Thoughts On Process: The Impact of PanPastel Colors from Colorfin

The books and drawings that I make are, I am told, eccentric. I make them using archaic techniques and using tools for industrial or architectural design. The resulting drawings create their own category. It is difficult to ascertain with precision just what is is going on — which is my intent. (All art benefits from a little mystery.)

My drawings begin from a small plan about the size of a business card and expand to fill the format of a folio which makes up the pages of one of my books or follows a similar idea for the large format wall pieces. The drawings somewhat grow out from the initial impulse or germ of a thumbnail sketch. I keep lots of old envelopes on the breakfast table to encourage the process along. 

Even my stand-alone paintings and prints tend to follow this lead as well — there are even times when a stylus is brought to a copper plate with no malice aforethought.

I have always been enamored with the look of printed works and so have held to the physical idea of the flatness of a print or drawing — whether commercial offset or something from the engaging world of etching, engraving, relief and screen. 

I like the surface I create to mimic printing without going through the formality of the printing process. I want the look of “print” in a watercolor for the sheer “sheerness” of the surface. 

The flatness, the Kansas-like surface of the paper, draws me in and I sense that this smoothness greatly affects the overall intention of the drawings themselves. The paper flatness also has an effect on the planar structure of a folio. If a leaf has corrugations and warps from drying irregularly, the book itself won’t be fully compressed. This lack of elegance is sometimes bothersome.  

Obelisk detail.

I also think that the surface of a printed page has a different feel than the surface of an original print or painting. That surface makes a connection that I find powerful and cannot escape from. In any event, as with a printed page, I like the evidence of the mark to be veiled and discreet.

My process includes working extensively with metal plates — engraving sometimes or working with rocket fuel acids to react away the configured surface of the copper or zinc. My collagraph plates make for an even stranger final result, but that belongs in another story. 

Despite my fascination with print, I also never work with an edition in mind. While I seek to create a page that feels as if it may have been printed, I am able to create a richness of color and textural variety on the page which cannot be produced on pages that are printed from any of a wide range of printing methods (at least I’ve never seen it done). My process creates the page I want and I will leave it to each observer to consider whether the result carries the interest I imagine.

Dry pigments on my porch.

I mostly employ a French rag content paper which is extraordinarily forgiving as I work with so many materials, all compatible but with varying degrees of water. Glues, pastes, watercolors, inks and gesso-like materials make up the primary surfaces, all working in tandem with inks and graphite which form the network for this poetic cartography.

Dry pigments — whether coarse or fine, whether manufactured or found in a hillside — are part of my practice and conventional pastels have been used for decades (or for centuries depending on where we begin the story) to bring a soft, fog layer of color when the use of an airbrush is not possible. 

Eventually, I was introduced to PanPastel Colors and this changed everything.

Some of my PanPastels.

Let me note right now that the following strongly endorses these commercial materials. Note also that this post is unsolicited by Colorfin. While it could sound like a fan letter, my intent is didactic — to use this excellent product to illustrate something I value.

I began using PanPastel Colors in 2007. 

These excellent products are made in Kutztown, PA by the company Colorfin. Their website is and it’s quite definitive and complete. All the colors are there. 

When I first used them, I believed this material would be just another pastel experience. These early thoughts quickly gave way to discovering a richness and fidelity of surface that I did not see coming.

I bought first a gray and black as a way to test this new material. As I tend to draw with small pointed tools, pastels and watercolor are not foreground material but line support tones. The idea is to move the concepts forward on a page and that is best done by a tonal spectrum of blacks and, sometimes, grays to support the background.

I found almost immediately that the PanPastel Colors were extremely fine and could be rubbed into the rag papers that I favor and so are worked into the surface. A small amount of Krylon 1306 sprayed over it would set the pastel as normally done but I could also then work over it and stencil in another tone or hue and have a very clean separation between the colors. 

Polarity folio from Signal to Prime.

My next step was more colors. My regular approach was to use dry pigments to lay in color as I might lay on opaque watercolor through a stencil using a sponge or airbrush. PanPastel Colors were very quickly added as a new option. These pastels seemed to give me a different edge and saturation of color as if the paper had been deeply stained. I really liked this.

I started to utilize even more stencils in my drawings so that I could exploit the power of these colors and to have a field of greater dynamic instability going through some of the regions I was mapping. This was a perfect way to explore color and symmetry and to get the work going. It became a very spontaneous way to create spin!

