Using black paper: Gail Sibley, "We Three," Unison Colour pastels on UART black 400, 12 x 9 in - detail of shoes

Using Black Paper For Pastel Painting

I was asked recently why I don’t use black paper. My preference is for a mid-tone paper. Nowadays though I mostly work on a light value paper on which I create a three-value dry underpainting. The reason I’m not that keen on black paper is that I can’t go lighter AND darker on the paper. What I mean by that is, the paper has already set the darkest darks (pretty much) so there’s no leeway to push the darks darker. As well, everything on black paper has to, by necessity, be lighter than the paper (since it’s dark) whether it’s a middle value or a light value. Because of this, sometimes it’s difficult to judge just how light (or not light) a colour is because most of your pastels are going to look light against the black paper.

Still, I decided that since I had a few sheets of UART black paper I’d give it a try. I chose an image that was primarily a dark value. (In a previous blog, I had written about my experience of using black paper but that time my subject was mostly middle and light values which meant I was doing a lot of covering up of black paper!)

My reference was a photo taken in front of the Barcelona Cathedral (Catedral de Barcelona). I love these three gals taking a selfie – so typical of our world these days (hey, I’m guilty!). I liked their pose and connection with each other. I also chuckled at how their photo-taking basically ignored the beautiful Cathedral itself.

And that’s what I decided I’d do too as you’ll see in the cropped photo and thumbnail below.

Using black paper: The source photo for "We Three"
The source photo for “We Three”
Cropped source photo

Next comes the thumbnail in three values. Notice I didn’t change much. I liked the dominance of the dark value seen in the background and the scattering of darks through the figures.

I also liked the placement of the lights. They create, in their placement, a triangular shape which is grounded by the light strip of pavement along the bottom. The middle values fill in the rest.

Using black paper: The thumbnail for "We Three".
The thumbnail for “We Three”.

Now comes the drawing up on black paper! Obviously, vine charcoal – my usual drawing tool – wasn’t going to show up so I used Holbein pastels instead. These hard pastels acted nicely as a drawing implement. You can see that I’m concerned with the placement of the figures and their relationship with one another rather than details.

Using black paper: The drawing for "We Three" - Holbein pastel on UART 400 black paper.
The drawing for “We Three” – Holbein pastel on UART 400 black paper.

Next came three colours in three values. I chose yellow for the light areas so that these areas would read warm in the white-out light of midday.

Then I chose blue for the middle values. The reason for this was that most of these mid-value areas are cool and although I’ll often put a warm colour beneath an obvious cool, I knew I was going to pick a warm colour for the darks. If I chose a warm for the middle values, that would mean I’d have three warm colours. I decided to do something different: I wanted there to be some coolness in the initial underpainting.

I chose the red for the dark value areas to counteract the coolness of deep shadow in the doorway. I also wanted to bring out the warmth of the doors themselves.

Interestingly, in the end, I realised I’d chosen the three primary colours for my first layer without consciously knowing it!

Using black paper: The first three colours in three values on. They create the underpainting.
The first three colours in three values. They create the underpainting.
Using black paper: Three values applied - in black and white
Three values applied – in black and white

Now it was time to begin layering pastels over the initial underpainting on black paper. Here’s the start.

Using black paper: Beginning to layer
Beginning to layer

I kept adding layers until the initial first layer was covered (although you can still see it coming through and adding to the whole effect).

Using black paper: Second layer pretty much complete
Second layer pretty much complete

So far I’m pretty pleased although the faces need work! It’s at this point where soft pastels feel giant-sized in my fingers trying to work on details. I also worked on the shoes and the background (trying out a bit of context for the three women).

Using black paper: More layers added and details being attended to.
More layers added and details being attended to.

More work on the details especially the faces. I decided the background was getting a bit busy and pulling our attention away from the women so worked on it to remove the detailing.

You can also see how I’ve applied more pastel to the pavement to cover the dark of the black paper coming through.

Using black paper: More tweaking on "We Three"!
More tweaking on “We Three”!

And finally, after a few more touches (a few marks added to the shirt on the left, pushing the background further back, and simplifying the column), I call it quits!!

Using black paper: Gail Sibley, "We Three," Unison Colour pastels on UART black 400, 12 x 9 in.
Gail Sibley, “We Three,” Unison Colour pastels on UART black 400, 12 x 9 in.

And a couple of close-ups (that seem to show a truer colour):

Using black paper: Gail Sibley, "We Three," Unison Colour pastels on UART black 400, 12 x 9 in - detail of faces
Gail Sibley, “We Three,” Unison Colour pastels on UART black 400, 12 x 9 in – detail of faces
Using black paper: Gail Sibley, "We Three," Unison Colour pastels on UART black 400, 12 x 9 in - detail of shoes
Gail Sibley, “We Three,” Unison Colour pastels on UART black 400, 12 x 9 in – detail of shoes
Using black paper: Gail Sibley, "We Three," Unison Colour pastels on UART black 400, 12 x 9 in - in black and white
Gail Sibley, “We Three,” Unison Colour pastels on UART black 400, 12 x 9 in – in black and white

And here are the pastels I used. The light values are in the top row, then the middle values, then the darks. My lightest pastel is off to the left while right at the bottom are the Holbeins I used for the initial drawing.

Using black paper: The 14 Unison pastels I used on the UART black paper.
The 14 Unison pastels plus two Holbein pastels I used on the UART black paper.

I have to say I really enjoyed working on this black paper. It makes sense when you’re working on a piece that’s mostly a dark value to have this dark surface to work on. And UART paper holds a LOT of pastel!

Do use black paper? If so, why? If you don’t use black paper, is there a reason you choose not to? I’d LOVE to hear from you so please leave a comment with your thoughts.

Until next time,

~ Gail

Related Posts

Subscribe to the HowtoPastel Blog today!

Take a course

Like my Blogs?

Do you like the blog?

Support HowToPastel and help me to keep creating content to instruct, inspire, and motivate you with your pastel painting. Although I’ve been asked, “How much does it cost to subscribe?” HowToPastel will always be free. Your financial support is completely optional but does go a long way in helping with the cost of running this blog. Thank you!


58 thoughts on “Using Black Paper For Pastel Painting”

    1. Diane thank you!!
      I think if your subject is generally dark (rather than light) it can be helpful to work on black paper. Let me know what happens!

  1. I am about to embark on a painting for our Art Society’s upcoming exhibition themed People and their Stories. I was very interested in just how you handled the people in your painting. Mine will be an image of my partner and his dog, the background is also very dark and non specific, so I will give the black paper a go. Thanks for the inspiration Gail.
    Cheers, Lorraine

    1. You are so welcome Lorraine! I love the serendipity of the timing of this post and your work towards a people-themed exhibition. I’ll be curious to know how your painting turns out with black paper and how you feel about using it after the fact.

  2. I love to receive your blogs, Gail! It is like hearing from a friend to know what you have been working on.
    Thanks for the clear teaching and the invaluable photos of your work in progress.

    I look forward to registering as a student with you sometime soon.

    1. And I love hearing that Linda! I’m so happy to hear that you get something from my blogs, useful and hopefully inspirational.
      I also look forward to seeing you in one of my workshops 🙂

  3. Some years ago, in a workshop led by Jeanne on the island of Korchula in Croatia (my very first workshop when I was a complete novice), I ended up trying to paint a vineyard set against green and rocky hills with blue skies and sunshine abounding. The paper I was working on was black😢!

    So, I start laying the colours on it but then, in those days, my strokes were not at all bold. Hence, the black showed through all the layers, even among the clouds and blue skies.

    Stepping back to look at it, even though artistically it was nothing, nonetheless, it all looked pretty good. Grant, one of my co-artists, came to observe my work and urged me not to touch it as it looked very good and the sky in particular, according to him, looked like a Van Gogh rendering.

