View Full Version : Talk On Pastels With Demo

maggie latham
01-12-2008, 05:18 AM
Hello everyone,
I thought you might like to see the pics and notes on a talk and demo I gave this week at my local art center. It is an originals only, member driven, arts center, which has been established for a many years. The monthly meetings are a chance for members to demo, talk and explain various techniques, and just a fun time to get together with fellow artists whom you may not have contact with otherwise. My ‘talk’ lasted about an hour, and I covered general information about pastels, including a lot if info about which techniques and materials I prefer, and my personal approach to painting with pastels.

….Please feel free to jump in with questions, comments, or input.

I passed around a sampler pack, (courtesy of Dakota Pastels), which comprised of one stick of practically every brand of pastel on the market. I demonstrated marks made by various pastels and talked about using pastels in various ways to create different effects on different surfaces.

There are many manufactured papers and boards for the pastel artist. Some are more abrasive than others and will hold more layers of pastel. I have tried many different brands of paper, but at the moment favor preparing my own boards. I make boards using white acid free rag mat board (4ply), which I cut to size before priming. As I generally work quite small I get a lot of boards out of one sheet of mat board. After cutting the mat board with a sharp craft or Logan matt knife, I apply one coat of acrylic gesso on both sides. Once this is dry, I apply one or two coats of AS Colourfix Pastel Primer, letting it dry thoroughly in between each application. Coating the mat board both front and back will stop warping. I generally spend two days preparing these boards and often make up 50 or so in various sizes in one batch. It is best to apply the pastel primer with an old gesso brush, as it will eat up good brushes. I usually do this outside, on newspaper and an old folding table.




As they are relatively inexpensive to make, I don’t regard these boards as ‘precious’, and feel freer to create without being attached to the outcome. These boards make wonderful Plein Air painting boards, as they are lightweight and easy to transport. I also use scraps and odd sizes to work out color combinations. Larger sized pieces can be taped to gator board or hard surface for upright easel work.

One reason I like creating my own boards is that I can control the brush strokes and marks in the pastel ground. Commercial papers have much too much of a uniform surface for my taste, as I like to see the brush stroked of the ground ‘popping’ up in the finished painting. It is a great way to add texture, especially to vast skies or sunsets. As I like to incorporate the initial brush marks of the ground in my finished painting, I am already visually painting in my minds eye while preparing the boards. This helps with the direction of brush strokes when laying down the ground. I often ‘see’ color combinations and compositions as I am painting the ground, and find this process mentally prepares me for painting. I guess what I am really talking about here.....is that every step of the process needs to be mindful. Each stroke of ground could have a purpose or effect in the finished painting. For me the creation of a painting starts before I begin painting with the preparation of the boards.



There are different schools of thought on fixative. Some pastel artists do not use any at all, some just a light spray, and some who fix heavily. It really depends on the finished look you want to achieve with the painting. I personally fix quite heavily, as I often varnish my pastels later on. There are many different brands and you need to experiment with them to see which you like best. I use fixative as a painting aid, and for my style of painting, know that it will darken the darks and eat up a lot of the pale colors etc.... With experience you will come to understand the nuances of fixative, and can use fixative to your advantage. I always spray fixative outside away from animals, humans and plants!

Keeping things clean:
In the initial stages of blocking in or blending, I wear thin latex gloves which I change often if switching from dark to light colors. I always keep a small bowl of soapy water close by to rinse my fingers to help stop transferring dark colors to light. I also use a damp paper towel or cloth to wipe down my table or working surface…this collects up pastel particles. I usually work flat on a table rather than to an upright easel. I clean the sides and edges of my pastels frequently by pulling gently across the surface of a dry paper towel.


Choosing your palette:
When I first began using the medium of Pastel, I purchased many boxed sets of different pastels. Having realized that I don’t use half the colors in the boxes, I now buy pastels individually in the colors of my choice. I generally work with a very limited palette of maybe two or three colors and three values within each color (light, middle, dark). I always pull out these colors before I start painting, and place them on a small plastic watercolor palette lid or plastic tray covered with a sheet of paper towel. I usually put the pastels I am not going to use slightly out of reach so that I don’t get tempted to use a ‘ridiculous’ color half way through!………(although sometimes I will need a special color to lift or enhance a passage. …and I will search through my pastels for it, as I need it). Color is very personal, and I believe our color choices define us as an artist as much as subject matter, composition, execution and medium.

