Pastels on Sandpaper

Another Way to Travel with Color & Without Solvent 

     Otranto Italy

Traveling with art materials has been challenging since John Constable traveled to Italy and decided to paint his own postcards” (oil paints on cardboard) early in the 18th century.  For me, it’s been more of a challenge since I realized packing an oil painting system is too heavy, too sticky, and too reliant on solvent.   

Truly, I wanted to like painting with water colors, especially in the evenings in hotel rooms. Unfortunately, I don’t like the feel of water media in my hands.  After experimenting with drawing tools like Copic markers, I loved how colorful drawing can be but I’m a painter. Last winter, I decided to reconsider pastels as the color component in my painting system for travel.  That meant I had to find a reasonably effective non-toxic fixative plus ways to manage the highly pigmented dust.  

When Marthe Keller, NY painter, suggested I apply for a Bau Institute
artist’s residency, I realized the best way to experiment with my travel media system is by traveling.  I joined a dozen other artist/travelers at the Bau Institute in Otranto during the first two weeks of June 2012.

Otranto, a launching place for the Crusades, is a medieval seaside city on the southeastern edge of the heel of Italy where the Adriatic, Ionian and Mediterranean seas merge.  

Our Studios were stone cells atop the Castello Aragonese, the foundation of which is said to be pre-historic.

My studio had excellent cross ventilation with a window facing the sea.

For my set up, I laid out a carefully selected array of Diane Townsend Pastels.

Diane Townsend and Judah Catalan have been making pastels together for more than two decades. They use pure pigments with enough binder to make high chroma colors with smooth textures so getting the pastels into the sandpaper took less effort than I expected.  Also, I often added more than three layers of Townsend pastels into the coarser grits without losing color integrity.  

I selected the palette based on online image search. I was missing Cadmium Yellow Deep.  But as you can see I used every color but not much considering I painted at least six hour a day for 12 days.  Each color was a full stick when I started.  I used up two whites and a warm dark brown. I used lots of yellow ochre and the metallics. 

After a few days, I figured out how much force I had to put on the tools to work the pastel into the sandpaper using industrial bristle brushes I purchased at the local hardware store.  I cut the brushes into various shapes. Colour Shapers were good for certain applications but the sandpaper eroded the color shapers quickly.  

Sandpaper as a possible support has been on my mind since I was in central Mexico in January. There painter Dylan Williams talked about making “night scene paintings” and how much he liked the twinkle of black sandpaper.  How would pastels look on black sandpaper? 

Sandpaper is available in every hardware store in the world. Some are backed with paper, some with cloth. While I liked working on finer grits, the coarser the grit, the easier it is to get the pastels to stick. 

While the grit of the sandpaper looks like it is holding layers of pigment, will the paintings still need to be fixed?

Bill Creevy, NY artist, used to fix his pastels with a diluted PVA glue solution.  

I started with 1 part PVA (polyvinyl acetate) glue to 9 parts water (rough mixture).  While Elmer’s glue is easy to find, I brought a 4 fl oz plastic jar of bookbinders’ PVA.  

I tried different concentrations and different applicators. Thicker applications created interesting textural effects.

While my travel art media system still needs more refinement, the Bau Institute residency provided an opportunity to be in thoughtful company.  I enjoyed plenty of creative space and time enough to spend a week experimenting with a new combination of painting materials then spending a week in Italy making my own “postcards.”  And the pizza was terrific.

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