Two Ways, One Result: A Beautiful Pastel

Mastering Pastel, Two Approaches for Powerful Underpaintings, Artist Dailya

Choose Your Adventure: Two Ways of Underpainting for Pastel Drawings

It is always exciting to see how artists work differently within the bounds of a single medium or genre. As a wannabe artist, I know there is a takeaway worth learning in both scenarios, but I also stand the chance of discovering a way of painting or drawing that fits me lock-and-key.

Take underpainting with pastel drawings for instance. I know of two artists who work this process differently. I’m going to present them to you so that we all gain the knowledge and can go from here picking and choosing what works best for us.

Moonrise by Denise LaRue Mahlke, pastel drawing.
Moonrise by Denise LaRue Mahlke, pastel drawing.

Underpainting for Pastel Drawings: Denise LaRue Mahlke

Denise creates atmospheric pastel drawings that show, more often than not, a lot of underpainting. She starts by spending a lot of time in the environment she is painting: taking in the quality of the light, allowing her own feelings and mindset to influence the way she sees, and noting what the weather is like.

Prepping Beforehand Is Key

Prepping before she does any kind of studio work, Denise gathers four kinds of inspirations that will be an asset in the studio:

-thumbnail sketches of the landscape and possible compositions

-a color study of the area that can be abstract or more specific depending on what she sees

-handwritten notes of her impressions of the place she will be drawing

-digital reference photos that she will eventually display on her computer

Underpainting–Denise’s Way

Denise gives herself some time in the studio to evaluate these resources and consider how she might change or rearrange elements. Then she starts an underpainting.

  • This starts one of two ways: dissolving the first layers of pastel with mineral spirits, or by applying watercolor washes in complementary colors to the paper.
  • She does not always work from hard pastels to soft. If the color and value are right but the stick she holds is soft, Denise will apply it early on in a work, but use a whisper-light touch so the tooth of the paper isn’t filled too quickly.
  • Working the underpainting is a large part of the process. When she is in the zone, Denise only needs to develop a focal point or center of interest in subsequent layers, with the underpainting showing through in the rest of the piece.
  • On the other hand, she will create pastel drawings with as many as 10 to 12 layers of pastel.

Next Steps

When the underpainting is dry, Mahlke tackles the darks with hard pastel sticks, working her way toward medium values and finally lights in softer pastels. She also likes to drag a bristle brush through areas of her work to indicate more texture, or use the side of her little finger to soften an edge or blend a portion of the sky.


Launiopoko by Ann Sanders, pastel drawing.
Launiopoko by Ann Sanders, pastel drawing.

Underpainting for Pastel Drawings: Ann Sanders

Ann Sanders is a practical painter with a doctorate in physics. Her work tends to be created in one go, en plein air. She takes reference photos to backup her vision, but about 90 percent of a painting is done on location.

Sanders is practical in both her materials and her process: She works on Wallis Belgian Mist paper because the good tooth and neutral tone allow her to easily apply pigment and to work in both directions from a middle value. She also starts with hard pastels and finishes with soft ones, as do many pastellists.

Ann’s Underpainting Tips

  • She works from dark to light in her underpainting with an eye toward evaluating the compositional success of the abstract shapes.
  • She fixes the block-in with a wash of denatured alcohol. “The alcohol brings the contrast down, especially with the lights, which are grayed way down,” Sanders explains. “I prefer alcohol over Turpenoid because it dries much more quickly.”
  • Ann uses local color for the underpainting—except for foliage, which she believes benefits from being underpainted with a warm complement.
  • She does not blend colors with her finger or another tool, preferring instead to lightly layer colors to achieve blends.

Okay, okay, I totally underplayed my hand because the truth is there are several ways of underpainting if you create pastel drawings. I got you started with insights from Denise and Ann, but Bold Underpaintings for Lively Pastel Landscapes with Richard McKinley takes you all the way there. This DVD fleshes out so many of the ways you can approach this technique. Get your copy to “choose your adventure” and start creating beautiful pastel after beautiful pastel. Enjoy!


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.