Painting with Pastels Activity

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Updated on Oct 10, 2012

One of the most important elements of the Impressionist movement was subject matter. Fascinated by the small moments of life, Impressionists used art to capture fleeting moments in time, such as light reflecting on a lily pond or the color of the setting sun on the face of a cathedral. Explore Impressionism with your child by helping him capture a small moment that's special to him on paper, using a handful of pastels and a big imagination.

A pastel is pure pigment held together with a binder. It requires a special paper with a slight “tooth” in order to hold the chalk in lace and allow you to build color. Thankfully, there's no need to buy special paper—this activity shows you how to make your own.

What You Need:

  • Heavy paper or cardboard
  • Gesso (can be found at art and hobby stores)
  • Finely ground pumice (can be found at hardware and art stores)
  • Pastels
  • Spray fixative
  • Mask (found at hardware, hobby and art stores for pastel dust and spraying)
  • Color of acrylic paint to add to gesso and pumice mixture that will become the background color of the paper (Note: acrylic dries darker)
  • Large paintbrush

What You Do:

  1. Choose a subject - a small moment that catches your eye. It could be the way the sunlight hits your bedroom walls in the morning, or the way your mom looks when she is playing with your little brother.
  2. Create a sketch of your subject. Investigate where to place the elements and what colors you will want to use.
  3. Once you're satisfied with your compositional arrangement, set it aside and mix about 1 cup of gesso with 3 Tbsp of the ground pumice. Use a very small amount of color and mix well.
  4. Seal your paper with a thin layer of gesso by applying the mixture to your paper. Some artists like to have the brush marks show while others prefer a finer brush stroke. You can thin your gesso with water but it is best to use as little as possible.
  5. Once you've finished sealing the paper, set it aside to dry.
  6. When your first layer is dry, apply another coat brushing the mixture in the opposite the direction. If you are careful to apply the gesso mixture in one direction for each coat you will end up with a fine cross weave texture like good canvas. This will create a surface that the pastels will adhere to.
  7. When your surface is prepared “paint” your picture with pastels. Feel free to be as realistic or abstract as you would like. You can take a look at a book with some Impressionist paintings and sketches in it to get some inspiration. Impressionist paintings were often very colorful, so don't be afraid to use lots of color!
  8. When your painting is done "fix it" by spraying a layer of fixative spray over the entire painting to keep the pastels from smudging.

Did You Know?

Using pastels is sometimes referred to as "painting" because it is a process of applying pigment directly to the surface of your work like painting. Pastels provide some of the richest color available an the artist. There are three kinds of pastels: hard, soft and pencil. Try them all. Also try varying the texture of you homemade paper by varying the amount of pumice to create a finer grain or a coarser grain. When you're finished, hang your work of art in a place of prominence!

Marik Berghs is a graphic designer with 30 years of experience. She also illustrates and writes childrens' literature. Jessica McBrayer is her daughter and is a professional crafter.

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