Making a 'mahl stick bridge' for pastels - "Lazy Days" WIP1-2
Do you get hand smudges on your pastel paintings? Can't work in fine details because you can't steady your hand against the surface? Can't find a mahl stick or bridge to suit your style? Maybe you need to make one yourself!
If you've ever used soft pastels, you'd be familiar with their ability to rub off on your fingers and smudge on the paper with the slightest touch. This lends itself to one of the greatest joys of pastel painting (beautifully smooth colour blending), but also to some difficulties (unintended surface smudging if you rest your hand on the paper).
When I first moved on to larger pastel paintings, I knew immediately that I would have problems supporting my hand for detailed work, because the work would need to be done upright on an easel, and I couldn't just rest my hand on a piece of paper in the vertical position (without it shifting and smudging the pastel underneath).
I looked around for traditional solutions to this problem, and came up with two variants on a theme: the mahl stick or bridge.
Mahl stick: The traditional mahl stick is a long tapering stick or dowel with a padded leather-covered ball on one end. When in use, the padded ball rests on the painting itself (or the side or top of the painting), and the stick is used by holding the free end with one hand, and resting the other (drawing/painting) hand/wrist on the stick, just a little out from the painting, giving sufficient support to create fine controlled details in the painting. It is usually used when painting on semi-vertical surfaces.
Artist bridge: Similar to the mahl stick, the artist's bridge is simply a stick, dowel or clear plastic rod with a block on either end to hold it up away from the painting surface by a couple of centimetres. It is usually used when painting on horizontal surfaces.
Now, in my understanding, mahl sticks are best used with oil or acrylic paintings, because the padded end of the stick can rest against any dried section of the painting surface (after all, this is why the padded ball is there - to prevent damage to the painting). Not so with pastels - unless you've used fixative on part of your painting, it is still as susceptible to smudging as it was when the pigment was first laid down. I've heard of people using mahl sticks by resting them on the top or side of the painting or back board, but I could see myself accidentally slipping, and smudging parts of the painting when I did. Bridges on the other hand would fall off the vertical painting surface if they weren't supported sufficiently.
So I decided to design and make my own combination mahl stick bridge to provide support for my painting arm. The steps I took in making it are below, and WIP 1 and 2 show the finished mahl stick bridge being used for the initial steps in my pastel painting of a spotted quoll "Lazy Days".
I measured my largest piece of pastel paper (that I was likely to use) and found a 12mm plywood board that was slightly larger in all dimensions than the paper (I cut it to an appropriate size for the easel too).
I cut another piece of plywood to create a shelf underneath the board (perpendicular to the board when sitting on the easel) to collect pastel dust and dropped pastels.
I bought a 3cm diameter dowel to be the mahl stick, with the dowel roughly a metre in length. I smoothed off the ends and sides.
I bought some lengths of 3cm square cross-section pine and 3 x 1cm rectangular cross-section pine, cut them to size to fit the ends of my plywood board (see WIP 1). The square-ended piece is to hold the dowel 3cm off the painting surface. The rectangular-ended piece is to provide a guide to keep the dowel against the painting. Smaller pieces of the square-end pine were used to prop the rectangular-end pine up off the square-end piece so the dowel would fit perfectly between the two (and still enable it to slide).
I held the pieces together while my partner Pete used liquid nails (super strong wood glue) and a nail-gun to temporarily prevent the pieces twisting, then screwed them together for added strength. I then sanded all the pieces so all the edges were rounded (and wouldn't cut my hands if I bumped them).
Lastly, I made some wooden dowel pins from some small length of dowel, and drilled holes at regular intervals up both sides where the large mahl stick dowel would pass, in order to support the mahl stick at a range of vertical positions.
I've been using the mahl stick bridge for a while now, and find it perfectly suits my purpose! I can vary the angle on which the stick is held and reach any part of the painting for detailed work. I can completely remove the stick (just by sliding it out the side) to do larger more expressive work with a free hand. Best of all, the side supports leave both my hands free for holding pastels, and I don't drop pastels from trying to juggle them with one hand! As an added bonus, the plywood shelf acts as a catch-all, collecting not only the majority of pastel dust, but also acting as a good place to store pastels in use and a variety of other odds and ends.