Underpainting with Soft Pastel and an Alcohol Wash

Oil pastels (OPs) are my main painting medium, but there are times when I want to block in shapes and colors as a foundation to the painting before I start layering in OPs.  So I will do what’s called a underpainting (using soft pastel) and then wash over it with alcohol.  I like the effects and benefits that this technique offers.  For instance I can make heavier/bolder colors without using the surface tooth, can create texture and if I don’t like the direction the underpainting is taking, I can remove the soft pastel and start over before it’s washed and set with alcohol (alcohol seals in soft pastel so the soft pastel dust doesn’t smear into the oil pastel as it is layered in).

The painting below, SeaBreeze, was painted with Oil Pastels that started out with a simple soft pastel underpainting and alcohol wash.



Instructions for using this process.  I picked up this underpainting technique an artist did for an artist online community I belong too – it was shown as using soft pastel as both the underpainting and main medium.  I figured the technique would work with oil pastels if hardboard, artist canvas board, or pastel board were used as the painting surface.  If the surface can handle a wet wash then it should be able to take an alcohol wash – I found this to be true.

(btw, the alcohol is an antiseptic that can be found at a pharmacy [it’s not the kind that you drink].   Once applied the alcohol dries/evaporates very quickly)

Preparing Painting Surface and Applying Soft Pastel:  I prepare my painting boards, here is the process.  The surface is sanded then two coats of gesso and one coat of clear gesso are applied – let each layer of gesso dry completely before applying the next.  The scene is then sketched onto the surface.  It’s at this point that I block in each subject laying down a thin layer of soft pastels (take extra precaution not to apply the soft pastel too heavily, because the alcohol will darken the color).

(The main reason I like using the alcohol wash, it dries over the soft pastel and the pastel dust doesn’t mix into the oil pastel when I begin to lay the OP down.  After the alcohol wash dries I can rub my hand over the painting and not take up any soft pastel dust.)

The Alcohol Wash Process:  Using a brush and alcohol wash the entire soft pastel area, being careful not to merge lines or smudge colors together. The brush is a great tool, because patterns can be scrubbed in.  For instance if I’m laying a foundation for rocks/boulders certain patterns will emerge that will aid me when I begin putting down oil pastels layers.  By repeatedly going over the soft pastel when the alcohol is nearly dry the soft pastel can be lifted right off leaving the hardboard white, in other word creating different tones of the originally applied color.  Once the alcohol wash dries, use a sponge roller to re-apply a coat of clear gesso for added surface texture.

SeaBreeze Through the Underpainting/Painting Process:

First, the soft pastel underpainting and alcohol wash: 

SeaBreeze Underpainting

SeaBreeze Underpainting






Second, initial stages of layering in oil pastels:

SeaBreeze - first stages of oil pastels

SeaBreeze – first stages of oil pastels






Completed painting:



About Mary

Oil Pastelist
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49 Responses to Underpainting with Soft Pastel and an Alcohol Wash

  1. Heartafire says:

    Wonderful post Mary!

  2. Thanks visit my blog.

  3. That is an amazing process that you have to “see” in your brain as you are painting! Beautiful!!

    • Mary says:

      Interesting right Patrick, I would imagine when you write you see what you are writing. When I paint or draw , particularly the sea – I see, feel and hear it. Perhaps a bit strange but it’s what makes it come alive for me as I create. Thanks very much – enjoyed your thoughts.

  4. What an inspired technique. I produce little art, but this might be fun–just for the playing. I have no idea how it would turn out, however. I love these how to’s.

    • Mary says:

      Thank you Catherine! So sorry for just getting back, didn’t realize I never replied to your comment. Wondering if you have tried the technique yet?

  5. Thank you for choosing to follow my blog. Blessings, Natalie 🙂

    • Mary says:

      Hi Natalie, I’ve been following for some time, but for some reason your posts haven’t been loading into my Reader. Today I un-followed and re-followed, hopefully this will clear the problem. Thanks – have a wonderful weekend.

  6. eastwitching says:

    Hi Mary – great info as I want to try this! Thanks. Can you send me a link to the brand that you use so that I can go online and buy it please ? I am so confused as there are tonnes of alchocl types out there. Thanks – Alison

  7. ladyfi says:

    I didn’t know the process was so complicated. Lovely painting, by the way.