A few surface preparation** techniques become useful a this point.

A deep blue paper preparation.

I usually prepare rag papers with gelatin or a tinted gesso so that the white paper goes to a different middle tone, often blue. As the gelatin/gesso tinted size is most often brushed on, there is an irregularity which adds another factor to the surface. (When we “size” paper we add a substance so that there is more than fibre to hold the ink. Unsized paper [waterleaf] absorbs ink, watercolors, or other damp mediums like spilled spaghetti sauce.)

I also locally size small areas. Sometimes this size becomes a background. Sometimes, using a size of clear acrylic mediums lets me rub pastels which are either repelled — leaving a paper-colored area — or to allow aggregate to remain in the medium, gripping the color to make it much more intense. These acrylic mediums can also work as mordants so that the impressions made by foil stamps are more crisp.

Grids that resulted from Deep Paper sketching.

In teaching my paper preparatory process (I call this DEEP PAPER™) I encourage students to affect their paper with a number of processes before they begin to think and draw. 

Besides the above sizing, I use techniques such as making tiny knife cuts, pin holes or even abrading the surface with sandpaper. It’s also useful to take a small mallet and stylus and make millions of tiny divots. I sometimes pass damp paper through the etching press against a clean, textured plate to so stimulate this process. Very coarse abrasive paper when repeatedly rolled through, resembles leather. All of these methods change the paper radically and it responds to the delicate pastels in different ways. Scored and incised lines will shadow out or accept pigment in novel ways. 

The idea of DEEP PAPER™ includes the sketchbook approach I described in my last post. This subset of work may be largely invisible in the finished work but sets up extremely interesting conditions for the visual material to sit atop — conditions that help me achieve the final result.

Note that pinholes create an effect similar to those you see when pinholes or pounce wheels were used to turn a preparatory drawing into a transfer drawing. These can be used against straight edge tools and yield up very cool grids.

Pastels with a few stencils.

Another approach is to draw with different waxes — some melted, some room temp and quite hard. I have worked the waxes through stencils and depending on the wax, the pastel is either repelled or attracted. This makes for a beautiful surface.

I also use workable fixative as a block out. Krylon 1306 is my exclusive version and may be sprayed through stencils to give a slightly different surface to the page. After laying in a region of color, Krylon is misted through a shape which defies erasure — it is a nice effect.

The stencils I use are often homemade. I use a stencil burner to make Mylar or Delrin stencils. I also make paper stencils and use card stock from cereal boxes to make torn edges, useful for mapping contours.

I make a lot of very strange architecture “plan” forms by cutting a lot of small bits of paper and taping them together. This brings forms into play that I would not find by drawing (well I probably would find it, but this approach brings a bit of spontaneous handling to the game).

Many commercial stencils can be had at craft stores as well. Often they are funky and ill suited to the scale, but once in a while the search pays off.

I patiently cut stencils by hand and recently purchased a laser cutter which is changing how I draw and cut. This device, on command, can create stencils of astonishing complexity with the ability to make multiple identical copies — important as I ruin them through use. With the cutter, each individual stencil is no longer so precious.

Hexagon grid using pastels with thermo-fax stencils.

Most recently I began using thermo-fax stencils, which are designed to be used with chalk for laying out sewing patterns in the art quilt medium. Complex patterns can be generated with these because the “silkscreen”-like sheets are of continuous material, so there are no pattern breaks as there are with conventional stencils.

In all, the PanPastel Colors are amazing! 

Even more, they have become important for my work — helping me achieve the result I want. They integrate with everything else I work with and yet are a stand alone visual effect. This new material is, as they say, a game changer and I do not think I could do my work as effectively without them!

Thank you Colorfin!!

©2019 Timothy C. Ely — All Rights Reserved

**THE PRACTICE OF TEMPERA PAINTING [preparation of tinted paper] By David V. Thompson Jr.. Dover 1962, Original printing 1936.


  1. Larry Ellingson

    I remember last summer when you introduced me to PanPastels. This article is great because it put everything in detailed perspective. I love your writing; succinct, but always verging on deep and mysterious. The architecture of your brain would make an intriguing study.

    Good blog.


    Sent from :|:E:L:L:I:N:G:S:O:N:|:



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