Master Pastel Techniques

As pastel is a very flexible medium, having a good understanding of different pastel techniques will enable you to achieve the look you desire for each painting easily.

Pastel Techniques--Getting Started with Pastels

Let's begin with the basic techniques that I start my beginning students with. As your skills improve, you can modify what is taught here or develop your own techniques.

And be on the lookout for new ideas as you interact with other pastel artists. Remember, as artists, we never stop learning!

When you start a new pastel painting, begin by using a charcoal pencil, graphite pencil, or just a mid-tone gray pastel stick to make an under-drawing of what you are going to paint.

How detailed your drawing should be depends on your skill level. For beginners, I would suggest taking the time to get the drawing right so that you do not have to try to fix it later on in the painting process. If you have more experience with painting, then a rough drawing should be sufficient.

Pastel Techniques--How to Apply Pastels

Alright, once your drawing is done, you are ready to try out all those wonderful juicy pastel colors! Here are some guidelines for doing that:

  1. First, use hard pastels or semi-soft pastels to cover large masses in your painting. Hard pastels, like Nupastels, Faber-Castell Polychromos Pastels, or Rembrandt Pastels are good for this purpose because you do not want to fill up the tooth of the pastel surface too quickly. Reserve all the very soft pastels, such as those by Sennelier or Unison, for later.

    Be bold! Applying medium pressure, cover up as much as you can with broad strokes. Save the details for later.

  2. Work from dark tones to middle tones, and then add the light tones later. This is the general rule in fundamental pastel techniques, but there are exceptions.

    I sometimes lock in the light tones first so I can get a clear picture of the full range of the value scale, or if I just want to keep that color really clean. In most cases, if you use pastels like you are painting with oil, you are on the right track. So, dark tones tones first.

    With pastels, it is somewhat challenging to get the dark tones really dark, so put them down solidly at the start. And don't be afraid of making them too dark, because you always can lighten it if you need to by adding another color on top.

    Once pastels have been lightened, however, it is not easy to get them back to the original dark tone.

  3. Use the sides of the pastels to cover the large masses.

    Some pastel artists intentionally break their sticks into small chunks for this purpose. So if you break a stick, save the pieces. They will come in handy later!

    Once you have covered the broad areas using the sides of the pastels, work the finer details with the tips.

  4. Tap the pastel surface to remove excess pastel powder.

    By constantly removing loose pigments, you will keep the tooth of the pastel paper accessible and this will allow you to add more layers.

  5. Blend pastel colors only as necessary as you build layers.

    To blend or not to blend?: this question has often been debated among pastel artists. One of the most debated pastel techniques, in my experience.

    While I think that there is no hard and fast rule, the rule of thumb is to use your artistic judgment, because every piece is approached differently.

    When blending, you can either use your fingers (with gloves on, of course) or use a paper stump (which you can buy at art stores). Alternatively, you can use a soft watercolor brush to blend the colors. I prefer using my finger to blend colors as it gives me more control. Note that with blending, colors will lose their sparkle; often the colors get too muddy. To solve this problem, you can gently scratch off the dull regions with a knife and rebuild them. Or, simply do not blend the colors in the first place.

  6. Use pastel fixatives sparingly.

    Like blending, the use of fixatives has been debated endlessly.

    The concern is that fixative can significantly darken and therefore dull a pastel painting. Reserve the technique for when you want your pastels to appear very dark.

    Also, if your painting becomes too saturated with pigments, then by spraying a layer of workable fixative, you can rebuild the surface and keep painting.

    Test it on a small area first, because it is hard to undo if you decide you don't like it. Fortunately, if it's necessary, dulled colors can usually be rescued with new layers on top.

Click here to find out more pastel techiques to create various textures.

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