How to Paint with Soft Pastel

written by Sophie | Beginners, Pastel

Soft pastel is one of the most exciting and versatile painting mediums I know. It has a long history of varying popularity but pastel is here to stay. Pastel societies around the world have sprung up and remain popular. Professional and hobby artists enjoy soft pastel for its unique looks and application methods. But some may find painting with soft pastel difficult and messy. A few guidelines will help alleviate most problems. Painting with pastel need not be difficult but just like with any art medium, practice will make perfect.

Sophie Ploeg, Blue Bow, pastel.

Try different techniques

Pastel can be used on its tip, for line drawing or hatching, and on its side, for wider painterly marks. You can work lightly (see below) or you can apply a little more pressure and create completely different marks. You can blend with your fingers or tissue, or you can hatch, you can layer or you can mix. There are a huge number of ways to paint with pastel. Try them! Play around with various (simple) techniques and see what it does. Blending will soften and smoothen your colours. Hatching will create texture and colour depth, layering will allow you to mix colours, line drawings can give you detail and graphic qualities, while using the flat side will help you stay painterly and work with shape and planes. All techniques have their own usage and we all prefer some techniques over others. Don't follow the masses but try things out and see which ones are most exciting for you.

Tickle the paper

One of the hardest things about painting with soft pastel is that at some stage the tooth of your paper is full and you will not be able to add anymore pastel to your painting. If you keep on painting after this stage, you are bound to end up with muddy, dirty looking, blotchy paintings. This is why pastel is so incredibly suitable for quick and fast sketching. If you only spend a few hours or less on a painting you are not going to run into a full tooth. But if you want to spend more time on your painting, or you want to work in layers then having a toothy paper and a light touch is vital. The lighter your touch, the more layers you can add. At first it might seem odd to just 'tickle the paper' as you will not be able to make much of a mark. But you will see that if you work with a light touch you will leave yourself lots of (tooth) space to fix mistakes, increase depth and mix unique colours. By tickling the paper you are giving yourself a break. So slow down, work lightly and many problems will be averted.

Try various brands, types and papers

Soft pastel comes in various degrees of hardness. Hard pastel (still considered part of the soft pastel family) are easier to handle, don't crumble, and make less dust. They are great for fine lines, details and layering. Medium-soft pastels are a great allrounder and therefore a great place to start for beginners. They have the best of both worlds: enough hardness to be able to create fine lines, details and layering, yet they are soft enough to provide expressive and colour-rich marks too. The softest pastels are usually the most expensive, the highest pigmented and the most expressive in use. They are lush, buttery and beautiful, but they will also fill up the tooth of your paper very quickly and so won't layer very well. Because they make thicker marks they are less suitable for fine detail. They are great for finishing touches, deep and rich colour, impressionist mark making and simplifying shape.

Not only does pastel come in a variety of hardness, the difference between the various brands is often huge. A Schmincke is super soft and quite different from a (slightly harder) Unison. A (medium hard) Rembrandt has a different feel than a (hard) Pitt Pastel. Colours, softness, grittiness, and overal handling varies enormously.

There is a large amount of pastel papers to choose from. Popular brands are Pastelmat, Uart, Canson Mi-Teintes, Art Spectrum and Fabriano for example. Some are lightweight drawing papers, which are mostly suitable for quick sketches and light drawings. Other papers are heavier in weight and have a sanded texture. These are suitable for heavy applications and multi-layered techniques. Most of these sanded papers each have their own unique characteristics and many pastel artists swear by one or the other.

Because of the large variety in pastel types, brands and papers it really pays off to experiment and try things out. It is part of the charm of soft pastel that there are so many paths to choose from. Oil paint differs from brand to brand as well, but for soft pastels the difference really make a difference. Many artists use lots of different brands and types, and use some pastels for detail, and other pastels for backgrounds, etc.

If you can afford it, try out as many pastel types, brands and papers. Many shops have ​sample packs for papers and pastel. Use these to your advantage. Don't buy huge sets of a single brand unless you are sure you will love that brand. Enjoy experimenting and finding your own personal path.

Sophie Ploeg, detail of commissioned portrait in pastel.

Sophie Ploeg, detail of a still life painting in pastel, showing layering and mixing. 

Layer your colours

Although pastel is very suitable for quick sketches and light drawings, pastel really comes into its own when you layer (and thereby mix) your colours. There is no need to own a million colours because the true quality in pastel comes forward in its layering qualities. Make a mark with some yellow pastel and layer a blue mark over it. You'll get a lovely green. It can be as simple as this, but the range of effects you can create by layering is fantastic. Using the side of your pastel sticks you can apply broad marks and layer other marks over it, creating third colours and depth. Using the tip of your pastel you can hatch and stipple, layering in (or over) a secondary colour and thereby visually creating a new colour. If you work lightly and use a good toothy paper, you can apply many layers of pastel on top of each other, leaving you an enormous amount of space to overpaint mistakes, mix colours, create depth (similar to glazing or scumbling effects in oil painting) and create variety.

