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You are working on a pastel painting and you put down some boxes of pastels in front of you. Inside is a mix pastels. They randomly ended up in there during past painting sessions. There is no method in the organisation of the pastels and you have no idea what colours you actually have. Sounds familiar? Time for a sort-out!

Running out of Space

I used to organise my pastels by colour in a small stationery drawer file unit. I put in some ribbed cardboard to stop them from rolling around. It worked quite nicely. But I bought more pastels in large boxed sets. So I ended up with an organised stationery drawer file as well as a pile of boxes next to it. 

New boxes of pastels usually have these neat foam spaces for each pastel stick. I generally didn't put my pastels back in the same slot as where they were when they were new in the box.  So pastels I used got put back in random places. My portraiture set contained solely pinks after a while (when it was new it had all sorts of colours in it), but my mixed box was, well, mixed. It was just a different mix from when I bought it…

Because my colours were all over the place I usually grabbed a box or two and worked from those. The pastels in my stationery drawers were often forgotten about. I probably had colours I didn’t even know about.

I Need to Organise Stuff!

So  I needed to organise my pastels as well as find myself a storage system that could keep all of my pastels. See my blog post about storage systems here. This post is about organising....

How to Organise Pastels

Organising is a personal thing. Some people like things very neat, while others are happy with a more messy system. So some artists organise their pastels by brand, others by colour, some by value (light to dark) or by type (hard to soft). There are lots of ways to organise things.

The late Maggie Price, a well-known pastel artist, was known for organising her pastels by value and temperature (see this article for more info); a system I liked and wanted to try.

I think (adding up the numbers on the boxes plus guessing random piles) I have around 500-600 pastels. For some that might seem a lot, but just remember I have been painting in pastel since I was a teenager. For others this is not much at all. I have heard of professionals who have thousands!

Boxes

First I organised my pastels in the boxes I had. So in the picture above you can see my Rembrandt boxes which my pastels came in. I removed the foam dividers. The boxes are too big and ideally would have dividers to make smaller spaces. I organised the pastels by colour and roughly by value (light to dark).  When I finally found a good storage system, I transferred my pastels into drawers (see picture below).

Sorted by Colour, Value and Temperature

I organised my pastels by colour, value and temperature. I thought this system makes sense. When I am painting and looking for a colour I would look for the right value first, then temperature and then colour, I think. I must admit I found it quite hard to organise by temperature. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether that screaming pink is warmer or cooler than that electric blue. Chroma plays a role as well. Is a stronger colour lighter or darker than a more muted colour? I imagine I will continue to move pastels around until the organisation is right. And then I hope I will put them back in the right tray when I am painting!

So I have put my darkest colours in the tray on the left and my lightest colours on the right.  Within each box I put the warmest colours at the bottom (in this picture) and the cool colours at the top. So all the blues are at the top and go from dark to light as you look from left to right. All the yellows and reds are at the bottom and go from dark to light as you move from left  to right.

I mixed up all the brands. I didn't mind mixing them up as I have RembrandtsUnisons and some Schmincke’s and they all have such different shape and texture that I won’t mistake one for the other.

Organised by Type

And I changed my mind and re-organised again

Some time later I decided to change the organisation again. While painting I realised that:

  1. With all my trays laid out I had a lot of pastels to choose from and, despite them being well organised, it took too much time to find the right colour. 
  2. When I bought a small box of hard pastels I quite enjoyed working with such a limited set. No more searching and I simply had to work with what I had in front of me. Much simpler.
  3. When I wanted a really soft pastel I had to look for ages to find it, hiding as they were amongst the medium soft pastels. 

Recently I found myself taking just 3  trays, and filling up one with hard pastels, one with soft pastels and one with medium pastels. Each box had a good range of colours in it (also based on what I was painting). I selected the colours for the much larger collection, and worked with just that.  I found it much easier to grab a super softie or a hard pastel when I needed it. And the reduced choice of medium pastels made things simpler. 

I am sharing this to show that organising your pastels is a very personal thing and it might take you some time to find your way of doing things.  Even though some pastel artists prefer a huge table with all of their pastels spread out, others, like me (and who have limited space) might prefer to take out a selection depending on what they are painting. Some organise by colour, others by type or brand, and some do it differently again. 

I hope this blog post has given you some ideas on how to organise your pastels. Let me know in the comments how you organise your pastels. I’d love to hear from you!

A great example of how to organise pastels by colour and value. This is Phil Bates’ box. www.prbates.com

Artist Marla Baggetta in her studio. Her pastels are wonderfully organised by colour and value. www.pastelpaintinglessons.com

This post was last updated in May 2020


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About the author

Sophie is an artist, art historian, tutor, author and blogger. She writes on oil and pastel painting, art history and the life of an artist. She paints portraits and still life and specialises in painting drapery and lace.

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  1. Interesting about pastel boxes. I just brought two boxes form Woolworth for $15.00 Au. I am going back for some more after reading your site. Thanks

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