Working in an intuitive way:
I tend to work in a very intuitive, unconventional way in the medium of pastel. I often use my own watercolor wet in wet washes, or black and white (and grey) value studies as inspiration for compositions and to serve as a guide for light direction.
I hardly ever draw out a composition on the paper, or even block in with Nu Pastels, just plunge straight in with color on my board. This is a very visual thing,
as I am constantly making judgments and decisions about value, color transitions and composition all at the same time! It is not a way of working for everyone, but works for me with my style of painting. Sometimes the first layer of pastel will be enough, other times I may layer many layers and build up more texture and color combinations through scumbling and various layering techniques. I am in the habit of making color notes on small pieces of board, playing with unusual color combinations, blending, crosshatching etc which I may use for later paintings.

For the purpose of this demonstration, the following samples are not finished paintings (as I couldn’t use fixative inside, and time constraints of the demo), but snippets of how I begin a painting, and start the process of blending and creating atmosphere.





‘Varnishing pastels with Maggie Latham’ *I will post a new thread on this with samples next month.


Pat Isaac
01-12-2008, 11:20 AM
Thanks for the great demo, Maggie. I have used museum board the same way that you use mat board. Works quite well.


01-12-2008, 11:47 AM
Interesting demo and information. Also had interest in how you use fixative and that you often varnish your paintings. Thanks for posting! I will look for your new thread next month!

Donna T
01-12-2008, 12:10 PM
Great demo and information, Maggie. Thanks so much for taking the time to post it for us. It's really nice to see how you work and to understand some of your thought processes. The part about making the strokes in the primer really interested me. Do you prepare a board differently for a landscape than a still life? Is there a certain direction that you like the finished strokes to go so that you don't end up fighting them later on? What color whas the primer you used and do you always use that color? Sorry about the questions...at least you know I was paying attention!


nana b
01-12-2008, 12:25 PM
Maggie, I loved your demo and will be looking forward to more! I tried a few of the primered acid-free matboards a couple of weeks ago and I love it because you can use scraps and save money..also the managing of the strokes you mentioned was very interesting. Unfortunately, I didn't gesso the back and fronts before priming them so now they are warped! I will do the next ones like you suggested! In choosing my pallette I find it hard to choose untill I start using but I'm getting better.
On keeping things clean, am not doing well but your suggestions will be incorporated right away. A question on the gloves...do you have trouble putting them back on after you once take them off? I'm trying to get use to the finger cots and sometimes they even get to be a nuisance.
I too work in a intuitive and unconventional way and I think it may be because I don't have patience:D. Like they say I just want to paint!

Great demo:thumbsup:

maggie latham
01-12-2008, 01:07 PM
Thanks Pat, Linn, Donna and Nana for your comments. Donna and Nana I will answer your questions later. Pat: I am using mat board because I have loads of it to hand and need to use it up! Would museum board be better in the future?

Here are some more photos from my demo:



Showing strokes made with different pastels, and the effect of water for an under painting. The white paper is Wallis board. I really like the texture already happening with the runs….but it takes a lot of will power not to cover the underpainting totally with pastel!!:lol:


I passed this around as an example of the type of texture you can achieve on this surface, fixing in-between layers. The same kind of effect that I use a lot on my work. I called this one a ‘hideous mess' !:lol: …sometimes I get too carried away with texture and can’t retrieve the painting! But I thought it was a really good example of creating texture.


This one was a ten-min demo and example of using a limited palette. I would usually work on this a lot more, but signed it and popped it into a mat as is as an example of a quick color study.



I also used this as a sample to show texture. I need to go back into the palm frond to add some more darks. I talked a lot about using a mat throughout the painting (as a visual tool) to check to see how the finished piece would look. This works for me when adjusting the composition etc.


This one shows the first layer of pastel to work out color and mood. Unlike the other examples this has not been fixed at all. The members watched me paint this, and I passed it around to let everyone see the texture and lines in the ground, and how that effects the finished look of the piece. The lower right hand corner is a good example of this.


This is a sample of a finished piece, which I painted a couple of months ago using the same techniques.

I hope you find the info here useful.


01-12-2008, 01:32 PM
Very helpful...I love your one you titled "hideous mess" reminds me of a stream in a forest with the light coming through the leaves.

01-12-2008, 02:57 PM
Thanks Maggie, for your demo. Very informative.

Donna A
01-12-2008, 03:13 PM
Hi, Maggie! Absolutely lovely demo and paintings! I love the way your pieces vibrate! Very exciting! It's quite wonderful the way you keep making points for the artists that there are various ways of considering and handling things based on the individual's personal style, etc. and you are offering them some very excellent ideas on which to base their own creative expressions---or at least to enhance them. Well done! Look forward to more of your exciting paintings! Donna ;-}

01-12-2008, 03:20 PM
Thanks for the demo Maggie. You did a really good job of demonstrating your technique, and you shared a lot of information some artists would have kept to themselves. I like you examples too.

Now I can hardly wait for the demo next month on your technique of varnishing! :)


01-12-2008, 11:13 PM
Hi Maggie,
Thanks for sharing your demo with us. I was fascinated with your technique. You're very generous to let us see a glimpse of you in action - and the results.