Go careful with lights and darks

Soft pastel is always 'wet'. When you touch a pastel painting, the paint comes off on your finger. So when you layer a colour over another colour the two will mix. You do not have the option to wait for a layer to dry, like you have when working with oils or acrylics. This causes many frustrations for beginning pastel painters. If your colour is not quite right, it is only natural to try and go over it with a better colour. This layering can be used very effectively once you get the hang of it. But initially you will see that the two colours will mix. To put it in extremes: if you paint something black and decide it needs to go white later, you will struggle because the colours will mix. You are going to need a very toothy paper to allow you to keep the layers separate and properly overpaint the offending black. This is one of the reasons I would always recommend using a good toothy heavy-weight pastel paper. It will give you the option to overpaint much better than a paper with no or low tooth.

Still, avoiding these situations is always best. So it pays off to work lightly (tickle the paper!) and keep your darkest darks, your lightest lights and your richest colours for later stages. Start off with a low contrast painting and build up your darks and lights slowly. Only when you are sure about everything and your painting is really building up nicely, add those darks, those highlights and that deep colour. Because if you add it first, and it turns out it's in the wrong place, it will be much harder to get rid off!

Don't over mix!

The joy of pastel is its ability to layer, blend and mix colours. You really don't need lots and lots of pastel sticks (although you might want to as they look so yummy) as you can mix, blend and layer every colour in the rainbow. But go carefully. Just like with all painting techniques, the more colour you add, the greater the chance of the infamous mud. Like I said before: pastel is always 'wet': there is never a time when the paint won't smudge, give off, or mix with other colours. Keep your colours to a minimum and take your time to choose the right mixes. If a colour doesn't look right, don't just endlessly add more paint to it without knowing why you are doing it. Work with intent. Don't spend time filling up the tooth randomly pastelling away in the blind hope that things will improve. You cannot paint on forever with pastel. You have to stop and think.

Blending kills

Blending is a very popular pastel painting technique, but it also gives many beginners a headache. Creating beautiful smooth areas of colour, subtle transitions and the right colour mixes is not always easy. Often things work better with certain pastel types, paper brands and blending techniques. But I would really recommend to not over blend. Do you really want to create this sugary barbie-doll style painting? Does everything have to be soft, fuzzy and soapy romantic? Use blending sparingly and it will open up a much larger range of possibilities. A blended soft area can stand out against a coarser or more expressive area. A non blended line can work very well to create focus and detail, while softer areas can help with pushing things into the distance. In portraiture skin tones will look much more natural if not blended into doll-like effects. Use blending sparingly, explore different techniques as well, and you will not be limited by a single technique but instead you will have a toolbox full of techniques to choose from.

Keep an eye on the dust

Soft pastel is basically (powdered) pigment and a little bit of binder so it can be rolled into a stick (and not fall apart). It is as simple as that. Cheaper brands often add more ingredients and more expensive pastels tend to contain a high percentage of pure pigment. And pigment is powdery. If you work with a light touch the pigment should adhere to your paper very well. If you push too hard, pastel dust will come off. In most cases it is difficult to avoid creating no dust at all. But there is plenty that can be done to keep it to a minimum!

Work vertically (use an easel) to make sure any pastel dust will fall down and not sit on your painting (creating a mess). Wipe up any pastel dust at the easel ledge regularly or use a vacuum cleaner with a good filter.

Don't put too much pressure on your pastel sticks but work lightly. If a lot of pastel dust comes off, you are definitely pushing too hard.

Some pastel brands are dustier than others, so if you find you have a lot of dust, try to change brands.

Generally speaking, pastel dust is not toxic and so no gloves or masks are required. If you are sensitive to dust in general, you might want to take your own precautions.

Overall, keep your workspace as clean as possible and clean up dust regularly.

Explore further: techniques, papers, brands, demos

If you are ready to dive further into pastel, then explore these articles on the best pastel papers, pastel brands, pastel techniques and check out this free pastel demonstration right here on the blog.

If you are really hooked then why not join The Pastel Place, a fantastic online course and community where we will go through lots of pastel techniques, painting fundamentals and practise pieces to really help you get this fantastic medium in your fingers. Barb, a happy student, said this about The Pastel Place: "This is the most unique online art course I have taken. The setup is unique and the contents takes a pastel newbie from pastel and paper types through mark making and beyond. Also Sophie is there every step of the way and I think that she is the most valuable resource in the course."

Published: June 20, 2020

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  1. Wonderful advice Sophie! It is SO tempting to keep buying new pastel colours, but I'm going to start experimenting more with layering/mixing to create secondary and tertiary colours, as the results can be so much more interesting and subtle, and you learn a lot about colour in the process.

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