When first starting out with pastel pencils, many artists stick to a cheaper pastel paper, however, as with any art material, using cheap materials will almost always result in issues that compromise the quality of the finished artwork.
There are a variety of different surfaces available, including smooth and rough textured papers, which will affect how the colour is applied to the surface.
Choosing the best pastel paper for your artwork is vital to the end result. This is because not all pastel papers are suitable for all techniques, nor is each suitable for all types of pastels.
There are two main categories of pastel papers:
How do you choose which one to work on?
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! Talk to them about your project and heed their advice.
However, if local art shops are as rare as hen's teeth in your area, then the internet will be your first port of call. Specialist online stores often offer a wider range, which can make the decision even more complicated.
Some suppliers offer sample packs containing different brands and surfaces that you can try out. Alternatively you can watch out for special offers and discounts for the opportunity to at least reduce the cost when trying new papers.
The thinner papers are good for sketching and creating a loose underpainting. This paper is useful for beginners who want a material to experiment with, so they can learn the ‘feel’ of pastels and create simple sketches.
They will generally hold less pastel pigment than the more expensive surfaces, making it more difficult to achieve the required density of colour.
Due to the weight of the paper these are best mounted to a board before work starts, to keep them from flexing which could result in pigment falling off.
The heavier papers, on the other hand, will not need to be mounted before use, although taping down the edges does keep them flat.
The sanded surfaces will gently remove pigment from the pastel pencil and cling on to it. As with coloured pencils, starting with very little pressure and building up layers will give the best results. These papers will also allow you to use very soft pastel sticks over the top of your drawing, to add bright white highlights.
Many artists who work with pastels choose to work on coloured paper...
Did you ever do brass rubbings as a child? You would lay a piece of paper over a brass object and then rub over it with a pencil crayon or chalk. The raised image would then appear on your paper. A similar, often unwanted, effect can ocurr when using pastel pencils if there is something textured under a pastel paper of 160 gsm. To avoid this always ensure you have a smooth surface under the paper.
While we are talking of separate sheets of paper, I recommended that you have a protecting sheet of plastic or transparent paper fixed over the area where you have worked. This will help protect the artwork from smudges or scuffs as you continue to draw in other areas of the picture.
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.
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,
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.
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). 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.