Choosing the best pastel paper for your artwork is vital to the end result.
Pastel papers vary a great deal and this page has seen regular revisions over the years as different surfaces have become available.
The problem with pastel is that it needs to have a 'grip' on the paper and most ordinary art papers are designed for media that naturally hold on. Pastel doesn't!
It is basically just powdered pigment and relies on the paper to do some holding.
Most traditional papers for pastel pencils have a soft surface with some texture to do the holding. Over recent years, paper manufacturers have developed a range of specially surfaced papers and card with sanded and absorbent faces.
We look at both traditional (inexpensive) and modern (more expensive) options on this page.
The early editions of the Topics web site concentrated on the sort of pastel papers that have been around for a hundred years or more and then went on to discuss ‘new’ types of pastel surface like Hermes industrial grit paper. There have been so many developments in this area in the last 10 years that we really need to concentrate on some of the newer surfaces
.But first of all a general look around...
Many artists who work with Pastels choose to work on coloured paper
These usually have a weight of around 160 grams per square metre of paper (160gsm).
One of the most common descriptions you will see is the word ‘INGRES’. Papers called this are sold by Clairefontaine and Fabriano amongst others and the description relates to the fact that one side of the tinted paper has a ribbed appearance and the other side is usually fairly smooth.
The paper has a soft absorbent surface and takes a dry technique best. Papers of this type don’t take a lot of pastel material before they reach their limit and are best mounted up and lightly fixed with a specialist varnish spray specially made for pastels to protect the surface from damage.
Thicker papers and card give better support and will take less gentle treatment.
Hahnemuhle, a German paper company, used to produce a splendid sample pad with a range of papers in a helpful size, which was very useful for those starting out, but this has now been discontinued.
However, Hahnemuhle now own the Lana Mill in France and market the Lana Colours through their own distribution in the UK. This means that the Lana range of sheet Pastel paper with an excellent collection of colours is now obtained through a different source ( They used to be marketed through Winsor & Newton ).
I see Lana Colours papers are now stocked by Great Art which means they are more easily found. A good range of 30 colours, 160gsm weight, internally sized and 45% cotton content and lightfast (most important).
The paper is economically priced at around £1 a sheet 50cm x 65cm and sold in packs of 50 sheets size A4 (about £9 a pack).
The Lana Colours paper has an excellent surface for pastel pencils as it does not have a pronounced grain.
We will talk about Hahnemuhle again shortly.
Among other 160gsm papers are also Fabriano Tiziano pastel paper, which is 40% cotton, internally and externally sized (so it will take some wet treatment) and has a soft grained surface.
Canson Mi-Tientes pastel paper is also 160gsm, 60% cotton fibres, and comes in 49 colours inc black and white. This paper also has two different sides and the smoother side is often the one chosen by artists using Pastel Pencils.
These two major UK art suppliers also market their own 160gsm papers. Daler Rowney make available the Murano pastel papers which are 45% cotton and come in 35 colours.
Winsor & Newton market their "Tints' pastel paper in 30 colours. This is also grained on one side and smooth on the other,
If you see a good pastel paper with a weight of 160gsm or over which is not listed here, please let me know.
Pastel papers do not need to be anything other than a structure to hold the dry pastel pigment. They don’t need to be sized and they don’t need to do anything other than grip the dry pigment.
If you are doing a high valued pastel picture, and using a darker coloured paper, beware the fact that the dyes used in papers of this sort can fade in strong light.
Black is a problem colour here. Some of the more expensive pastel papers have the best UV light protection and use pigments rather than low cost dyes.
You will see that there is a huge selection of brands and many similar types of paper on offer. The best line of action is probably to search the Internet and also look at the choice available in your local art materials supplier.
If you are lucky enough to have a local supplier with staff who know what they are talking about, then look after this rare breed and keep them in business!
Among 160gsm papers, I find that the differing types of surface make only a small difference to the final artistic result.You may be more interested in the paper colours and the prices and sizes of pads and sheets.
But that is a personal view!
All these papers are best secured to a drawing board before work starts, and also protected by a covering sheet of paper for transit. It also helps to place a sheet of cartridge paper under the pastel paper to ensure that the upper surface is totally smooth. When working with any type of pastel it is best to have a protecting sheet of plastic or transparent paper fixed over the area where you have worked, so that you can avoid scuffing the surface with your wrist as you work elsewhere on the paper.
These generally come in at weights of around 300gsm and therefore are quite supportive of the artwork.
One of the oldest specialised Pastel surfaces in this category is Royal Sovereign Pastel Card. This is a 350gsm card with a fine toothed coating of cork dust. Sold in 14 colours, it takes pastel beautifully, and holds the colour grains very well.