Dot Hoffman
01-13-2008, 11:08 AM
Maggie, I have admired your work, and your demos of how you make your paintings are great! I agree that you are very generous to share your techniques with us. Thank you so much:thumbsup:

maggie latham
01-13-2008, 07:57 PM
:) Donna T:
I have been thinking about your question about utilizing the brush stroke direction in the ground, and have several examples below, which I hope will help out.
I used white AS Colourfix on top of some of the boards I prepared for my demo last week, as I thought this would show up better. My apologies for any photos which are blurry, but I only had a point and shoot camera to hand.


This is the sampler back from Dakota Pastels…a great idea if you want to try out different brands of pastels. They also sell a sample pack of papers......also great for trying out different surfaces. I would recommend both of these to any one new to pastels to experiment with.


These are the brushes I typically use to apply ground. Old cheap gesso brushes, and two long wood handled brushes, which I have shaved the end off to use as a tool for making further marks in the wet ground. Brush strokes made by bristle gesso brushes are quite subtle, but can really ‘pop’ out after you have layered several layers of pastel. * I don’t go 'over the top' with brush strokes, as I don't want them to compete with the texture....later layering of pastels will make. Just enough to enhance the finished piece.







One thing I forgot to mention earlier: I decant acrylic gesso from its larger bottle to a double shell wide mouth plastic jar (available a most art and craft shops). This way I can dip the brush straight into the gesso.




I played around with the colors in the sampler pack adding pale yellow ochre, on the board above with the sunset brush strokes. You can see some of the great texture already happening.


More texture samples, using the same sampler pack colors. The texture here is a combination of brush strokes in the ground, with several different layering techniques, fixing in-between the layers.


This is the one above which I started at the art center demo last week with a pastel and water wash on Wallis board. I really like what is already happening, and only hope I can quit while I’m a head! I'll post the finish pic of it in a few days.

Hope this info is helpful, Donna…The purple color ground is aubergine.


Donna T
01-13-2008, 08:32 PM
Thank you SO MUCH, Maggie! Wow, those textural effects are so cool. I never thought to prepare the boards according to the subject but those strokes really make a difference. Thanks also for the additional photos- they are very interesting. I'll try the Aubergine primer - I really like the look of that warm purple. Thanks again!


01-13-2008, 11:32 PM
:clap: Thanks so much Maggie!
What a great demo! I just went throught the whole thing, but want to return a few more times and really follow carefully! Tomorrow, I'll view it again!
You are super to share this with us! What a clear, well presented demo!

01-14-2008, 11:41 AM
Thanks Maggie,

This is terrific. I've often been tempted to try pastels not only because I've seen such beautiful work done with them, but also because the idea of getting into the painting with my own hands sounds wonderful. This has been so informative. Thank you. As always, your work here is lovely.


maggie latham
01-15-2008, 07:14 AM
:) Nana,
No I don’t have trouble with gloves. Once they are soiled from one color though…I throw then away. I don’t wash them or re-use them. I buy a box of 100 at a time. If I work on Wallis paper I go through a lot of them until the tooth is filled up a little but on my own Colourfix boards I only use one or two pairs for the initial blocking or blending in.

Marina, Glad you liked it.

Danna A,
Thank you for such kind words. You have always been very supportive of me here on WC. I absolutely love the demos you have shared recently about pans, and this encouraged me to share some of my own working methods.


01-16-2008, 11:30 AM
Thanks so much for taking the time to share with us Maggie. Love your art and am looking forward to seeing more technique and art.

01-16-2008, 11:58 AM
This went right into my favorites folder and gave it five stars to boot. This is the kind of thing I can really learn from. Thanks, Maggie. Looking forward to more. Sure wish I could have been one of the people in your audience!

Dayle Ann

01-16-2008, 12:53 PM

A HUGE THANKS for this demo. This is the kind of stuff I live for here on wetcanvas! I appreciate the time it took for you to post this and share with us. Thank you for your generous demonstration. I look forward to more!

maggie latham
01-17-2008, 09:43 AM
Peggy, Dot, Anne, Elsie, Judy, Marcia, Dayle Ann, Shari:

Thanks you all for looking and commenting. I ‘m glad that this thread has been helpful, and hopefully will encourage everyone to try out some new ways of working.

I’ll post more examples soon.


01-17-2008, 10:28 AM
thank you so much, Maggie for your demos and articulate explanations; I'm a novice with pastels and water colors, and thanks to your inspiring suggestions, I'm now experimenting with my own grounds, as you've done, and then trying watercolor underpaintings, followed by a limited palette of pastels.....your demos have helped me to go beyong my safe habits! Thank you. Stephen Dunlap

01-18-2008, 12:31 AM
Thank you Maggie for your time and thoughtfulness. You have given me a lot of new ideas to mull over. I saw something in your technique that has challenged me and I am looking forward to pursuing it. Thanks again. Tracy

01-18-2008, 03:29 AM
Thank you for the wonderful demos, I was reading some other post when I came acrossed one about the artical in the pj blog so I had to go and just read the pj blog and then had to stop here for a lesson, it is very interesting and helpful. I am always looking for more information as one can never stop learning. Once again thank you

01-20-2008, 08:35 AM
Maggie, I love your demo. It comes at a really good time as I'm trying to learn about pastels so that I can use them in conjunction with watercolors. I also got tempted by the Pan Pastels and am now enjoying playing with them too. Well...then I got tempted by all the pretty pastel colors and ordered some Unisons. Then I got tempted by the paper in the wonderful colors and textures and ordered some of that too. :o I guess I fall into temptation all too easily.

Anyway, I learned a lot in your demo and thank you for taking the time to share so much wonderful information. I'm looking forward to hearing about how you approach varnishing your pastel pieces. My husband has been varnishing some of my watercolor pieces recently, but it appears doing that with pastels is a whole new ballgame.


maggie latham
01-23-2008, 08:42 PM
:) Hello everyone,
I had wanted to have more art to add to this thread by now, but have been busy packing. I did come across something interesting in one of the clothes catalogues in the mail to me today, and thought it related to my explanation of using brush strokes in the ground to enhance the finished look of a painting.

This is the quote in the catalogue regarding a framed print for sale:

Quote: “Monica Stobie’s technique of thickly layering pastels onto heavily textured paper gives their (the herons) shaggy feathers uncanny dimension”

The print of the painting is absolutely lovely, and you can see it on her website:http://www.monicastobie.com

I thought any one interested in creating texture in their ground for use in the finished painting might be interested……..I hope you enjoy her website too, I think she is a very unique, pastel artist.

01-24-2008, 03:21 PM
Excellent demo Maggie. Another fan here who appreciates the time and effort it took for you to put this together for us...the above and beyond the live demo you did. I'm lookig forward to trying some of my own boards and see what kind of results I get. Been thinking about it for a while and you've cinched the idea for me. Can't wait to see your demo for preserving the painting.


Gammy Hayes
01-24-2008, 07:58 PM
So great to see your demo. I do my own boards with a homemade preparation over a foam sheet.....but work very loose as well. I so am looking forward to your next presentation on varnishing pastels. I want to try this. Also, I buy great homemade pastels from Paul DeMarrias in Kingsport, Tenn. You can find him online at [email protected] He is great to work with and sometimes tosses in a few extra pastels. He used to write a lot for Pastel Journal. Anyway, I love his pastels on rough grounds, as they are nice and large and so they do last longer. Most are very soft as well, although not as buttery as Schminkes. He is great to work with you on special color needs as well.

Gammy Hayes (Lynette)
Kansas City area

01-25-2008, 03:50 AM
Thanks Maggie, I also put this thread on to my favorites. Im looking forward to how you barnish.
take care

maggie latham
01-25-2008, 07:04 AM
:) Stephen, Tracy, Judith, Ronda, Lynette, Ceci,
Thank you all for your comments and support. I will be putting up a thread on how I varnish pastels, but it may be a month or two as we are in the throws of moving.
Lynette, I have not tried Pastel Paul's pastels…..but he sure gave me some good advice a couple of years ago in some e-mail correspondence regarding making your own ground. He has some very useful information regarding pastels on his website. I love the look of the his new site. Thanks for posting the link to his hand made pastels.
Hope you all liked Monica Stobies’s work.

01-25-2008, 06:45 PM
Maggie, thanks so much for the link to Monica's website. I felt like I'd struck gold when I went there. My style is finally starting to feel right to me, like something just opened up and came together. Monica's work is another validation that I am moving in the right direction.

Best on your big move. Hope all goes smoothly, and you are soon back with us... online! Thank you for your wonderful generosity. It has really helped me find my way.

Dayle Ann

maggie latham
01-30-2008, 07:51 AM
Dayle Ann,
So glad that you are finding your own path. :)

It is very brave to try to be true to one’s inner voice………especially in art. I have said this before on one of the threads……some days I wake up full of self doubt and wonder what on earth I am doing……but have a cup of tea and just plod along and start the next painting.

Then there are other times when I absolutely ‘know’ (I call this ‘the knowing’) that I am heading in the right direction.

The times when I can’t even remember how a painting was painted or why I chose a particular color palette…….are the times when I know I have been truly inspired.

Like children, as artists we grow and then comes the time of breaking out on our own. Some people always stay in the their safe zone, others experiment, take their share of falls and bloom into something unique.

Anyhow, so glad :) to hear you are finding your own path.