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A beginners guide to using Soft Pastels

Abeginners guide to using soft pastels

Soft pastels are a versatile and expressive medium in the realm of visual arts. Comprising pure pigment, chalk, and a minimal binder, these art materials deliver intense and vibrant colours. Soft pastels are known for their soft, velvety texture, allowing artists to create rich, broad strokes or intricate details on various surfaces like pretreated canvas, heavyweight, rough textured watercolour paper or textured pastel paper. Their blendability and ease of layering make them conducive to creating nuanced shades and gradients. There are many pastel brands on the market. The handmade pastels are the softest, most pigmented and the most expensive, however there are lots to choose from for the beginner pastel artist which are still great quality.

A study in soft pastels of Edgar Degas's 'Dancer adjusting her shoe, ribbons'

Artists often appreciate the immediacy and tactile nature of working with soft pastels, as they enable the exploration of a wide range of artistic styles, from impressionistic to more detailed and realistic renderings.

Basic materials you will need:

  • Soft pastels (sticks or pencils)
  • Pastel paper or textured paper
  • Fixative spray
  • Blending tools (optional): fingers, blending stumps, rags or brushes
  • Erasers (optional): kneaded eraser or vinyl eraser
  • Disposable gloves (wearing gloves will protect your hands from the drying properties of the pastel and also protect your artwork from the natural oils on your fingers) apron, smock, or old clothing to protect against dust

Sennelier Pastel Paper

Tips for beginners:

1. Select your pastel paper, pastel board or textured surface.

Soft pastels are dry and slightly dusty so they need a good texture paper or pastel board they can bind to. Smooth paper will not work as the pastel will just fall off.

  • You can prepare your own textured surface on thick watercolour paper or watercolour board, canvas or even wood panel, with GOLDEN Pastel Ground 237ml. Read all manufacturers instructions for more information on preparation. This product needs diluting but can offer a great range of coloured ground by adding some acrylic pigment.
  • Choose a paper with a textured surface that can hold the pastel pigment. Pastel paper or sanded paper is ideal, but you can experiment with other textured papers as well. The deeper the tooth of the paper the more the pastel will adhere. Some papers have coating, while others have an imprint of texture.
  • Toned paper is actually easier to work with as it is less intimidating than a stark white background. Toned paper can create a mid tone for your artwork and in some cases can be left exposed between your pastel marks. Fortunately we can provide a wide range of coloured or toned pastel paper in the brands we have listed below, together with a variety of scales.

 

Here are some links to some excellent brands of pastel paper

Daler-Rowney Pastel Paper

2. Sketch and underdrawing:

Begin with a light sketch and underdrawing using a graphite pencil, pastel pencils or you could use a Conté à Paris Carres Crayon as these pastels are slightly harder than the soft pastels. This will serve as a guideline for your pastel application, or if you are confident go straight with your soft pastels.

 

3. Choose your colours:

Soft pastels come in a wide range of colours. Select the colours you need for your artwork. Consider starting with a limited colour palette and gradually expanding your repertoire of colours as you become more comfortable with the medium. Create a test palette sheet first by swatching out all your colours to see the variations of tone. Once you have all your colours laid down you can see their vibrancy and practise your colours to create new tones, laying down your light colours first.

4. Layering:

Start with lighter colours and gradually build up layers, working towards darker tones. Layering allows you to create depth and richness in your artwork. The more layers you apply of the same colour, the more vivid your colours will look. However avoid layering too many different colours as this will make your work look dull and moody.

Soft pastels blending and tools

5. Blendning:

  • Soft pastels are known for their ability to blend easily. You can blend colours by using your fingers, blending stumps, specialist blending tools such as Pan Pastel - Sofft Tools Starter Kit  or brushes. 
  • Experiment with different blending techniques to achieve the desired effects in your artwork. The great advantage of using soft pastels is that most brands will work together, especially if you like creating your own bespoke colour palette. 
  • Don’t over blend, as this may result in muddy colours. Keep your blending light so your colours may transition from one hue to the next.

6. Detail work:

Soft pastels can be used for both broad strokes and fine details. For detailed work, you can use the edge of a pastel stick or for very detailed work you can use a pastel pencil.

 

7. Erasing and lifting off:

Correct mistakes or create highlights by using a  Winsor & Newton Kneaded Putty Rubber or a vinyl eraser. Soft pastels can be lifted off the paper more easily than hard pastels.

8. Fixatives:

Once your soft pastel drawing is complete, consider using a fixative spray to set the pastel and prevent smudging. Follow the instructions on the fixative product for proper application. Keep in mind that fixatives can alter the appearance of the pastel, so test on a small area first. If you hold your fixative spray too close to your work it will darken your pastel colours considerably. Aim to use light strokes at the recommended distance from your work. You can also use fixatives whilst you are working if you wish to keep layers from moving or smudging.

Here are some links to pastel fixatives:

9. Protect your work:

Pastel work can be delicate, so consider framing your artwork under glass to protect it. Ensure that the glass does not touch the pastel surface, either by using a deep mount board or spacers.

10. Clean hands and workspace:

Soft pastels can be messy, so keep a tissue or rag nearby to clean your hands as needed. Consider wearing an apron or smock to protect your clothing.

soft pastels

11. Experiment and practice:

soft pastels offer a wide range of possibilities. Experiment with different techniques, colour combinations, and subjects to develop your skills and style.

Remember, soft pastels are a forgiving medium that encourages experimentation. Allow yourself to explore and enjoy the vibrant expressive qualities of soft pastels in your artwork. Most brands of soft pastels will work together so the possibilities of colour experimentation are endless.

Soft pastels:

Sennelier Soft Pastels

Accessories: 

  • GOLDEN Pastel Ground 237ml - Golden Pastel Ground is a special textured primer, designed to prepare surfaces for soft pastel. It can be tinted with acrylic colour to give a variety of base colours and the slight texture helps pastel to adhere to the surface. It can be applied to both rigid and non-rigid substrates. Product requires dilution before use. Dilute pastel ground with 20%-40% water.
  • Derwent Pastel & Charcoal Pencil Sharpener - Derwent pencil sharpeners are the easy way to achieve the perfect point. The pastel sharpener is specifically designed for use with the more fragile media of pastel pencils. It is also suitable for sharpening charcoal pencils and other large diameter pencils. Product Details; Ideal accessory for use with Derwent products. Compact and lightweight.

Pastel Accessories links

 

Ellie Jakeman
Ellie Jakeman

I have had a strong interest in the visual and creative arts since a very early age. After completing an Art and Design Degree and Post graduate studies I have taught Art and Design, Fashion and Textiles, Textile design , Fine Art print and Illustration for over 20 years. Before teaching I was a freelance artist and illustrator and decided 4 years ago I would return to freelance and commissioned work. I have created many domestic and commercial murals for hospitals and hospices. I work part time for ARTdiscount as a content creator and product tester.


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