One problem I found when I last used it, is that it doesn’t take moisture in any form and therefore any dampness is liable to lift the cork grains from the card and leave a shiny card surface that it is impossible to repair.
I proved this to be a problem when working a landscape in pastels ‘en pleine aire’ when it started to drizzle. The half finished picture was ruined before I had a chance to protect it.
Probably fine to use in a studio situation unless you are liable to sneeze.
A more ‘up to date’ version of the powdered cork surfaced card is sold by Clairefontaine in both packs and sheets as Pastelmat.
This has a more permanent surface made with a mixture of fine pumice powder and is what they describe as ‘velvet’which will take a wet process.
The 360gsm card comes in 12 colours and in packs of 12 sheets interleaved with paper film and including 3 sheets each of 4 colours. That is a good way to see whether you like the surface. The image of ‘winter snow’ shown here was completed using hard pastels and pastel pencils on a sheet of blue Pastelmat.
I am a firm fan of Pastelmat and tend to buy stock in when it is being retailed at a discount. I have purchased stock from Great Art with as much as a 40% discount on the retail price.
Pastelmat also has a lot of fans among the wax coloured pencil fraternity.
Another similar surfaced card comes from Hahnemuhle and is branded ‘PASTELFIX’.
This is a less expensive version of the cork surfaced Pastelmat and comes in a pad with paper weight of 170 gsm. This needs fixing firmly to a smooth board before use (and check you have the correct side uppermost - the reverse looks very similar to the beige face of one of the colours and the paper is easy to get the wrong way up!).
If cash is of concern, then this is a useful alternative to Pastelmat, but not (in my view) as good.
Another coloured card surface sold in sheets, boards and as a ‘paint on’ primer, is the Australian made Colourfix from Art Spectrum.
The card base is 300gsm ( the base of the board version is 1160gsm!) and the surface comes in up to 20 colours. The surface is permanent and will take any amount of wet and general misuse, though the thing to note is that the body of the surface is grit based and therefore quite abrasive on fingers.
I have found it very good. There are a range of techniques for lifting pastel from this surface which are worth getting to know if you decide to take this route. You can download this pdf supplied by colourfix that outlines different ways to do this.
Pastel Artist Tim Fisher, who ran the Creative Support Company selling all types of Pastel supplies and surfaces via the internet, marketed his own grit paper, FISHER 400. This is now exported worldwide by a successor to the Creative Support Company (the CSC).
The place to go from 2016 is ALPHA ARTSHOP ( http://www.alpha-artshop.com/) This site sells a variety of pastel goods including two types of Fisher 400 pastel paper - the original Fisher 400 buff coloured grit paper which is excellent, and a newer darker gold coloured paper.
The traditional buff coloured Fisher 400 is a 360gsm paper and is sold in full sheets, half and quarter sheets. Good stuff.
Whilst the paper comes in buff colour, it can be mounted up and sprayed with acrylic paint to any shade you like (Montana ‘Gold’ spray paint - http://www.artifolk.co.uk). The Alpha Artshop site is worth a good browse anyway. Fisher 400 will also take underpainting with traditional water based media and watercolour pencils.
Tim Fisher also sells a pastel liquifier spray which is an alcohol based spray that I have yet to try out, but will report on in due course ……. when I get around to testing it.
Years ago I used an industrial metal finishing paper made by the Hermes abrasives company for pastels and this was excellent. I have looked recently to see if it is still available, and I see that Youdells, the Art Materials shop in Kendal, list Hermes 400 grit paper on their website. Worth a look if you are interested - http://www.youdells.co.uk/home.htm
Youdells also stock another industrial grit paper which is very suitable for pastels and a favourite with pastel artists in the Kendal area,
This paper is manufactured by Sait Abrasives Ltd in Italy This has a similar surface the Hermes.
It is available in a waterproof finish in P800 (the finest) and P500 grits and a grey (non waterproof) paper at P400 grit.
If you are buying industrial grit paper you will probably want a fine grain paper and you will also need to take GREAT care with your fingers if you rub the surface with them. I recommend taking a small piece of the paper and rub abrasive surface against abrasive surface to ‘cut back’ the fierce action of the fresh surface.
It is also worth remembering that not all industrial papers are either waterproof or have lightfast colouring. Fisher 400 is, and so do the Sait black papers.It is worth checking the individual habits of a ‘non-art’ paper before buying a large stock!
By more interesting, I mean those surfaces not immediately obvious as sold for that purpose.
We have mount board with an Ingres grained surface. Once again, a surface I have used in the past for pastel pencils. It is great for any subjects involving buildings, as the grain of the surface can give realism to showing bricks and stone.
At the same time, the solid structure of the mount board provides a very firm surface to work on. A light buff surface is ideal as a warm mid tone that will also take a white well. Watch the grain though if you are working a picture and ensure the grain runs horizontally.
Another front runner - if you can find it in large enough sheets - is Sandpaper (the fine variety) and the finest grade of all, Flour Paper.
NOTE: If you are shopping for this type of surface, look out for any damage to the surface or folds or tucks in the paper.
Anything other than a totally even abrasive finish and a smooth sheet may well reflect later in random marks in your completed picture. This will be a cheaper option than Hermes, but not as reliable or as sturdy.
In the same department of the DIY shed, you may find sheets of Emery paper which will give you the option of using a black surface. I have found packs in B & Q of their own brand emery paper with an assortment of grit sizes. The sheets are relatively small, but quite big enough for a trial, and you can always give away the coarse sheets to a handyman in exchange for fitting a couple of new tap washers.
Finally, Back to Colourfix primer. This comes in tubs and can be brushed on.
This will enable you to apply a fine grit finish to any surface - like primed MDF board.
I find colourfix a bit on the rough side for pastel pencil work, but it is excellent for soft pastels.
If you are using Pastelmat or Pastelfix, you may find that the pastel does not need fixing, and I have discussed fixing with several artists who do not fix because they say the colours are always affected by the layers of ‘varnish’ from the spray.
Some of these experts advocate laying a sheet of glassine paper (like tracing paper) over the completed picture which is laid flat on a table. Secure the corners of the glassine so that it doesn’t slip sideways and then press firmly on the glassine with the heel of your hand and work over the top surface to press down the pastel underneath.
I think this is probably enough if you are working on Pastelmat or Pastelfix, and then mount the picture behind glass as quickly as possible.
As the pastel pigment is just held lightly in place by whatever the grain of the paper or card is, there will be some surfaces that are too fragile to be left without some sort of anchor to hold the powder in place. The surfaces like Ingres and Mi-Tientes where the paper is quite thin, will flex and tend to lose the pigment unless they are mounted up quickly on board and framed. You might like to consider pre-mounting a thin pastel paper on to a base of card or foamboard to give it a secure and solid surface before you start work and then use the ‘pressing’ method described above.
Card surfaces that are grit based are much more secure, but all pastel needs protecting as quickly as possible as any scuffing or knocking of the painted surface will do damage to the picture. Horizontal scuffing is one of the most damaging and it is recommended that both work in progress and also finished but un-mounted work should be covered with a sheet of paper or glassine anti static paper over the top and secured along one edge, as this will provide a simple protection when transporting the work about and storing it in an uncompleted state.
Spray fixatives for Pastel and pencil work are available and are recommended, though they have their problems. They usually darken the pastel and the work usually needs a finishing touch-up with unfixed pastel to bring back the high points and areas of maximum contrast.
If you use a very dark paper (such as dark brown or black), a thin coat of pastel can virtually disappear when sprayed with fixative. This is because the crystal colour surface is bedded down into the paper and secured behind a layer of varnish. The colour will still be there, but it may need one or two more coats of pastel and another spray of fixative before the surface looks like it was intended to. Fixatives sold in Europe tend to be different to those sold in the USA where there is an excellent brand called ‘Krylon’ which does not appear to be exported. There are inflammability risks with some sprays.
There is a Matt Krylon which is described as ‘workable’ and which leaves the ongoing fixed surface with a good matt coat ready for more pastel. This can also be used for Wax type coloured pencil.
I have used a non pressure bottle of fixative marketed as SPECTRAFIX which is casein based and is used with the pump action nozzle. This is certainly not as prone to darkening the pastel as the regular varnish type sprays - provided that you use it in very light layers with a good spell allowed for the surface to dry in between. The spray is water based and slower to dry than the traditional pressure cans of fixativeFixative sprays often also contain UV protection which can be an added benefit.
Spray needs practice and is a job to be done in wind-less conditions out of doors or in a large well ventilated space.
Make sure that the can of spray is well shaken first and that the spray jet is clear and producing an even mist of fine droplets.
Don’t spray too close to the picture.
Finally leave to dry and then examine and apply further pastel as necessary. That final layer of colour will be quite secure and not need fixing, but you will need to re-apply the light and dark contrasts to your picture as the general level of contrasts will have been flattened with the spray.
Some books tell you that you can use ordinary hairspray for this task.
You CAN, but the stuff is not designed for this purpose and there can be no guarantee that the varnish in the spray will not darken progressively with time and affect the artwork.
As a beginner, you may feel that the early images you produce are not of a standard to worry about archival protection. That is as may be - I have used hairspray myself in case of need when had to go shopping at a local supermarket because I forgot to take the correct stuff with me - but the best advice is to always use the materials intended for the job.