This is a guide covering how to paint with pastels.
We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):
What is a Pastel Painting?
Pastels are a vibrant, pure pigmented medium used for painting and drawing. They come in various types – hard, soft, pencil, and oil – which can be used to create different effects.
The pastel pigment is applied to a rough surface, and the colors can be blended or mixed to varying degrees, depending on the type of pastel used.
Even artists like Claude Monet and Michelangelo used pastels for their deep, rich colors.
Pastel paintings are usually made using soft or oil pastels, while pastel drawings are created with hard or pencil pastels, perfect for creating more defined lines and shapes.
In this article, we will mainly focus on how to paint with pastels, to create a deep, luscious image that will last a lifetime.
Is Pastel Painting for Beginners?
Although working with pastel paints is not quite as straightforward as other paint mediums, they are perfectly suited for beginners, with the right knowledge and practice.
Pastel painting is particularly easy to learn because it allows for a lot of control over the medium, and the ability to correct any mistakes with an eraser.
By following the simple steps and tips outlined in this guide, any beginner can learn to use pastel paints for vivid effects.
What Do You Need to Paint with Pastels?
There are a few basic tools you will need to start painting with pastels, most of which are easy to come by.
The first thing you need is the pastels themselves, which come in four different types: soft pastels, hard pastels, oil pastels, and pencil pastels.
To paint, it is best to use soft or oil pastels, which have the best blend-ability and the most intense color.
Once you have selected the type of pastel you are going to paint with, the next step is to select the surface you are going to paint on.
When painting with pastels, it is important to choose a surface with some texture, so that the pastel has something to cling to.
You may also want to use a colored surface, which can enhance the appearance of the colors you paint with.
A white background will add extra luminescence to your colours, or a contrasting background might add excitement and vibrancy.
A soft hued background will soften the pastel colors in your painting and create a more muted effect.
The pastels and paper are the main tools you will need, although you may find it helpful to have an eraser handy for any mistakes you want to fix.
It is also a good idea to have some bulldog clips to hold your paper straight and steady to a flat surface, as putting your hand on the paper to hold it still poses a risk of smudging other areas of your painting.
Now that you have your pastels, rough paper, eraser and clips, you are ready to starting painting with pastels!
Can You Paint with Pastels on Canvas?
Canvas is a great surface to paint on with pastels, because it has a rough enough texture to hold the color.
You can buy pre-stretched canvases in all shapes and sizes, or canvas boards and pads, all of which are great for painting with pastels.
The only drawback of using canvas instead of textured paper is that some pre-primed canvases have a smooth surface.
This is because of the gesso used to create a base which is more suitable for oil painting.
Canvas is also more expensive than paper, making it less popular to use when painting with pastels.
However, if you choose to use canvas for your pastel painting, you can use unprimed canvas with a rough texture, in any size you like.
Do You Draw or Paint with Pastels?
How you apply your pastel to your surface depends on what type of pastel you are using. To draw with pastel, it is best to use hard or pencil pastels.
For painting, oil pastel or soft pastel is the right choice. The soft or oil pastels create more of a fully covered surface area, and the colors can be blended together to create the desired effect.
You can also combine hard and soft pastels, to create the drawn outline of your artwork with hard pastels first, and then work over it with the softer pastels to intensify the color.
How Do You Paint with Pastels?
Painting with soft or oil pastels requires letting go of a bit of control, and allowing the colors to work their magic.
In this section, we will look at six top tips for painting with pastels for truly beautiful works of art.
1. Plan Ahead
Having a clear vision for the painting you want to create in pastel will set you up for almost guaranteed success.
Creating a sketch or drawing beforehand will allow you to enjoy the process of painting with pastel more later on.
It will be helpful to plan the design, composition and underpainting of your pastel painting before you apply the color.
2. Layer Colors
Once you do have your plan, and you start to apply the vibrant pastels to your paper or canvas, you will be able to witness the magic of the pastel colors.
Layering a yellow pastel over a blue will create a lovely green, for example, which can then be built up into any shade you like.
Because the pastels are fairly wet, the colors can be blended almost endlessly, and layers added on top of each other over and over again.
You can then create exciting color effects, add depth to your painting, and use a variety of hues and tones.
3. Be Careful With Light and Dark
When layering colors, it is important to remember that soft pastels are always wet, so when you are layering colors over one another, the two will mix.
This is perfect if you are layering two colors to create a third color, but not if you are trying to keep them separate.
To avoid colors mixing unintentionally, use them lightly, just scratching the surface of the paper.
Leave the most intense, dark colors until last, once the rest of the pastel painting has already taken shape.
Then you can build up the shadows and highlights with a gentle hand, and add more intensity of color.
4. Work Quickly
As you build up the color and layers of your pastel painting, you can apply large surfaces of color quite quickly.
Using the side of the pastel stick, use wide strokes of your arm to cover the whole surface, applying just a light amount of pressure.
Keep the marks loose and soft, until the whole surface, or the area you want to cover, is awash with color.
You can then start adding in layers of color and detail with smaller, more controlled movements of the pastel.
5. Use Black Sparingly
Pastel paintings are most known and admired for their deep, rich color, but it is best to avoid using a strong, intense color like black too much.
To create shadows or low lights, try blending your own brown or grey color instead.
Or, if you choose to use black in your painting, layer over it with other colors to create a darker version of them – like green over black for a shadow on grass, or blue over black for dark water.
This stops your painting from looking too harsh, or even flattening the surface of it.
6. Let Go Of Control
Once mastered, painting with pastels can be an incredibly freeing and fun activity.
The varied effects of using different colors, surfaces, and types of pastel are satisfying to create, and often the best results come from being less rigid and controlled with the medium.
Working wet, using broader, looser strokes of the stick, and going with the flow will produce surprising and often extremely effective visual effects. Soft pastel allows the colors to come alive on the paper, and as the colors mingle while you layer them they will take on a life of their own.
Pastel is also easy to erase and fix any mistakes, so don’t be afraid to let go of control, and have fun with it.
To further explore pastel painting tips, we recommend checking out this in-depth video:
Painting with pastels is a fun, rewarding activity for artists of any skill level.
With a few simple tools and these handy tips, it is easy to create a stunning masterpiece with the deep, rich color of pastels.
Working quickly and loosely, and experimenting with color will produce fantastic results, and soon have you producing pastel masterpieces.
Harriet Maher a freelance writer based in Otautahi New Zealand, where she grew up. After completing an Honours degree in Art History at the University of Canterbury in 2014, she was awarded a full scholarship for a Masters in Art History at the University of Melbourne, which she completed in 2017. She has a lifelong desire to learn, so she’s passionate about new and innovative art practices, and she’s always seeking out new ways to look at and understand art. Her writing attempts to make the invisible seen, and the unsayable said.