Monday, April 3, 2017


Pastel is a great medium for beginners. There are no complicated formulas, no brushes to clean, there is no paint to mix, no waiting for paint to dry, and no color changes due to drying. Pastel lends itself to self expression and experimentation. It can be applied in bold wide strokes or thin precise lines.  The method of application and the effects achieved are endless. And it is a very forgiving medium -  so what's not to like? The messy pastel dust in the studio and on hands and clothing, as well as the possible complications of breathing in the dust are all drawbacks. Loose dust can also create problems when framing (more on dust and framing issues in a future post).

The Pastel Medium.
There are two pastel mediums: oil pastel and soft pastel or what is commonly referred to simply as pastel.  This article is about soft pastel, not oil pastel. 

Pastels are made with pure powdered pigments combined with a binder to form a paste.​ The paste is rolled into round or rectangular sticks or shapes that are easily held in the hand. The paste is then allowed to dry.  Pastels are applied in this dry form to a surface such as pastel paper or specially prepared board.

Hard, Soft, and In-Between.
Within the soft pastel medium there are three general categories: soft pastel, hard pastel, and pastel pencils.
​ To further confuse a beginner to the pastel medium, there are many degrees between hard and soft. There is some consistency within brands, for instance Rembrandt pastels are known as semi-hard or medium. While NuPastels are considered hard and Schmincke is known as a very soft pastel. Yet, even within brands there can be some variation in the degree of hardness from stick to stick. Pastel pencils are what their name suggests: pastel within a wood pencil that can be sharpened to a point like a lead pencil. They are useful for fine lines, detail work and for blending.
The website offers a list of pastel brands with the degree of hardness listed. The list also includes the dimensions of the pastel and a picture shows the shape of the pastel. Here is a link that will take you to the chart.​ 

Buying Pastels
When buying pastels for the first time it is advisable to look for a set of half sticks.  Half stick sets offer more colors for the money. It is best to stay away from the very inexpensive student grade sets. The results achieved with this type of set will probably be quite discouraging. Purchase the highest quality you can afford. A set of  48 colors or more will give a good variety. To supplement the basic set, individual sticks can be purchased from most manufacturers. These are called open stock. Though the individual stick price might be more than the price per stick in a boxed set, you will have the freedom to choose the colors you desire, rather than spending money on colors you would rarely if ever use.  Buying a dark, middle, and light value of each color that you are adding to your set will create a well-rounded set. offers a great way to experiment with different brands. They currently offer six different sampler sets of soft pastels and sampler sets of pastel pencils with eight different brands of pastel pencils. This is a great way to experiment with different brands and discover which ones work best for you.

​Keeping Track with an Inventory

When I buy a new pastel I use a single edge razor blade to cut the pastel in half. The half that has the color name and number on the label I put in an inventory box.  I remove the label from the other half of the stick and put it in my working box. This affords me the ability to use the side of the pastel for wide sweeping strokes.

One of my pastel inventory boxes.(You will notice that there are also full sticks in the box, these are extras of colors I use often)

My working pastel box

Another method of keeping track of pastels is to create a color chart. Simply draw a small square of color on a piece of pastel paper and write the color name and number next to it.

Color Chart

When a pastel is getting almost too small to use I can refer to the pastels in the inventory box or the color chart to find the color number and name when I need to reorder.

Future Topics:
  • Tooth, Grit & Texture - Pastel Paper and other grounds
  • Easels, etc
  • Under Painting and other ways to start your painting
  • To Blend or Not to Blend - Does sand paper remove your fingertips?
  • To Fix or Not to Fix (Fixative)
  • Forgive or Forget - Correcting mistakes or tossing it out.
  • Framing
  • Not Your Common Dust Bunny - Dealing with pastel dust
  • Plein Air Equipment
  • My Favorite Art Books
Are there other topics you'd like to know more about? Want to see one of the above topics covered first? Do you have questions?
Comment below or send an email: