Basic Pastel Painting Techniques for Beginners

written by Sophie | Beginners, Pastel

Do you want to try painting in soft pastel but you are not sure where to start? Check out these basic pastel painting techniques to get you going.

Soft pastel is one of the most fun painting mediums: it is direct, it doesn't require any prep, you don't need to wait for it to dry and you don't need any other materials.

Soft pastels are accessible to all: a basic set does not have to cost much and the quality is often pretty good. So what are you waiting for? Get yourself a little box, check out the basic techniques for pastel painting below and try them out yourself. If you are reluctant to get started because you don't know what to do: then this article is here to help.

You will learn the most by simply doing. The more you play around with soft pastel, the more you will get a feel for what these little coloured sticks can do for you. So after your first and hesitant marks, keep going, keep at it, make mistakes, pick yourself up and try again. You will discover that pastel painting is endless fun (and messy!).

Basic Pastel painting techniques

Sophie Ploeg Blog Pastel dust

Work Vertical

The most common mistake I see pastel painters make is to work flat. Pastel painting will create dust which will end up sitting in little heaps on your art work, preventing you from seeing your picture properly. When you work flat it is also all too easy to smudge your work with your own hand. Avoid ruining your work and prop your drawing board up against a wall, a pile of books, or use an easel. Any pastel dust will neatly fall down onto the ledge and your hand will stay clear of the paper. If you need to support your hand, try using a mahl stick (any stick will do).

Sophie Ploeg blog pastel techniques

Using the Tip

The most obvious way to use soft pastel sticks is to use it upright, like a pencil. This will create a line. You can vary your line in length; short lines for sketchy effects and long lines for bigger gestures. You can also vary how much pressure you put on your pastel stick. A feather light touch will create subtle marks, while more pressure will leave lots of colour and expression on your paper. Why not try them both?

Sophie Ploeg blog pastel techniques

Working with the flat side

Although it might feel natural to use a pastel stick as a pencil, holding it upright, it can be very effective to use the flat side of the pastel too (remove the label first). With the flat side you can create wide strokes, covering much larger areas with colour. You can make short strokes or long strokes and make 'blocking in' (putting in the main colours and shapes) a much quicker process. If you keep on using the flat side you can create very expressive paintings. Give it a go!

Sophie Ploeg blog pastel techniques


One of the unique features of soft pastel is that you can blend the colours. You can use blending to soften a colour, to make it look more even, soft and flat, or to mix colours together (making new colours). Blending can be very versatile! Use your fingers, some kitchen towelling, a piece of cloth, cottton buds or a torchon for blending. You can create amazingly soft and subtle effects with blending. Blending is very popular amongst many pastel artists but I want to warn against using it too much. With too much blending you run the risk of losing all texture and character. Softness works best when not everything is equally soft. So vary your approach and use blending sparingly.

Sophie Ploeg blog pastel techniques

Layering and Mixing

If you don't put too much pressure on your pastel strokes and try to maintain a light touch, you can layer another colour over it. This way you can mix your colours and create new colours, but you can also add darker or lighter areas, a hint of colour here and there and generally create more depth and interest. With a good sanded paper (like Art Spectrum Colourfix, or Uart) you can add many layers. On a more smooth paper (like Ingres, or Tiziano) you won't be able to add many layers and you'll end up with mud. So go carefully, but give it a try!

Sophie Ploeg blog pastel techniques

Hard and Soft Pastels

There are many different types of soft pastels but the main difference lies in their softness. Some brands are extremely soft and buttery, others are much harder and feel more like pencils. You can use all types at the same time in your painting, but you will find that many pastel artists use the harder pastels in the first layers of painting, and for small and fine detail. The very soft pastels are often used in the final layers of painting. Of course you can paint a whole painting with just hard pastel, or with just soft pastel. It is completley up to you. Hard pastels (and pastel pencils, which are generally fairly hard) do not go over very soft pastel well. They will scrape the soft pastel off the paper and won't leave much of a mark themselves. If you are complete beginner do experiment and see what works and what doesn't, or make it a little easier on yourself and stick to one type of pastel at first.

Sophie Ploeg blog pastel techniques

Mixed Media

If you are into mixed media, pastels are hard to beat. Make sure you are using a good paper that can take a bit of punishment, but then you can try applying pastel over an underpainting of acrylics, watercolour or gouache. You can also extend your pastel strokes with a wet brush. Pastels do not sit well on top of oils however and they are best applied on top of other media. Why not combine it with collage, pencils and watercolour? Have fun!

Pastel Newbie? 

Practice and learn with Sophie’s help! The Pastel Place is an online pastel painting  course perfect for beginners (and more advanced). Learn mark making techniques, painting fundamentals and get lots of practice in. Join in the private community for support and encouragement and make new pastel friends.

Sound good?

Published: July 30, 2019

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  1. Hi , my name is Steve and I live in Cape Town, South Africa.

    I have painting in pastels but laying my support flat. I want to thank you for the advise of paint upright. i am going to try and see how well I will manage.

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