    • Mary says:

      Hi Ladyfi, thanks for your comment. It’s not really, did it once and you’ll find it’s a very quick process, I tend to go a little analytic when explaining processes and techniques.

  8. Your work is beautiful. I admire visual art and the people who produce such art since I have no talent in this field. I enjoy with a lot of pleasure the beauty you offer through your blog. Thank you.

  9. Wow, the finished painting is lovely! Thank you, Mary, for visiting my blog. May you and yours have a very blessed Thanksgiving. Natalie 🙂

  10. rlte says:

    Beautiful work. Great job.Rlte
    PS thanks for visiting my blog.

  11. Your instructions are basic, clear, and EXCELLENT! Thanks, Mary.

  12. I used to love drawing with pastels but haven’t touched them in years. I’ve never heard of this technique. The finished painting proves that it works very well.

    • Mary says:

      Hi! Thanks very much for your comments! For me, being able to seal a soft pastel underwash or underpainting is so important. The reason is because I apply multiple applications of clear gesso over the underwashes/underpaintings and without the alcohol the gesso would mix into the soft pastel. The alcohol acts as a real nice sealer. Only thing about this is I have to be careful in how I apply the alcohol because depending on how I apply it, it can smear the soft pastel and make the colors muddy. But only the clear gesso is dry – the oil pastel lays over the clear gesso w/no problems. Don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions. Hope you give it a try.

  13. I am hoping to try this soon…I have never had ANY art classes…I just put the oil paint on the canvas and paint away——so now I am getting serious, that I am in the transition of retiring…STILL! I taught elementary and middle school students for 36 years—the quiet takes some adjustment. Thank you for sharing your knowledge so freely and so clearly!

    • Mary says:

      Congratulations on your retirement, might be quiet – but isn’t it nice to have the freedom to choose what your day will be like. Thank you for your comment and compliment, very much appreciate it. Don’t hesitate to ask me questions along the way. Best wishes, Mary

      • thank you for the good wishes…it is three years now…quite an adjustment…the thought of having the freedom to CHOOSE–it was scary! But now it is getting better–it was hard to believe that I had CHOICE! thanks for your encouragement, Mary!

  14. Maxima says:

    I Wish you Happy first day of spring!

  15. Lu says:

    I’ve read that using an acrylic paint mixed with acrylic matte medium is also good for underpainting with OPs and setting tones etc.. – Have you ever used this?

    • Mary says:

      Hi Lu, great to hear you have your first oil pastels. They are a great medium to paint with. I haven’t personally used that method, but some oil pastelists that I know have used tinted acrylic paints and like their effects. The reason they mix the matte medium w/the acrylic is to tone down the shine that acrylic will leave as an underpainting. That is why some use gauche instead, like a thicker watercolor and dries matted which is preferred by some. So it all depends on what you are looking for. I’ve considered trying gauche and will probably over the next couple of months. Let me know if you have any questions – best wishes and happy painting!

  16. timkeen40 says:

    I think you have the process down. Great stuff.


    • Mary says:

      Thank you so much Tim, I really appreciate hearing from you. It’s still a process of learning and figuring out different mediums to use for underpaintings.

      I like soft pastels but it’s very dusty and I’m getting concerned about inhaling the dust. I’m going to continue to experiment and go back to trying to get a better coverage with watercolor as an underpainting and perhaps gouache.

      So you can see I’m still discovering and working to figure out the type of underpaintings that will compliment my oil pastels. Thanks so much Tim.

  17. BEAUTIFUL!!!! I love your work! Thanks for the instructions too!!!!!!

  18. Petronette says:

    Nice to see your work in progress !

  19. Wow!! These are great instructions. I will keep them in mind when I start my oil pastel painting!
    Thanks for sharing. 😀
    Great painting by the way.

    • Mary says:

      You’re welcome and thanks for your feedback Patricia. I used to do underpaintings with watercolor, but I seem to get more surprising effects with soft pastels and alcohol. Thank you!!!

  20. Healthy A-Z says:

    That’s really interesting. I had no idea. You must “see” things in your mind in ways I can’t imagine. I like the end result immensely!

    • Mary says:

      Thank you, glad you liked the post! You’re right, I use my imagination a lot while painting. Especially with the ocean – I can see, hear and smell it. Sounds real strange, I know ~ Mary

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