    Foolishly, I did not even take a picture and proceeded to complete the painting….completely ruin it that is!
    I gave it as a present to my wife who did not have the heart to throw it away ..yet!

    1. Siddharth thanks for sharing your wonderful description of your experience with a painting at your workshop. And ohhhhhh I know that feeling…how many paintings are ruined by overworking. (I certainly worried about my painting in this blog – did I go too far? I kept thinking.)

      Unlike digital painting, you can’t just remove layers and go backwards! If only. Ahh but that’s the joy of painting and growing in our work.

      Interestingly, sometimes students I have are afraid to work further and so sometimes there’s the problem of not progressing the painting far enough. It’s a fine balance!!

      And thanks for the chuckle in your last line! Look forward to meeting you both in September on Salt Spring Island.

  4. Gillian Goldsworthy

    My heart skipped a beat as my eyes saw
    “ 5 day workshop SUNSHINE COAST. !!!!!!
    But oh my disappointment with the next line that read
    CANADA and not Australia

    I live in hope Gail

    PS. This blog was fabulous

    1. Ah Gillian, you brought a huge grin to my face with your comment (all parts of it!).

      What I’d love to do is set up a series of workshops at different Pastel Societies around Australia as I know there are a few. Do you think there are enough Aussies who would like to take a workshop from me to make this happen???

      1. Please dont just target Pastel Societies in Aus as NSW does not have one. Art societies here cover all mediums. Many of us would look forward to a workshop from you. I know at least 4 in one weekly art class that follow your blog. Keep up the good work

  5. I prefer using black or dark colored paper. That way, the lights seem to pop, and all the colors seem brighter. The black spots that might remain don’t bother me as much as the light spots from light paper. I don’t think I could work on very light paper without toning it darker, or unless the subject is extremely light in value.

    I loved the Gothic cathedral in Barcelona when I was there five years ago. I took pictures of a photo shoot some Chinese people were doing of a model wearing a bridal gown. Heaven knows what catalogue or fashion page they showed up on!

    1. Thank Maria for sharing your preference and why. It’s interesting how pastellists have strong preferences about the light/dark paper issue!!

      And I love your story about the bridal model in front of the Cathedral. I love catching these photo shoots around and about the old European cities. When I was in Budapest a couple years ago, we saw four bridal parties around Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church in Buda, and it was great entertainment seeing the photographers pose the bridal couples!

    2. Maria Romero and Gail,
      I like to use black paper also, and even more difficult, black velvet paper. I paint bright colored flowers and then I use a black cadre and black and white passe-partout. It gives a very special effect.

      I have only started last year making pastel paintings and I have found my creativity for real!

      1. Thanks for commenting Ada! By black velvet paper do you mean velour, for instance, that by Hahnemülhe? And would you mind further explaining what you do after you paint the flowers. I’m sorry but I’m not sure what you mean by black cadre and white passe-partout.

  6. Thanks for the step by step explanation. Love the poses of the girls, especially the one leaning in, on the right. I haven’t tried dark paper because I didn’t know how to use it, but now I would feel more confident of trying it. Wonderful subject.

    1. Thanks Marsha! And yes, the poses were so great which I think was part of the appeal.
      I look forward to seeing your results with black paper. I would suggest choosing a mostly dark subject.

  7. Credit to you Gail for trying black paper. Pushing yourself. Which is what we all say we should do.
    And credit to you for doing such a wonderful job!
    I enjoyed the process and all the info you provided.

    I enjoy black paper. I’ve only done a background. It did turn out o.k. It’s just something I haven’t delved into. By leaving the background black, I think it brightens the colours and makes them pop. I haven’t used black sanded paper and normally I use pastel pencils. I do cover the black paper completely. It is perfect to use for glass, which I like. I’ve only done one so far, but it is one of my best achievements so far I think.

    Love the blog and your Facebook group, How to Pastel. Keep up the good work Gail. You are an inspiration to us all.

