is a bit less aggressive, but sometimes brushing it on is what you want, and you do have to be careful.

the drover's dog
02-19-2013, 07:45 AM
What great answers in this thread from some highly respected artists.

Just like to add a word of caution though. Some forms of Alcohol will dissolve acrylic paints. Colourfix sanded papers have their abrasive powder added to an acrylic paint and then this is screen printed on to watercolour paper. Possibly the case with some other sanded papers also, but I cannot obtain anything else here, so really don't know. Methylated spirits is great for cleaning my tile palettes and acrylic paint off my clothes and I've used it lightly to wash in a pastel underpainting, but I aim to get it dry as quickly as possible to avoid dissolving the acrylic layer on my sanded paper. I do a lot of flapping of paper and wafting it in the breeze and never let it dry sitting flat on a table where the metho might pool and melt the acrylic.

Because the colourfix does not absorb water, I often use plain old water to do my under painting and it's quick to dry if you have a hairdryer handy. I've also used Vodka, odourless turps and (my favourite) Spectrafix fixative applied heavily enough to cause runs. As I dilute the Spectrafix concentrate with vodka, this is just a variation on the plain vodka method. None of these are any danger to the acrylic binder on the paper.

More often than not, I just smooch the first light pastel layer in with a finger - after all, this initial layer is not very important in the whole scheme of things. It's just a method of covering the bare paper in the quickest, least wasteful manner. I don't give a fig about smooching my hands around in any art medium and pastels least of all.

All our biological clocks are ticking down from the moment of birth, so a few less seconds of life due to any chemicals found in my art materials is neither here nor there in the broad scheme of life. I always use a hand barrier cream anyway.

I've tried gouache and find it fills up the tooth equivalent to a two or three layers of pastel, so only use it where I have a shaft of light required on a dark background paper.