UART Tip #56: “Painting Rocks: Letting the Pastel Materials Do the Work” with Barbara Jaenicke

River Rocks, 8×10, pastel

When the artist leverages the distinctive qualities of soft pastels and a textured substrate, rocks in the landscape can almost paint themselves. Don’t get me wrong. I’m the first to admit that painting is not an easy endeavor. But when you lightly drag a soft pastel over a gritty, sanded surface such as UART, you can’t help but create the appearance of natural texture. And this type of texture lends itself beautifully to painting rocks in the landscape. A common pitfall is to over-render individual pieces of texture instead of letting the natural texture that’s already there on the paper surface make it happen for you!

Laying the foundation

With rock subjects, I generally begin with a dark-value foundation in my underpainting (an alcohol wash over hard pastels) for the entire shape of the rock cluster. I base the value of that shape on the darkest shadow I see in the deep crevices. Then on top of that foundation, I can begin creating the rock forms.

Underpainting for River Rocks

Since an underpainting stains the pigment into the sanded paper without filling the tooth, there’s plenty of pristine texture on which to begin! By varying the pressure of the stroke and how much of the pastel stick is touching the surface, I can allow lots of fluctuation with how much of the dark foundation shows through the stroke, and I can also control the width of the stroke. Clean, “unfussed with” mark making is key! I especially like using the long corner of a Terry Ludwig pastel to create these strokes.

River Rocks – Initial stage for defining the rock forms on top of the underpainting

Layering Color

By using a light touch in the early layers, I can more easily apply multiple layers to define color variations. And just as with the initial layer over the foundation, subsequent light-touch strokes will allow the previous layer beneath to peek through—a lot or a little depending on the stroke pressure.

River Rocks – Early stage for layering color on the rocks

Hard and Soft Rocks?

Yes, rocks are indeed hard-edge objects. But allowing for edge variety even with rock subjects is still important for artists like myself who work in a painterly style. A sanded pastel surface is ideal for showcasing crisp edges contrasted with whispery soft edges. Again, learning to use a soft, light-pressure touch with the pastel in contrast to a crisp stroke with heavier pressure allows you to leverage what the sanded surface can do for you. Rocks surrounded by grasses or shrubs will often make engaging painting subjects because they provide ideal opportunities for this sort of dramatic edge variety.

Below are more examples to show how I’ve created a variety of textures and edges for rocks in the landscape, using pastel on mounted UART (400 grit).

Barbara Jaenicke, OPA, AIS, PSA-MP, IAPS-EP

To see the full step-by-step progression of “River Rocks” and “Unyielding” with complete descriptions of each stage, you can get the Written Tutorials ($5 each) for those pieces and many others, as well as Barbara’s instructional videos, at For Barbara’s workshop schedule, visit


Riverside Glimmer at Dusk, 10×8, pastel

Unyeilding, 8×10, pastel

Last Glimmer Along the River, 8×10, pastel

Creekside Contemplations, 12×16, pastel