From Dark to Light: How to Use Pastels on a Dark Surface

Make Pastels Pop on a Dark Surface

James Kasperek’s expressive light-filled pastels are informed by his graphic design skills — and a dark painting surface. His work spans a range of subjects, from landscape to still life, figures to florals. But, he says, “I focus not so much on subject matter, but more on design, light and color.”

Below, Kasperek chats with Pastel Journal about his journey to pastels and his tips for working on dark surfaces.

The Perfect Blend

About 40 years ago, Kasperek studied fine art at the Columbus College for Art and Design,
in Ohio, and at the Center for Creative Studies, in Detroit. As a student, he began using graphite and charcoal. He then moved on to color, eventually settling on pastels in the ’80s.

“My early work in pencil and charcoal was highly rendered, with a strong emphasis on value and modeling,” he says. “As I moved into oil, my style became looser, and I grew more interested in color and the placement of shapes. I loved the texture and surfaces I could achieve, but found drying time frustrating.”

He continued trying different media, but couldn’t get the richness of color he was after with watercolor, gouache or acrylic. “Because I always had loved to draw and was more comfortable with a pencil than a brush in my hand, I moved into colored pencil.”

He tried working on textured linen surfaces with Prismacolor pencils, but gradually wanted to work larger with more expression and intensity of color. “So, I moved into pastels,” says Kasperek. “They’re the perfect blend of drawing and painting for me.”

Working From Dark to Light

Kasperek begins most of his pastels with a photography session. “I take several photos of my subject and crop, color-correct and sometimes manipulate objects to my desired composition in Photoshop.” He then prints the photos at approximately 8×10 inches.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Kasperek’s method is the painting surface. He uses Richeson’s 140-lb. Premium Pastel Surface in black almost exclusively.

“Working out from a black surface comes from my early years of oil painting,” he says. “I was taught to first tone down the white canvas by applying washes of dark, neutral values and bring the painting out from dark to light. When I first started experimenting with pastel, I naturally sought out darker colored papers and eventually settled on pure black.”

He begins his pastels by quickly sketching his composition in vine charcoal on the paper. “Even though it’s black charcoal going over black paper, the drawing stands out enough for me to see it and then basically disappears beneath the pastel.”

He then starts to apply his preferred Sennelier soft pastels. “I work very deliberately, with little or no blending, going after my middle tones first, while leaving the black of the paper as my darkest darks,” he says.

“Once I establish the backbone of the painting, I’ll then go in and place my lighter values, all the while considering balance of shape, movement and color. The Sennelier pastels offer a beautiful, rich color range. I love the way they feel — and how they jump out from the black surface.”