Alternative Surfaces


Alternative Surfaces

By Karen Leslie Hall

A few years ago I created a series of about 40 small paintings (mostly squares, 7 by 7 or 8 by 8 inches), each of a single pear. Above all, it was an exercise in experimenting with various surfaces and textures. It also forced me to “loosen up,” as the rough surfaces don’t accept tinkering with details very easily! I found the results very satisfying, and encourage you to try some experiments of your own. Here are some examples, to inspire you.

 You will need: 

Sturdy surfaces: I preferred precut pieces of masonite or canvas boards (not stretched canvas) from the art supply store, but you can also use scraps of mat board, etc.


Acrylic mediums: Gesso, gloss or matte mediums and/or gels, as well as something with some tooth (a ground for pastels or clear gesso). Also modelling paste, pumice gels, etc., as explained in specific examples below.


Acrylic paint to tint mediums, if desired.


Scraps of canvas, fabric, cheesecloth, Japanese paper, etc.


A spray fixative to help the pastel adhere to rough surfaces. Spray as you go along; spraying the final layer is optional but be sure to knock off as much loose dust as you can before framing.


Brushes, palette knife




Using an acrylic medium (gloss or matte medium) and a wide brush, brush two thick strokes in an X on the back of your board, going right off the board in each corner, and allow to dry thoroughly; this will prevent the board from warping. A coat or two of gesso on the front makes the surface less slippery and ready to receive surface treatments.


It does take quite a while for the boards to dry thoroughly, so I found it productive (and fun!) to prepare several boards at the same time.


Here are some of the surfaces I tried:



The technique of applying cheesecloth was explained by Claire Chevarie in a PAC newsletter some years ago. Her article ended, “I hope this gets your creative engines going.” Indeed it did. Thanks, Claire!




Pear 1:



Apply quite a thick layer of matte gel, modelling paste or pumice gel. (Claire suggested fine pumice gel.) Cut a piece of cheesecloth smaller than the board and embed in the medium, spreading out the loose threads. (It doesn’t have to be perfectly square, and indeed is more interesting if it isn’t.)Make sure all cheesecloth is covered.  Allow to dry. If desired, add a layer of ground for pastels or clear gesso for added tooth.

Pear  13:


As above, but here the cheesecloth is cut larger than the board and tucked around the back so that the whole surface is covered.

 Pear 14:


Here a square of cheesecloth was applied in the centre of a piece of (heavy) watercolour paper. I masked off the image area with masking tape to keep the surrounding paper clear of adhesive (medium) and pastel. After completing the pear image and knocking off excess dust, I removed the masking tape and drew in the dangling “threads” using pastel pencils.




This technique is from by Bill Creevey’s The Pastel Book: Materials and Techniques for Today’s Artist.

Cut a piece of canvas in a rough square (or other shape) smaller than your board. If desired, cut a second piece smaller still. Make sure there are some rough edges that you can fray.  Adhere the frayed canvas to the board using an acrylic medium (matte medium or a soft gel). If applying a second piece, allow the first to dry first. When all is dry, apply a pumice gel using a palette knife. Spread it over the canvas leaving some rough texture, and push it into the frayed edges.


Pear 3


Pear  39:


Here the piece of canvas was taken from an old acrylic painting, creating a ready-made “underpainting”.  A coat of ground for pastels or clear gesso (instead of the pumice gel) adds tooth without obscuring the paint underneath.




Choose a fabric with an interesting texture (linen, nubbly raw silk, etc.). Adhere to your board using an acrylic medium (I like soft gel for this). If it is lightweight, you can cut it larger than the board and tuck the edges behind. Or you can cut the fabric smaller than the board and apply the same way as in the canvas method, above. To preserve the texture of the fabric, apply only a light coat of a toothy medium, or paint with pastels directly on the fabric.




Pear 31:


Painted on a scrap of linen-like fabric adhered to the board.

Pear 22:


This was done on a piece of striped raw silk adhered to the board. I chose pastels in the same colours as the fabric and let the fabric show through for the background.




You can choose a paper for its texture and paint all over it, or let it show through as a background. Adhere to a board using an acrylic medium. Apply a toothy ground or not, as desired.




Pear 16:


This paper had a heavy grid pattern woven into it.

Pear 18:


The pear is painted directly on the paper, which serves as the background. Notice that the rough edge of the paper is allowed to show at the top.




Liberally spread modelling paste (with or without pumice or some other toothy additive) on your gessoed board using a palette knife to produce interesting patterns and textures. Or spread it on smoothly then stamp with something (a sponge, for example) to produce texture. The modelling paste can be tinted with acrylic paint, the colour of which will show through the pastel. If smooth (not gritty) modelling paste is used, a toothy ground can be added once the paste is dry.



Pear 38:


One of my favourites. The modelling paste was tinted yellow and stamped with a sea sponge (I think!) to create a pebbly texture that allows the base colour to twinkle through over the whole surface.


Pear 42:


Modelling paste applied with a palette knife, again with a yellow tint.



Pear 24:


Modelling paste applied with a palette knife.





Thanks to Sally Jackson’s “Pushing the Medium” workshops a few years ago, I had some embossed surfaces to add to my series. These are made by putting papers and/or boards through a press with found objects, the shapes/textures of which are pressed into the surface.




Pear 10:


Done on grey Wallis pastel paper embossed with a piece of my old mesh hammock from the cottage.



Pear 40:


Done on matt board embossed with twist ties from toy packaging.








Posted over 3 years ago
Fantastic work. Indeed your creative juices are alive and well. Bravo! Claire chevarie

Posted over 4 years ago
Wow! Beautifully executed~absolutely stunning examples! I have a tree full of oranges and can't wait to get started. Thank you for the inspiration!

Posted over 5 years ago
Very exciting! I've been thinking that I would have to experiment with oils in order to use an impasto effect with a palette knife, but now with guidance from your article, I can use my beloved pastels! Thank you for sharing!!

Posted over 6 years ago
Excellent article with very good ideas to spark the imagination. I'm looking forward to trying this on some small boards I have. I may try a series of tomatoes.

Posted over 6 years ago
Excellent article. Can't wait to try all of these.

Posted over 6 years ago
OMG! I've been looking for something different, and HERE IT IS!!! Thank you...I am so excited!!!!

Posted over 6 years ago
Fantastic article! I love texture so this article really has me thinking... thank you!


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