Artist grade soft pastels are made with pure pigment and a minimum of binder. (They are very different from both chalks which are composed of a form of lime and colored with dye, and oil pastels which are made with oil and wax binders.) Pure pigments have a crystalline structure which reflects and refracts the light and gives pastels their characteristic luminosity.
There is a very large choice of soft pastels available today-they come in a wide range of hues, shades and tints as well as various sizes, shapes, consistencies, and degrees of hardness. This assortment is wonderful for the pastel artist, but can be bewildering for the beginner. Although called “soft” pastels, pastel sticks range in hardness from quite hard to buttery. (Dakota Pastels has a very helpful list of pastel brands arranged according to hardness (Comparing Pastel Lines). Some brands offer half sticks in addition to regular sizes, which is a good economical way to begin to assemble a pastel collection. Because colors cannot be mixed like liquid paints, pastel painters often accumulate a large assortment of pastels. As you work with different sizes, shapes and degrees of hardness you will begin to see which work best for you. A great way to compare various brands without too great an investment is to buy sampler packs. Dakota offers soft sampler packs and medium/hard samplers .
There are also certain specialty pastels. One is Diane Townsend’s Terrages and Thin Line pastels which contain pumice and were intended to open up the surface of uncoated pastel papers. I like to use them when I have overworked a surface (see no. 11 below). Another specialty line is Pan Pastels. They come packed in small pans, contain very little binder and are said to be good for covering large areas. What is most interesting to me is the claim that they are erasable and that they permit mixing of color, something that cannot be done with traditional soft pastels, although they are compatible with the latter. I imagine one needs to practice a lot with them to master how to handle them skillfully. At this writing, I have not been able to work successfully with them. I shall try again and report back at a later date. Another unique type of pastels are the iridescent and metallic ones (made by Sennelier and Diane Townsend among others). I find that the light has to be just so to really see these effects and have not really been able to make good use of them.
When you find a few brands that you like I would suggest buying small assorted sets with palettes assembled for either landscape or portrait. Later on, when you have an even clearer sense of the different lines of pastels as well as the colors you rely on most, you can purchase sticks individually in stores or online. Many pastel manufacturers offer color charts so you do not have to choose from the sometimes misleading colors on your computer monitor. Large art supply stores such as Dick Blick, Utrecht, and Jerry’s Artarama all sell pastels and sometimes offer good bargains; all offer online shopping. For the most thorough selection of pastels including lesser known brands, l prefer two smaller operations, each located on the opposite coasts. One is Dakota Pastels in Mount Vernon, WA; the other, Rochester Art Supply in Rochester, NY. Both have online shopping of course and very helpful customer service.
Tips for Working with Pastel
Here are some tips for working with pastels. These are not hard and fast rules (except for those relating to safety), just tips you may find helpful.
1.If you are working on sanded paper, begin with a layer of hard pastels.
I generally prefer sanded papers as the greater tooth allows the application of many more layers of pastel, but the abrasive surface will also consume your pastels very quickly. (For more about sanded papers and other supports, see discussion of pastel papers.) One solution to this problem is to begin by laying down a layer of hard pastels (such as Nupastel or Faber-Castell). These are much less expensive than the softer pastels and can also be used for fine detail. You will probably be covering this first layer several times, so finding the exact right color is unimportant. I often use them to establish value, rather than hue, as well as filling up some of the tooth of the paper.
Although I advise against blending in general (see no. 4 below), blending of this first layer of hard pastel can aid in covering large areas and help the pastel adhere to the paper. I have long used styrofoam peanuts for this purpose, but they are quickly consumed and often leave a residue that needs to be removed. Searching the web for a better solution I recently came upon a youtube video by pastel painter Karen Margulis where she suggests to use foam pipe insulation for blending. The artist learned this trick in a Terry Ludwig workshop and I am grateful to her for sharing it. I have not tried this yet but will definitely do so soon.
2. In general work from dark to light.
Dark pastels over light ones tend to render muddy colors. This is especially true when working large areas as opposed to small accents.
3. Save your most precious, softest pastels for the topmost layer.
This is especially true if you are splurging on very costly pastels, for example Henri Roche handmade pastels. I adore these, but I buy and use them sparingly, usually reserving them for the last layer of pastel that I lay down.
4. Try to avoid blending as much as possible.
Rubbing the pastels into the substrate destroys their delicate crystalline structure, so blend as little as possible and not at all in the topmost layer.
5. Use a workable fixative if necessary.
You can use a workable fixative between layers to give a freshness to the surface. This is especially useful if you have added a bit too much pastel. Use in multiple thin layers rather than heavy coats. I sometimes spray the finished piece very very lightly. Too much spray will alter the appearance of your work. My hands down favorite workable fixative is Daler-Rowney Prefix. It does not change color and has very little odor. Spray outside or in a very well ventilated room.
6. Correcting Mistakes (Beware of Green)
Pastel is quite a forgiving medium. You can remove it from your picture with paper towel or carefully using a stiff brush and even certain erasers. Another idea is to use transparent packing tape. For a very complete discussion of this and other pastel removal techniques, see Donna Aldridge’s article. Green is somewhat of an exception to the forgiving nature of pastel.It tends to stain and be difficult to cover. Think grass stains on clothing. For this reason I try not to use green in the early stages of a painting. Adding a bit of of a complementary red tone on top can help to neutralize it and make it easier to cover. This last helpful tip came to me from the painter Robert Carsten in one of his informtive pastel workshops.
7. Wear gloves.
There are many reasons for this: IF you are blending with your fingers, your skin oils will change the color of the pastel; if you are using sanded paper you will destroy your fingers and may even rub off your fingerprints; your skin can absorb toxins and certain pigments used in certain pastels are toxic. I use powder free, latex free vinyl examination gloves. They come in different sizes and I am no longer even aware that I have them on. If you hate gloves, there are also lotion skin protectors made for protecting the skin.
8. Do not blow off excess pastels
You never want to blow off the excess pastels so that you end up breathing the dust.Let the excess fall into some kind of tray affixed to your easel (see no.9).
9. Adjust the angle of your easel and catch the pastel dust.
If you are purchasing an easel, try to get one that can be adjusted slightly past vertical so that excess pastel will fall off the picture and not hit the lower portions. You can make a small tray out of brown paper or newspaper and affix to the easel to catch the excess. You can get an idea of what this looks like in the photo of my easel.
10. Tape off the edges of your paper
Taping off the margin with drafting tape helps keep your paper in place and provides a clean edge (If you desire this). Another advantage is that it gives you a bit of reserve paper if you find you need to extend your picture a bit. If you want a more raw edge, just use tape to affix the corners.
11. Step back from your work; try not to overwork.
Everyone works at a different pace, some fast and furiously and some slowly deliberately, but learning to step back from a work is usually good advice for all. Try to leave a piece overnight and view it with fresh eyes the next day rather than continuing to work when you are tired or stuck. I have ruined many a promising picture by continuing to work rather than leaving it for a day or two. If you do overwork the surface, try using a light coat of workable fixative (see no. 5 above); I have also found Diane Townsend’s Terrages and Thin Line pastels which contain pumice useful for revitalizing overworked passages.
Finally, when your work is done, sign it and:
12. Store unframed works between sheets of glassine.
13. Photograph your work before framing.
No matter what you plan to do with your work, it is nice to keep a visual record for yourself. Be sure to photograph before framing to avoid reflections caused by the glass.