View Full Version : Using Soft Pastels with Alcohol Wash for Oil Pastel Paintings

03-08-2013, 01:28 PM
Using Soft Pastels with Alcohol Wash for Oil Pastel Paintings
What follows is a process that I use for underpaintings (UP) with my oil pastels, please feel free to ask any questions you might have. Many Oil Pastelists use a variety of (UPs), what follows is a process that works for me (at the present, I'm still experimenting with other mediums).

Below I'll describe my process and why, and provide a demonstration of an oil pastel painting I did using this type of UP. The painting was based on an image from Wetcanvas Image Reference Library taken by our friend VickiB.

I got the technique from a demonstration that Paula Ford provided under the WC Pastel forum. I was looking for an UP that could be sealed and not blend into the clear gesso or oil pastels when subsequent OPs were layered on top of the UP.

I use underpaintings for a variety of reasons all depends on what I'm looking for: as a guide for shapes and values, for texture - as in clouds, rocks,tree bark, etc., or to provide a base color that I may want to show through and will actually act as part of the painting.

Alcohol: regular rubbing alcohol you can pick up at a pharmacy, Targets or Walmart. Used for wetting the brush to wash the soft pastel.
Small Glass Jar: keep a small jar of alcohol in my studio table so I always have some to use. Soft pastel sinks to the bottom, I get a lot of use out of one jar.
Brushes: I use old watercolor brushes, 1" round head and a couple of smaller flat heads.
Paper towels: to wipe the excess alcohol off the brush.
Soft Pastels: Any type will do. I go for the cheaper ones since it's not the final medium of the painting. I have lots of colors, some bought in sets others single sticks and a pack of 5 white sticks.
Foam Brush or Foam Pieces: what to use, besides your fingers, to scrub in the soft pastels.

Here is an image that I used for "Down by the Sea" taken by VickiB that can be found in the Wetcanvas Image Reference Library:


03-08-2013, 01:30 PM
Laying down soft pastels
Step 1: sketch out a draft of the painting on a prepared surface (most of the time I use hardboard).
Step 2: determine the purpose of the underpainting. For this demonstration it's to layout shapes and values using colors that reflect what I want the oil pastel to look like.
Step 3: select soft pastel colors. A lot of times I'll scrub the surface with white soft pastel to soften or mute the color of the soft pastel I selected for the subject or spot on the surface. I find I mix some colors as well, meaning I'll lay down one color in an area and lay another color on top of it.
Step 4:
Note Don't layer in a whole lot of soft pastels, you don't want to fill the tooth surface. Just put enough color so that when you use the alcohol wash it will stain the surface with the colors you selected.

Technique Quickly lay in (or dragging) your soft pastels - I complete the surface within 5 minutes or less. Here's what you need to know, the alcohol will darken the color somewhat - so if you are using a darker color, lets say a deep blue, drag it lightly for coverage. If you have a white area, lets say white sea foam or white clouds, scrub the area with white soft pastel so your color will actually come from oil pastels that you lay down at a later date.

Scrub in Soft Pastels
Once you have completed laying down the soft pastels it's time to scrub them into the surface. You can do this with your fingers or a foam brush or piece of foam. By scrubbing the soft pastel, you are in effect painting the surface - but with this step you are only spreading the soft pastel color and not staining or sealing the surface.

Caution: you will encounter a lot of dust from the soft pastel, this is not good to inhale, so be careful with flying dust. I'd even scrub the surface and blow the dust away out doors - better to save your lungs!

Applying Alcohol Wash - time to seal the soft pastel over the entire surface.
Note once you start applying the alcohol it will spread quickly and can merge colors together that you don't want (meaning the soft pastel color will spread onto each other) so more or less with this application - all depends on the size of your surface and what specific area you may be washing.
Using the brushes and small jar of alcohol, wet the brush with alcohol and wipe excess onto the paper-towel to avoid drips. If you are used to painting with watercolors or goauche you'll know what technique or how to paint alcohol over the certain areas. I am still learning brush strokes and how much alcohol to load the brush with - it's a hit or miss with me on if I get the patterns good enough.

For instance large bodies of water, will be done with large strokes and smaller area like rocks might be dabs, clouds might be blotted. Grassy areas will be close to dry brush (still wet though, you need the alcohol to seal the soft pastel) and will be done with strokes going up or sideways. All depends on what you area painting and what look you are going after before you apply oil pastels. For rocks and clouds I want to see lots of texture and patterns, these helps me when I begin actually painting with oil pastels.

