Pastels: Keep It Simple

0603desantis5_300x450_ab Pastel artist Diana De Santis has devised an approach that allows her to focus on subjects rather than materials and techniques.

by Lynne Moss Perricelli

Diana De Santis believes in keeping things simple. Rather than pursuing complicated methods of working, with many rules to remember and supplies to handle, she works directly in her primary medium of pastel, reducing her materials and techniques to only those necessary for the effects she desires. In speaking of her approach, she emphasizes her attraction to the colors of pastels, to enjoying the feeling of the sticks in her hand. "I just love that it's such an immediate medium," she says.

Alba—France 1994, pastel, 12 x 9.
Collection Gerald Lange.

De Santis is quick to point out that her approach is conventional—working from hard to soft and dark to light—but her surface is not. She favors Gatorboard, which she prepares herself with a gesso-and-pumice mixture. "There's a weight consideration in pastel if you want to make large paintings," she explains. "I tried museum board, and I liked the four-ply, but it was heavy. Paper was out. So I tried applying a pumice-and-gesso mixture to museum board, and I loved the result. It was so forgiving. I could apply eight layers of pastel, and the more I applied, the more luminous the work became. But then I had to figure out how to make it lightweight. That's when I found Gatorboard, which is light and rigid enough that I only have to use the gesso and pumice on one side."

De Santis buys the Gatorboard (widely available at art stores and from online and catalog retailers) in 4'-x-8' panels. Cutting the panel to the sizes she needs, she prepares several boards at one time. Her gesso-and-pumice mixture consists of 4 tablespoons of ground pumice, 1 cup of acrylic gesso, and 1/4 cup of water. She prepares some panels for landscapes, others for still life, and others for portraits by mixing in acrylic paint with the gesso in the colors she wants for an undertone. She uses an orange undertone for still lifes and landscapes and a grayed green for portraits, because that color is "flattering to every skin color," she notes.

1992, pastel, 22 x 19.
Collection Nancy De Santis.

After the artist has combined all the ingredients, she applies the mixture to one side of the Gatorboard with a 2" brush. "I apply it every which way," she describes, "so that the mixture goes on as smoothly as possible. I don't want any ridges." The gesso-and-pumice mixture dries within an hour, but she usually makes the boards a few days in advance to be sure they are dry when she is ready to work.

Other materials the artist favors are Nupastels for beginning stages, then moving to Grumbacher and Rembrandt before using the softer Sennelier and Terry Ludwig pastels. She says the Terry Ludwig pastels are very versatile because of their square shape, allowing her to use a corner for small strokes or the broad side for a swoop of color. She never uses fixative. "The board never loses its grip, so fixative to restore the tooth is unnecessary." In fact, the grip of her surface is so effective that she produces very little dust while working. In addition, De Santis' board prevents the pastel particles from adhering too closely to one another or to the surface, enhancing the luminosity of the painting. De Santis blends very little so as not to interfere with this effect, although when she does want a flat area, she uses her fingers or a packing peanut.

Monday's Wash
1999, pastel, 24 x 18.
Collection the artist.

The artist is best known for her portraits, which are notable for their straightforward yet evocative poses and gestures. "I paint from life as much as possible," she explains. "I'm not looking for any particular thing in a subject. I just want to see the person. Each of us has a particular feature that is exciting." She finds her portrait subjects "anywhere," she says. "I've had great success in the check-out line of the supermarket." All the models sit for life sessions, some more than others depending on their schedule, and everyone she has approached has been willing to pose.

When a model arrives for the first time, De Santis spends time talking with him or her. "As the person talks, I see what I like, what might work as a pose," she describes. "I don't want anything that looks contrived or unnatural, so I never try to pose a person. I want the pose to emerge." When it is time to begin working, the artist illuminates the subject in the north light of her studio. When she cannot use north light, she relies on an Ott-Lite setup that simulates north light.

First, De Santis establishes an initial lay-in of large shapes. She works on this for an hour and a half or so and then makes an appointment for another sitting.

In the next sessions she fills in the whole support with color, concentrating on the shadows first, then modeling the form, and last laying in the highlights. She asks her subjects for at least two one-hour sessions but prefers three or four sessions.

Contemplation 2005, pastel, 30 x 22.
Collection the artist.

The hands of a subject are critical to De Santis. "The hands are so expressive," she says. "People can control their expressions somewhat. The hands can say so much more, so I'm always conscious of them." The most limited portrait she will do is three-quarters profile to the hip, in fact. She notes that she often makes studies of hands to explore how their gestures can contribute to the overall feeling of the painting.

The artist removes all the papers from her pastels and arranges them in dark and light values in three 12"-x-16" drawers, which she can easily transport when she works on commission in a client's home. She covers the pastels with foam in each of the drawers to protect them from breakage. "Organizing the pastels in this way has trained my eye to look at the color, rather than the number," the artist says. "When I need to replace a pastel, I rub it on a piece of board and take it to the art store to get another. All this is constantly training my eye."

De Santis frequently travels to Europe with a group of artist friends to paint landscapes for a two-week stretch. In another example of the artist's efforts at streamlining, she packs a set of 96 Nupastels that nestle perfectly in a 9"-x-12" pochade box. The pochade box fits over her shoulder and, when unfolded, becomes an easel. Her 9"-x-12" painting supports fit into her suitcase, while she carries her pastels on board the airplane.

As with the portraits, in her landscapes De Santis first considers what attracted her to the subject. "In a landscape, it's the way the light falls, but in any subject, it comes down to shapes," she explains. "When I look at a person that I am painting, I am not after a likeness. That person is a series of shapes: large shapes, smaller shapes. When I'm finished, I have a likeness if I do the shapes as well as I can. It's the same with landscapes and still lifes. It's a matter of pulling shapes together."

De Santis' process is about exploring her subject—the inner life of a person, the way light illuminates a landscape—and she employs her materials and techniques to that end. Rather than struggling with a surface that just doesn't feel right, or with too many pastels and cumbersome equipment, she organizes her approach to meet her needs. Pleased with the directness of her medium and the simplicity of her approach, she can pursue her subject with freedom and grace.



In Pensive Mood 2005, pastel, 26 x 30.
Collection the artist.


1999, pastel, 30 x 22.
Collection the artist.

About the Artist
Diana De Santis, of Huntington, New York, earned a B.F.A. from Parsons The New School for Design, in New York City. She also studied at the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan, with David A. Leffel and Harvey Dinnerstein. De Santis has participated in numerous juried shows, winning 15 gold medals and more than 200 awards. She is a master pastelist of the International Association of Pastel Societies and a signature member of the Pastel Society of America, among many other professional associations. She is represented by Francesca Anderson Fine Art/Portraits North, in Lexington, Massachusetts; The Louisa Melrose Gallery, in Frenchtown, New Jersey; and The Harborcrest Gallery, in Huntington, New York.

Lynne Moss Perricelli is a freelance editor and writer based in New Jersey.

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One thought on “Pastels: Keep It Simple

  1. This is an excellent article.
    I’m inspired to try the gator board. I use Art Spectrum board which doesn’t always have the tooth I need, especially with whites.
    I was fortunate to see Diana’s “In Pensive Mood” in person. It’s incredible! I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
    Thank you for this article.