    1. Hey thanks Ed! Yes, taking risks and pushing oneself beyond your comfort zone – so scary yet can be so rewarding, if not in the outcome, certainly deep within.

      Thanks for sharing your own thoughts about working on black paper. Certainly, colours can look bright especially the saturated ones. A question, if you “cover the black paper completely,” what is it about black paper that keeps you using it? Why not a light coloured paper?

      Thanks for your participation in the Facebook group. It’s people like you who actively post, encourage, and welcome others that make the group what it is!

  8. Loved seeing your process. I’ve used black paper a couple of times, with flowers, and I loved how it made the middle and light values so much more intense. I have in mind another black paper painting with musicians. Wish me luck!!

  9. I paint a lot of nocturnes and the black paper is really terrific. I used Richeson large sheets, which I don’t think they make anymore and now mostly Uart as it holds so many layers. I don’t think I would choose black for a daytime scene, but night and dusk paintings work well for me.

    Great capture of the poses in your piece!

    1. Thanks Keith! And yes, night scenes would work well with black paper! I too love UART paper’s ability to hold layers and layers of pastel.

  10. Love these poses, Gail. Very creative. Who needs a cathedral, anyway? I use black paper on occasion. I love it for chiaroscuro still life work. BUT – it isn’t dark enough to make a true, rich color. I use Terry Ludwig’s eggplant and reinforce all the dark areas. It give a deep, rich, mysterious dark and you can play lighter dark shades off it. I am an amateur, so take all this with a grain or two or ton of salt. But I’ve read this from other artists and they agree that UArt Dark alone just isn’t sufficient to produce the depth. I note that you too have added some depth of color on top of the dark paper. It does really save pastel if you want to bring something out of the darkness, into the light.

    1. Thanks Andrea! And a wee chuckle about the cathedral 😀
      You are right, black paper doesn’t necessarily give the darkest dark (thank heavens!) and so allows for the addition of other dark pastels. Any paper on its own is a flat colour and it’s the addition of pastel in varying pressures and colours and intensities that create luminosity and excitement in a pastel piece. But working on a dark paper, as you say, already sets up the darkness for you to work on a dark subject.

  11. I absolutely love this piece. I’ve been using black paper for a while now, but I usually don’t let much of it show through….unless it’s to emphasize a very dark area. However, I DO understand what you’re saying about not being able to go darker like you can on mid toned paper. I sometimes use a midnight blue or aubergine paper….perhaps, subconsciously for the same reason. But I do a lot on the UArt 400 dark….and LOVE the surface. I usually clip my paper to a drawing board (Touch or Colourfix) but the UArt curls badly…..and I have to roll it opposite the curl several times to make it lay reasonably flat. Or maybe I should try mounting it to board…..don’t know, yet.
    But this little piece of yours really ‘pops’ and I love it….

    1. Wow thanks Curtis!
      I agree about UART paper being a lovely surface to work on but ach, so devilishly curly! Still, it’s worth the effort of taping and certainly the expense of mounting.
      Thanks for sharing your use of dark paper. How do you find Touch and Colourfix compared to UART to work on?

      1. I actually like the Touch AND Colourfix surface to work on….although, I think that the Colourfix surface may have a bit more tooth….but I think that’s negligible….! And, I think I get good results on both surfaces. I still have a full-time job….so I don’t really have the time to try making my own surfaces….or to do a lot of experimenting. And, that makes Touch and Colourfix (dark or black) a good compromise for me…..they both seem to be able to hold a fair amount of pastel while allowing what little bit of the black surface that shows through, to make the pastel ‘pop’! The UART on the other hand really is ‘sandpaper’ and will hold a lot of pastel….especially if you’re heavy handed. But mounting it to board is an extra step that I don’t always feel like dealing with.
        I guess I could just tape it down and then the framer can deal with the curling….

