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A beginners guide to using water-soluble pastels

by Ellie Jakeman March 19, 2024

A beginners guide to using water-soluble pastels

Water-soluble pastels are a dynamic medium that combines the vibrancy of traditional pastels with the versatility of watercolour. These pastels are formulated with a water-soluble binder, allowing artists to achieve a painterly effect by activating the pigments with water. This unique characteristic enables a wide range of techniques, from delicate washes and translucent layers to bold and expressive strokes. Water-soluble pastels are favoured for their adaptability, enabling artists to explore both dry and wet applications on various surfaces like paper, watercolour paper and watercolour panels. This amazing watercolour medium grants artists the freedom to experiment with the interplay of colours and water, providing an exciting and fluid dimension to their artistic creations.

A Beginner guide to using water-soluble pastels and a few handy tips:

Dry Application:

Use the pastels as traditional dry pastels by applying them directly to the paper. Water-soluble pastels when used on cold pressed paper will leave a beautiful textured finish. When used on a smoother surface will provide a smooth block colour. 

Experiment with layering and blending dry pastels for different effects. When diluted with water the vivid pigments are unleashed!

Wet Application:

Apply the pastels dry, then use a wet brush,  sponge or spritz to activate and blend the colours. The wet application can create watercolour-like effects with soft transitions between colours.

Wash Technique:

Draw with water-soluble pastels, then use a wet brush to dissolve the pigment and create washes of colour. Using the side of the pastel will cover more of the surface area on the paper, with a flat wide brush or a wash brush, work the water across with a sweeping motion without stopping from edge to edge. This will ensure a seamless block of colour. When using the water-soluble pastels on hot pressed watercolour paper you will see less texture and more of an even colour coverage. This technique is effective for creating background washes or covering large areas.

Graded Wash:

Apply the pastel with more pressure to create a more concentrated and pigmented  area you are drawing. You can use several colours to create the colour you want. Then use a wet brush to gradually spread and dilute the colour as you move down or across the paper.

Two Colour Wash:

Apply two different colours next to each other on the paper, slightly overlapping in the middle. Dilute the pigment with water using a large brush working from one side to the other.

Scraping/ Sgraffito:

Use a palette knife or a similar tool to scrape away layers of pastel after applying and wetting them. Do not press too hard as the damp paper may rip. This creates texture and can reveal underlying colours.


Spritz water onto the paper before or after applying the pastels for a textured, splattered effect. This technique can add interest to backgrounds or create a sense of movement.

Masking techniques:

Apply masking fluid or use a resist (such as wax) before applying water-soluble pastels, to maintain the luminosity of the paper, or to maintain the first colour layer down. If you have laid down a base colour first, all surfaces should be left to dry before applying masking fluid. Once applied masking fluid should also be completely dry before applying any water-soluble pastel over the top. Once you have waited for the masking fluid to dry you can lightly apply water-soluble crayon.

Step 1: Masking fluid painted on cold press paper watercolour paper. Leave to completely dry before applying water-soluble pastel
Fluid application _1

Step 2: Lightly apply water-soluble pastel
Step 3: Decide if you want to wet the whole of the area where you have used masking fluid or just certain areas? Once you have wet the water-soluble pastel the pigment will glide across the paper surface into all the areas where there is no masking fluid.

Step 4: 
When the pigment has dried you can then remove the dried masking fluid to reveal the white of the paper.


Wax Resist Technique:

    1. Use wax crayon or white oil pastel to draw on the paper before applying water-soluble pastels.  
    2. When you apply the pastels and later add water, the areas with the wax will resist the water-soluble pastel.


    Draw a design on the paper,  using a stylus or embossing tool to create indentations. Try not to cut the paper by pressing down too hard. Apply water-soluble pastels over your design and the colour will be more intense in the embossed areas. If you have worked with dry pastels your design will retain the underlying colour of the paper. 

