Imagine standing before a blank canvas, brimming with anticipation.
As you reach for your box of vibrant pastels, a rush of excitement fills the air.
You are about to embark on a journey of artistic expression, discovering the world of pastel painting.
In this beginner’s guide, we will delve into six invaluable tips that will ignite your creativity, unlock the potential of pastels, and guide you on your path to becoming a skilled pastel artist.
So, let’s dive in and uncover the magic that awaits on your easel.
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.
6 Pastel Painting Tips
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 pastels 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 the 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 pastels 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:
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 blendability 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 colors, 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 start 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 the gesso is used to create a base that 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 pastels, 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.
- Range of pastel colors in various shades and hues
- Paper or pastel board with a toothy texture
- Pastel pencils for sketching and finer details
- Blending tools such as tortillons or blending stumps
- Fixative spray to secure the pastel layers
- Soft cloth for cleaning and smudging
- Work surface or easel for painting
- Palette or palette paper for blending and mixing colors
- Masking tape or clips to secure the paper or board
- Reference image or subject for inspiration
- Soft cloth or tissue for wiping excess pastel from fingers
- Apron or protective clothing to avoid smudging
- Soft pastels
- Pastel pencils
- Blending tools
- Fixative Spray
- Soft cloth
- Apron or protective clothing
- Reference materials
- Gather Your Materials: Select a range of pastel colors in various shades and hues that suit your subject and desired color palette. Choose the appropriate paper or pastel board with a toothy texture that can hold multiple layers of pastel. Prepare a work surface and gather any additional tools such as pastel pencils, blending tools (like tortillons or blending stumps), a fixative spray, and a soft cloth for cleaning.
- Plan and Sketch: Decide on your subject and envision the composition. Consider the placement of focal points, background elements, and overall balance. Lightly sketch the basic outlines of your subject using a pastel pencil or a light-colored pastel stick. This initial sketch will act as a guideline for your painting.
- Layering and Blocking In: Start by blocking in the general shapes and colors of your subject using broad strokes and applying light pressure. Build up layers of pastel, gradually adding more depth and intensity. Begin with lighter colors and gradually move towards darker ones, considering the light source and areas of highlights and shadows. Experiment with layering complementary colors to create depth and vibrancy. Use the side of the pastel stick for broad strokes and the edge or tip for finer details.
- Blending and Texturing: Blend colors together to achieve smooth transitions and gradients. Use your fingers, blending tools, or even a soft cloth to gently smudge and soften edges between colors. Be mindful of not over-blending, as maintaining some visible strokes and texture can add interest and depth to your artwork. Explore different mark-making techniques to create texture and visual interest. Experiment with cross-hatching, stippling, or scumbling to add variety and expressiveness.
- Refining and Finishing Touches: Step back periodically to assess your painting and make adjustments as needed. Add finer details, highlights, and shadows to enhance the depth and realism of your artwork. Consider using a fixative spray between layers to secure the pastel and prevent smudging. Follow the instructions provided with the fixative for best results. Once you are satisfied with your painting, sign it and consider framing it behind glass to protect the delicate pastel surface.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you start a pastel painting?
To start a pastel painting, begin by selecting your subject and gathering your materials, including a range of pastel colors, paper or a pastel board, and any necessary drawing tools. Then, sketch out the basic composition lightly with a pencil or pastel, and gradually build up layers of color using a combination of blending, layering, and mark-making techniques until your vision comes to life on the canvas.
Is pastel painting difficult?
Pastel painting can have its challenges, but it is a medium that offers unique expressive possibilities and can be enjoyed by both beginners and experienced artists. With practice, patience, and an understanding of techniques, you can achieve beautiful results and unleash your creativity through the rich and vibrant world of pastels.
What are the three pastel techniques?
There are numerous techniques that can be used with pastels, but three fundamental ones include layering, blending, and mark-making. Layering involves building up multiple layers of pastel to create depth and richness, blending involves smudging or softly merging colors together for seamless transitions, and mark-making refers to the various ways of applying pastel strokes or textures to create visual interest and texture in the artwork.
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. You can find more of my writing on my website https://www.harrietmaher.com/