When we had our first sitting for a planned pastel portrait, I knew I needed colors to depict Shakrah Yves. A 1920s jazz singer and former professional costumier, she has an absolute treasury of gorgeous outfits she has created, with matching accessories.
You can see the results of our first sitting, in sepia and umber colors accented with black and white, here.
I got two sets of new pastels, oil and chalk, and some mixing stumps, as a birthday gift. I took a trial run at adding color by enriching the portrait of Iris Perez, left, before her partner took it back to the Bay Area for her.
When Shakrah arrived for our second sitting, I was ready. SO many colors!
I rarely set up my paint palette with more than fifteen, and here I had at least 70. I added color to the drawing with chalk pastels first, as they are easier to remove, layer over and blend without muddiness. The chalk pastel also behaved well with the white gel pen highlights from the previous sitting. The gel pen ink seemed to act as a resist, sealing the surface of the paper. That meant I didn’t lose the highlights.
I’m using Canson Mi Teintes, which is gelatin-sized and has some kinda crazy microscopic hyper-surface-area (mechanical resistance) to attract and hold pigments.*
Then I put oil pastel over the chalk, because I am punk as fuck.
While chalk pastel is close to painting in the sense that it has limited additive/subtractive properties, oil pastel is less flexible.
You can scrape it back down, but the surface will be permanently stained.
When you apply oil pastel over chalk pastel, the chalk slides like graphite dust under the stick.
It takes some focus to control the resulting mix, but it gives a rich color, including the deep darks I want from a picture. I don’t think I have the patience or discipline to become the kind of chalk pastel user who can get true dark values from chalks. Same way I don’t have the spoons left to properly learn watercolor. I love mixing media, though, and I feel like there are tremendous possibilities. Particularly in terms of the speed that is always of primary importance to me.
Of course I’m concerned about the archival properties of the works, particularly when using markers as solvents for oil pastels.
The data that exists on the preservation of mixed media is not much more than a century old.
Gel pens are only a few decades old, and my hundreds of drawings made for Frank Wu are on printer paper and use correction tape, which isn’t intended for art material use at all.
Artists have the responsibility to be educated about the archival and lightfastness properties of their materials to the extent that the information exists.
As an artist who always intended to be a commercial artist creating work for reproduction, I’m willing to see some of my work deteriorate.
That the reproduction, or the digital record, is the true version of the work and the actual physical art is ancillary. And of course, when I sell these mixed media works, it’s crucial to be transparent about the fact that they may get Pollacky in a few decades. In the age of the digital record, collectors understand this much more easily. Time is a medium too.
So I am gonna keep experimenting!
With the layers of media and their varying specularities, this portrait is hard to photograph except in raking light. You can see a video of it on my Instagram!
*reading about the properties of Mi-Teintes reminded me of learning about pasta-making at The Pasta Shop in Berkeley when I worked there in 1997. We had a superb employee education program, and during one lecture we learned that the best Italian dry pasta is still extruded from antique bronze dies, which create a microscopic pitting on the surface of the pasta. This sponge-like texture grips sauce far better than pasta extruded from steel dies.
All knowledge is worth having!