Note constantly wipe the brush onto the paper-towel, as the soft pastel will tend to cake on the brush and you don't want this mixed in with your next swipe or stroke of alcohol. Try to keep the brush clean during this process. Very tough to keep white, white with this process - the surface will get a little gray.

Let the alcohol wash dry completely after this stage. Usually takes 1/2 hour to an hour.

Now your painting is seal and it's ready for the final preparation before painting with oil pastels.

Apply Clear Gesso
I apply two additional coats of clear gesso (Liquitex) with a sponge roller. It will give me a good tooth-texture to apply oil pastels.

Here is my completed underpainting of Down to the Sea and then my final oil pastel painting.


Completed Oil Pastel - Down to the Sea

There are other techniques for underpainting: watercolor, oils, or gouache.

Please don't hesitate to comment or ask questions. Thanks, Mary

03-09-2013, 12:32 AM
Thanks Mary for the detailed steps. It looks neat. I will have to experiment with this as I have been curious about under painting.

03-09-2013, 11:26 AM
Thanks Mike. Don't hesitate to ask any questions you might have. Mary

03-12-2013, 12:27 PM
Thanks for the demo!

04-06-2013, 03:10 AM
Thanks Mary!

01-05-2014, 08:05 PM
Hi Mary, this is some thing new and interesting to me. I knew about this method in colored pencils. May be I must try this UP. Thanks for the tutorial.

01-06-2014, 07:42 AM
Great, glad it was helpful, thanks for the feedback. Welcome to Wetcanvas and the oil pastel forum, please come back and post your oil pastels paintings would love to see them.

04-01-2014, 09:12 AM
The result is quite awesome, though i'm not a fan or the UP. Is it really better to underpaint? It's not that I don't like it but I really can't see the point of doing it. Maybe it's just that I'm not familiar with the tecnique. I use OP on paper. But I want to know more.

04-01-2014, 09:42 AM
Hi Artefice71, thank you for your nice comment - much appreciated.

I don't personally use underpainting all the time depends on what the subject is and what look I'm going after. The surface is an important consideration: if the surface is paper it has to be able to handle a wet application (like watercolor paper, Uart or Wallis) Mi-Teintes pastel paper doesn't allow for a wet application.

When working on gesso-prepared hardboard or watercolor paper, Uart or Wallis I'll either use the method discussed here for underpainting, or use another medium like watercolor, acrylic or gouache - each with its own pro's or con's. Ultimately depends on the look I'm going after.

A few examples:

A dark, moody gray scene - I'm probably going to do an underpainting on the entire surface with just a flat acrylic gray or medium value because it will allow each hue to stand on it's own with out a white background showing through.

A landscape sunset - to facilitate a warm atmosphere, I'll use a transparent red oxide acrylic and wipe out areas that I want brighter. The red oxide will give a lovely warm background color that will seep through in areas where there is less paint.

An ocean scene - my purpose for an underpainting here is I may want the ocean colors (where there is deep water) to stay dark, and keep the areas where there will be seafoam white. The underpainting might be in several colors as noted above, or all one color w/wipeouts where there will be seafoam.

A landscape with forest and sunlight - I might do a loose watercolor or gouache very wet loose drip underpainting and let the paints as they drip create the patterns I'll work with. Again it depends on how tight or loose the painting will ultimately be. The colors used -will be darks (purples, blues, sepia for thick forest) and lights (very pale yellows or oranges for sunlight areas).

In otherwords it all depends on what is the subject, look you're after, and whether the UP adds or detracts from the overall final vision for the painting. I don't always use an underpainting - a lot of consideration is taken into account.

Hope that this helps.

04-01-2014, 10:01 AM
Thx Mary,
I think I'll definitely give it a try ... I'm too curious :-)
I think I'll go for the watercolour, since i'm used to work with paper.
Got any example to post for me?

04-01-2014, 10:47 AM
Hi Paolo,

Thanks. This is a landscape painting called "The Blue Bonnets" (June, 2012)that was started with a watercolor underpainting that was painted more tightly. After the watercolor UP, which dries fairly quickly, oil pastels were painted.

If you are using watercolor paper I recommend that you consider the following, oil pastels like something to grab onto. So you might want to do the underpainting and once it is dried apply a thin layer of clear gesso for a gritty. After the clear gesso dries you'll be all set to begin painting.

Watercolor Underpainting on The Blue Bonnets

Final Painting, The Blue Bonnets

04-02-2014, 03:43 AM
Really helpful, thx Mary!