        1. Curtis thanks so much for your thoughts about Canson Mi-Teintes Touch and Art Spectrum Colourfix papers and how they compare with UART paper. I find Touch and Colourfix fairly rough but I can see how they would be attractive options to some artists. And yes, I can understand the difficulty of finding time to experiment when working full-time. Glad you do what you do in the time you have!
          And yes, that’s what I do, tape down and let the framer deal with the curl 🙂 Otherwise, I take a bunch of sheets to her to mount all at once so I have them ready in my studio to go!

  12. I always use either black of navy blue textured paper. I love the way the colors just pop off the page. I am primarily an oil pastelist, but also use soft. You can check out my “stuff” on oil pastel artists, painter in you, and pastel painters united on Facebook.

    1. Thanks for chiming into the dark paper conversation Jan. And you are right, colours, especially saturated bright colours on their own, do indeed pop on black paper. I can see that it works for you!! I guess I’m more of a layering kinda gal and find the black too solid for want of a better word.

  13. Gail, I LOVE the contrast between an old church and the hip selfie!!

    The darkest paper I’ve ever worked is Sennelier La Carte. I have a sense that the black Uart is darker. I’m going to give it a try someday!

    1. Hah hah, me too Elaine!

      I would say UART’s black paper and Sennelier La Carte are close. The La Carte black has a more crystalline quality which makes it look slightly lighter. The La Carte is perhaps a slightly cooler black than the UART black.

      1. Gail, I inherited the art studio of a woman who had died and among her supplies I found several full size pieces of Canson black paper. Being a pastel artist I simply had to try it and began by cutting it down into smaller pieces (11 x 14. 16 x 20, etc.) to do a series of “weeds” – roadside florals that we drive past daily without noticing how beautiful they are. I began with dandelions and you can imagine how well the images of that plant in seed could be, along with vivid yellow/orange blooms and highlighted leaves; I was pleased so I then moved on to blue chicory that just seemed to pop off the paper. Straying from weeds when a friend wanted a painting of daffodils for a gift and that, too, was oustanding in a cobalt blue and white pot against the black paper. Others wanted to try working on black and my supply was quickly diminished but I found no problems working with it and really enjoyed the experienced.

        1. Elaine thanks for sharing your experience using black paper! Certainly, it does show up colour in a vibrant way! I know many artists are successful working on black paper, for instance, Alain Voinot and Chris Ivers. And since I wrote this blog, I too have used it for paintings that needed the dark ground. (Still not my fav though!)

  14. I do use black paper to create certain effects in landscape paintings. For instance Sunrise/Sunset pictures, leaving some areas black and uncolored adds dramatically to the overall mood of the painting. Also used it in woodland early fall scene, again leaving some areas naked to add to the mood. I hope others will try it, it makes such great color contrast. I really do like it.

    I also match other paper colors to what I’m painting and use it as a vantage point to compliment it.

    1. Thanks for sharing how you use black paper Hazel. I can see in the instances you describe how black (or dark) paper could be useful.

      I’m sure others will give black paper a try after this post and all the comments raving about it! 😀

    1. Oh that would be fun Shirley! I did use some at life drawing with oil pastels once and you are right, exciting and colourful!!
      And thank you 🙂

  15. I so appreciated every detail of this, Gail.

    I had JUST finished painting a black background in prep for a sunset painting. I am in Santa Fe right now, where the sunsets are amazing, and am going to take a class just on sunsets on Monday. Also, I am so thrilled to be in a town with an awesome art store (Artisan) with so much selection of everything, including many different pastel brands.
    Thank you! Melanie

    1. Thank you Melanie!
      Love the timing of this post with your preparation of a black surface in prep for your sunsets workshop. And lucky you to be in Santa Fe!! I too love the Artisan store (and have added a link to them in your comment). Hope you’re staying for a few days at least in that beautiful town. Enjoy your workshop!!

  16. Some of my favorite pastels have been done on black Mi Tientes. I absolutely love working on it. The tiny black specs that show through everywhere seem to unify the painting and as others have mentioned, the darks look more mysterious and the lights really pop.

