Getting Started in Soft Pastel: Colours

written by Sophie | Beginners, Pastel

When you want to try soft pastel, you might not be sure which colours to start with. There are so many brands and so many colours! Which colours should you start with? Many brands have starter sets available, but do they really offer a good selection of colours for beginners? Which colours are a good for total beginners?

What you need

If you have no soft pastels at all and you want to try them out you will need a good range of colours (unless you plan to work in sepia) but not necessarily a lot of colours. You need a range of colours that will provide a great starting point to mix even more colours.

So an obvious place to start is the primary colours. With red, blue and yellow you can mix (by layering or blending) an almost endless range of new colours. Having a warm and a cool version, or a dark and a light version of every primary will help expand the colours you will be able to mix. So a cool fresh lemon yellow and a yellow ochre as well as a primary neutral yellow will really expand what you can do.

Besides the primary colours, it will be useful to have a white, so you can lighten your colours, and a dark brown and black, so you can darken areas too.

So with the primaries, and some variations of primaries, a white, brown and black, we already have an excellent set of colours to work with.

If you want to expand this set, you could think about what you hope to paint. If you are into portraits, you might want to add some skin colours. If you are into landscape, perhaps a couple of greens will be handy. Or if you're not sure what you are going to paint most, do both!

Sophie Ploeg Which colours do I need in Soft Pastel

Start with the primary colours, brown, black and white

Which colours do I need to start in soft pastel

If you want to expand your primaries, you can add a light and a dark version of each, or a warm and a cool version.

Getting started in soft pastel, which colors do I need

And finally you can consider adding some subject specific colours such as greens or skin colours.

What you can buy

Starter sets are available from most soft pastel brands. Before purchasing have a good look at the pictures to check if the right colours are present. Not all sets provide a good selection!

Starter sets and assorted sets usually provide a good range of colours and I would recommend to start with those. I will write an article on starter sets soon.

Subject specific sets are often leaning too much to one colour to be useful for beginners. For example, a portrait set often contains lots of pinks (aimed at painting white skin tones), but they lack in blues and greens. Yet when painting portraits you will need blues and greens as well. And you might want to paint something else than portraits now and then. So these sets are not recommended for total beginners. They are great as additional sets when you are more into a certain subject.

How many colours do you need

Of course how many colours, or how big a set, you buy is totally up to you and depending on budget. Pastel sets can get quite expensive! There is absolutely no need to start of with huge sets of pastels. A basic starter set of 8-15 colours will be sufficient. Contrary to the advice of some, you can mix your colours and so a small set will be absolutely fine to get started with.

If you can afford a bigger set you will buy more convenience: more colours available means you have to mix less. If you don't own any pastels at all, do choose the assorted boxes which will give you a good range of colour.

Some sets have very similar colours in them. These sets are of little use as instead of a two closely related colours, you could have made much better use of a colour that is missing. It really pays off to have a good look at the photos of the sets and judge whether this is a sensible set!

Buy individual sticks

You can buy pastel stick individually as well and instead of a starter set you can put your own set together. Of course this will provide you with much more freedom to come up with your favourite colours. But if you are a total beginner it would be very hard to choose from the huge range of colours available. I would not know where to start! Unison alone has over a dozen reds in their range, so which one to go for if you can only choose one?

If you have the time and inclination you could research which colours are in starter/assorted sets and combined with your preferences, come up with your own starter set. Perhaps you quite like the starter set but find that some colours are missing (like an ochre) so you could buy the sticks individually and replace a few for your own preferences.

Buying individually is sometimes more expensive than buying in sets, so keep an eye on cost.

In a future post I'll be looking at various starter sets to see what they offer.

If you are a total beginner in soft pastel than the best way to get started is to either:

  • Buy a good starter set
  • Buy individual pastels in the primary colours, brown, black and white, and if you an afford it, expand your primaries with variables and subject specific colours.

Happy Painting!

Published: October 22, 2019

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