Saturday, March 8, 2014

Prepping For An Oil Pastel Workshop

Because there are no supports to get the result that I like with oil pastels, I have devised a way to get my preferred surface by making it myself. Soft pastel artists also do this because of the desire to work with a non-commercially prepared support, with predictable evenness of texture. Karen Margulis comes to mind, with her unique homemade supports.

My very first plein air was in oil pastel. I had no idea what they were or how to use them. They simply seemed easy to travel with. After all, my set was in a wooden box with a handle. Now how convenient was that, for trundling through the fields with paper or board under my arm looking for an aesthetic epiphany?  

Nobody told me they melt when left in the car, and we lived in sunny southern California at that time. Nobody said how like lipstick this medium was to work with, all smooshy (technical term) and greasy to use. Nobody warned me how difficult it was to get them to stick on some papers, I guess Bristol was a poor first choice. And there was a real lack of direction on how to go about using these things, and precious little in the way of receptive papers, when I first started working in oil pastel.

I was pretty upset with my first effort. And it did seem curious that everyone in the plein air group came by to remark on what the medium I was using was, and gee, they couldn’t understand why I was using that particular medium. My first piece was not what I would call a rousing success. I was challenged. It was difficult. And yes the oils and watercolors did look easier to use.
Well there were several reasons for the shortcomings of my then chosen medium:
1.      There were no commercially prepared supports available in my city that I knew about.
a.      I had to prepare my own
b.      I still do this
2.      There was little in the way of recipes that I could find on how to prepare a ground
a.      Recipes were available for homemade soft ground pastel supports, not for oil pastel
b.      Soft pastel grounds were not ‘toothy’ enough and filled too quickly with oil pastel
3.      I had to mail order my materials
a.      This is still true as my local art store does not carry what I need, though where I get my materials has changed
4.      I had no work area where I could prep boards and let them lay about until they were dry enough for multiple layers of applied ground
a.      This is the one thing that has massively changed – I now have a HUGE studio where processing supports does not impede my work flow

Thinking about the problem led me to understand that I could use a combined approach, and start by making my own supports. The first time I tried this medium after the plein air foray, I ordered an abrasive additive from a supply house in Washington state. This supplier no longer carries the abrasive, so I now order from Jerry’s online. A material that Matisse Derivan (Australian art supply maker) calls crushed garnet, is similar and yet, still finer than what I used to use. When suspended in diluted gesso and rolled on with a fine foam roller, it leaves a surface that is similar, if not as rough. The rougher version gives more broken color upon application, but I have yet to find a supplier for a rougher grade crushed garnet or crushed marble dust.
Crushed Garnet Abrasive Additive For Oil Pastel Grounds

Start with an MDF board or untempered masonite board no thicker than 1/8 to ¼ in thickness, precut to the desired size. Sand the side you will use, the smooth side. This provides a surface to which the gesso will adhere effectively.
Rough Back Side on Left - Smooth Side on Right

 Then start by applying one coat of gesso, unadulterated from the container, on the reverse side to seal in the board. Seal the edges at this point as well. Let dry. Drying time will vary as to the moisture in the air and the ambient temperature. If it is dry, it should not be cool to the touch.

Using a large, empty Cool Whip container with lid, as the mixing bowl and the storage for unused recipe, I assemble the following:

  • 1 wooden paint stirring stick
  • 1 measuring cup
  • 1 container of crushed garnet
  • 1 bottle or can of white acrylic gesso
  • Cut, sanded boards, my choice of size
Mix the abrasive ground in roughly this manner:
To 3 cups gesso, mix in one cup of water and the entire container of Matisse Derivan crushed garnet. If you prefer a toned support, mix in acrylic color at this point, to the desired color saturation.
Mix thoroughly with a wooden paint mixer stick, suspending the crushed garnet. There will be tiny little dark red dots similar in look to vanilla beans in cream.
One Coat Applied - Wet Area Still Shines
(I use wooden blocks under the boards to forestall sticking to the work table)

With a foam roller, roll this mixture onto the sanded boards. Go in one direction. Go in another direction on the second layer. 

It is not a commercially made product, so do not trouble yourself about evenness as there will not be a uniform deposit of garnet. The unevenness of the materials deposit allows for some serendipitous effects down the road when working with this support. You must wait until it is totally dry to paint on another layer. Failure to wait until the first and any subsequent layers are dry, before over-painting to even things out, will result in picking up with your roller what you have initially laid down. In other words it totally fouls up the works and you will have to do more remedial layers to approximate a semi-even layer deposit.  Keep your gesso thinned and the suspension stirred for the best results.
Finished Board With Uneven Texture
Happy Effects Waiting to Happen!

I keep my little roller in a zip-lock snack bag to limit air exposure between applications to not waste time, water and product washing out my roller, not to mention my hands.
I hope you will try this as it is a really fun support to work with.

I will be doing a free, one day workshop in Silver City on how to proceed from the finished support on June 7th, 2014. Email me if you would like to participate.  For hands on, there is a materials charge for your prepared board.

Calling All Artists! 
Please click here to go to Black Range Art for exciting news about an October 2014 opportunity to show your art, win prizes and take part in a new New Mexico Art Event!


  1. OMG, After reading your lengthy explanation to create the perfect support for oil pastel, you haven't explained how it makes a difference. I can't imagine the benefit?
    What's wrong with using Arches Cover, or Rives BFK, and some Liquin or Res-N-gel medium? Grab Holbein oilpastel, tape some fabulous paper to some foamcore, some Res-N-gel, some paper towels, a french easel and some wet ones and go outside.

  2. Apparently you missed the very first sentence. "Because there are no supports to get the result that I like with oil pastels, I have devised a way to get my preferred surface by making it myself." It simply gives the surface I like. If you are happy with what you get using your method, I am not trying to convert you. This is simply an alternative. One that facilitates a broken color surface. I have tried something similar to what you suggest. I simply didn't like it.
    Happy to help Zack.