    I just scored a pack of gorgeous 100% cotton deckled-edge pastel paper on sale in my local art supply store. I’ve never seen it before and I’m all but foaming at the mouth to try the black sheets.

    Love your blog, thank you so much for taking the time to do it year after year.

    1. Hey thanks Leslie for your enthusiasm around using black paper with soft pastels. Interesting that you use Canson Mi-Teintes. I admire those who use this paper successfully! Do you know Alain Voinot’s work? He wrote a guest blog for HowToPastel about this very subject!

      Don’t you just love scoring fabulous paper?? Can’t wait to see what you do with it!

      And you are so welcome. It has been years (and just how did that happen??!)

  17. Thank you for this wonderful demo, Gail! I think your ladies are wonderful and work well in front of your dark paper/background. I appreciated your detailed photos of your layering, especially. My favorite dark paper is Art Spectrum’s Colourfix, which is really black. I love how bright colors pop off it and seem to glow. I especially like it for flowers and plan to try it for a nocturne.

    1. Thanks so much Wendy!
      And thanks for sharing your fav black paper to use. I think that using dark paper for a nocturne would be perfect. Keith (above) also uses it for that purpose. Look forward to seeing how it turns out!!

  18. I started working almost exclusively on black paper a couple of years ago. I frequently paint close-ups of natural objects such as trees, leaves, etc., often intensifying the natural colors. Even if I’m using a light or fairly neutral palette, the colors can pop, and the tiny dark spots that remain enhance the look of leaves or tree bark or rocks.

    1. Thanks Marcia for your take on the black paper question! I can see that it would work well beneath natural items such as rocks and bark. I’m beginning to be swayed!!!

    1. Yes Steve, that makes total sense to me! However, I think of a foggy painting as being more light than dark (unless it’s at dusk or in the night). I sure can see doing nighttime paintings on black paper though. Is a lot of your work done on black paper now?

  19. Wow Again! What an inspiring painting, and blog! Thank you for sharing your talent!
    Yes, I have used dark paper and have loved it, depending on the subject matter. It’s great for night scenes. I did a few monochrome landscapes that I like as well. I’m currently working on a portrait using dark that is most challenging, and I’m wondering what was I thinking!! All of the values have to be lightened.
    Thanks again Gail for your insightful blogs!

    1. Many thanks Kathy!! Feeling gooood after your comment!
      Ohhhhh I feel for you regarding the portrait. Dark paper may work for darker skinned subjects but I’ve worked those quite happily on cream UART. Good luck 🙂

  20. Thanks Gail. I use Richeson gator board or hardboard panels in black or Terra Cotta. They are very toothy but I like that. I don’t blend much as I like to see strokes and marks in my work. Colors are so strong and rich, and, “pastely”. Wolf Kahn once said, “have your pastel paintings look like pastels. Not like oil paintings!! ” I love that.

    1. Diane thanks for sharing info on the surfaces you use. I think the degree of paper toothiness we use comes down to personal preference. I know that some prefer the smoother paper while others, like you, choose something grittier. I am somewhere in the middle I think.
      Love your quote from Wolf Kahn 🙂

  21. Hi Gail
    Have a look at the work of Australian artist, Maxwell Wilks, who uses black paper for his pastel paintings.
    John Butler

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Other Related Posts

Headshot of Gail Sibley

Gail Sibley

Artist. Blogger. Teacher.

My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

Join the mailing list today to receive exclusive tips, resources and inspiration directly from Gail:

Scroll to Top

Welcome Artists!

Online Courses

Pastels 101

Use this link if you bought the course AFTER Sept 2022

Use this link if you bought the course BEFORE Sept 2022

Pastel Painting En Plein Air

Art Membership

IGNITE! Art Making Members

Love soft pastels?? Then join 7000+ other subscribers and get my tips, reviews, and resources all about pastels... it's FREE! Just enter your name and email address below.

Your information will never be shared or sold to a 3rd party. Privacy Policy