Pastels require a ‘tooth’ on the surface to grip the pastel. Special pastel papers and boards vary from very smooth to very rough. The smoother papers, although usually cheaper, do not hold as many layers of pastel and can look rather dull as they need more blending. Very abrasive surfaces can give your pastels more richness but they can eat up the pastel very quickly. Therefore, when starting out with pastels, I suggest you use a paper that comes between these two types and choose a neutral shade to start with. Clairfontaine Pastelmat, although appearing smooth, will hold an enormous amount of pastel. A fine abrasive surface such as Canson Mi Tentes ‘Touch’ will give you slightly more variations in texture but still allow you to paint fine details.
Most, but not all pastel papers come in various colours. I previously suggested that you start by using a neutral colour. By doing this, your pastel colours will remain true. What do I mean by this? If you look at the image above, you will see that I have put a piece of black paper and a piece of white paper next to each other and stroked different coloured pastels across both papers. The pale grey is almost impossible to see on the white paper but on the black paper it looks quite bright. Some of the colours look lighter, some darker and some look a completely different shade. This may not be quite so obvious on the screen, so you need to try this for yourself. You will be surprised at the results! Coloured papers therefore change the appearance of your pastels and this can become confusing when you first start using them. Later, when you have a little more experience, you could start experimenting with coloured papers. They can help to set the ‘mood’ of your painting, illustrated in the paintings below.