I learned this technique of using pastels over painted watercolor paper from celebrated artist, Sally Strand. She developed this way of working because she felt limited by commercial pastel papers and has a background in watercolors. I have adapted her method and use it (perhaps not as well as my mentor) as a way to push my pastel technique further than I can achieve on the usual colored papers.
This piece is from a three-hour open studio. Zara, our model, was wearing a red shirt and sat in front of a green background. I chose to work on Arches 40# cold press watercolor paper in a block as it is easy to carry back and forth and has a flap to cover it during transport.
I like to get the bulk of my layout done in the first 20 minutes of a pose. First I use soft vine charcoal for the main shapes using long lines overlapping the form which can be wiped away and changed as needed.
Most of the charcoal disappears when the watercolor washes are applied so, when I am happy with the placement, I use a harder charcoal to indicate the areas I will need to see through the wash. I like to be sure the edges of the features, hair and clothes are defined.
Using watercolors, I paint broad washes over the whole surface. I use complementary colors in my underpainting such as green on the lips and violet on the edge of the shadow shapes. This will bring a richness to the final color layers.
Washes are also great for establishing darks which are hard to achieve in pastel or simply to neutralize the white paper. Used as local color, they can help establish the form of a composition. The best part of using washes is that the different areas of a picture are painted on colors that work for them. This gives a flexibility which is impossible on a single color paper.
Sally taught me how to key a picture - that is, establish the range of tonal values in the work. To do this, I try to find a darkest dark very near to a lightest light and pick two colors for them.
In this painting, I chose the shadow just above the forehead and the light on the edge of the shadow as my two keys. I keep in mind I can't go lighter than that light or darker than that dark and work between them. It may be arbitrary, but I like the way this limits my range.
Once I have my keys, I go in and try to fill the shadow areas with color. I go crazy here - dark color is the only requirement. I want to keep the tonal values correct but I build interest by layering strokes of one color over another. Pastel's ability to let layers of color show from below makes it hard to muddy up. In this piece there is little direct light, so I have a lot of shadow to fill.
This is when I play with color relationships. The bright blue in the eye will be grayed down, but the value is right so it will be blue for a while until I make smaller and smaller shapes from the larger ones.
I wait as long as I can before I put in more of the light tones.
Strong values define the shape of the face. In spite of the chaotic colors, the tones of the skin are showing little by little. I am also starting to establish the lights.
Having stated the value with bold blocks of color, I begin toning down with neutrals. In her shirt I use analogous hues to bring out vibrancy - violets to deepen and oranges to brighten.
I begin to detail her eyes using greens and grays to shape curves and colors. The red from her shirt is reflected in her cheek and neck. With each color I bounce all over the picture before moving on to the next - it helps harmonize the piece.
Now the shapes need cohesion.
Up to this point I have used very soft pastels which have strong colors. Most of the deep dark colors are Terry Ludwig hand made sticks. I must admit I am a bit timid - I think I went a bit wild with the rich soft colors, so here is my chance to come back to reality. I alternately use hard nupastels and medium hard sticks such as Holbein. These harder sticks act more like blenders than color sticks as I drag them across the softer colors, breaking the bigger masses down into smaller shapes and introducing detail.
This is the scan of the final image. It is more true to the actual painting than pictures from my digital camera.
I have used refining strokes to build personality into her face.
I save the glints of bright gold on the hair by her neck where it emerges from shadow and the twinkle of her eyes until last. This ensures that the freshest and most transient part of the picture is not redone and redone as she moves.
I still use store bought pastel papers because they are easy to find and use but, when I have a real desire to open up to the full range that pastel can offer, I let her rip on the watercolor surface.
If something does not work the way you want it, that is the time to forget what you know and find a new way. That is the heart of the artist, and the start of creativity. I hope it has given you some new thoughts on the use of both media.