    Mixing with other media: 

    Combine water-soluble pastels with other water-based media such as watercolour or watercolour pencils for mixed-media effects.

    Remember to experiment and explore these techniques on different surfaces and with various papers to see how the water-soluble pastels interact and behave. The combination of dry and wet techniques provides a wide range of possibilities for artistic expression.


    Redon Study on ARTdiscount watercolour panel with Caran d’Ache Neocolor and Derwent Inktense pencils. 


    Water soluble pastels

    A few more mixed media ideas!

    Mixed Media Illustration using Caran D’Ache water soluble-pastels, Derwent Inktense, Unipin Fine Line 0.5 pen, Winsor & Newton Fine liner and Pentel Hybrid Gel Grip DX White.

    Water-soluble pastels, also known as watercolour pastels or water-soluble pastels, offer versatile possibilities for mixed media artworks. Here are some other media that you can use in combination with water-soluble pastels:

    • Watercolour Paint: Combining water-soluble pastels with traditional watercolour paint allows for creating vibrant and expressive mixed media pieces. You can use watercolour paints to enhance or extend the colours applied with pastels.
    • Graphite or Charcoal: Incorporating graphite or charcoal drawings with water-soluble pastels can add depth and texture to your artwork. You can use these mediums for underdrawings or to create contrast against the softness of pastels.
    • Ink: Experiment with waterproof ink pens or India ink to add fine lines or intricate details over water-soluble pastel layers. Ink can create strong contrast and definition within your artwork.
    • Acrylic Paint: Mixing water-soluble pastels with acrylic paint offers unique textural effects and allows for building layers with different opacities. Acrylic paint can provide a solid base or highlights to your pastel work.
    • Gouache: Gouache is a water-based paint similar to watercolour but more opaque. Combining gouache with water-soluble pastels can result in rich, velvety textures and vibrant colours.
    • Marker Pens: Using waterproof marker pens over water-soluble pastels allows for adding fine details or precise lines. You can also experiment with blending marker colours into the pastel layers.
    • Collage: Incorporating collage elements such as torn paper, fabric, or found objects can add dimension and interest to your mixed media artwork. 
    • Combine collage with water-soluble pastels for dynamic compositions.
    • Mixed Media Papers: Explore papers specifically designed for mixed media, which can handle wet and dry media effectively. These papers provide a stable surface for layering different materials.
    • Varnish or Fixative: Once your mixed media artwork is complete, consider sealing it with a varnish or fixative to protect the surface and ensure the longevity of your creation.
    • Fixative Spray for Water-Soluble Media: Some art supply manufacturers produce fixative sprays specifically formulated for water-soluble media like watercolour and gouache. These fixatives are designed to provide protection without dissolving or smudging the pastel pigments. Before applying any fixative to your water-soluble pastel artwork, it's essential to test it on a small, inconspicuous area to ensure compatibility and desired results. Additionally, follow the manufacturer's instructions regarding application and drying times to achieve the best outcomes.

    Before applying the varnish, ensure that your watercolour painting is completely dry. Then, shake the can well and spray the varnish evenly over the surface of your painting from a distance of approximately 30 cm (12 inches). It's recommended to apply multiple thin coats rather than one thick coat to avoid drips or puddles.

    Allow each coat to dry completely before applying the next one, following the manufacturer's instructions regarding drying times. Once the varnish has dried, your watercolour painting will be sealed and protected, preserving its colours and ensuring its longevity.

    When combining different media with water-soluble pastels, it is essential to experiment and find what works best for your artistic vision. Embrace the versatility of mixed media to create unique and captivating artworks.

    Papers and canvas panel suitable for water-soluble pastels.

    When working with water-soluble pastels, selecting the right substrate is crucial to achieving the desired results. Here are some suitable substrates you can use:

    Watercolor Paper: Watercolour paper is a popular choice for water-soluble pastels due to its ability to handle moisture. Look for heavyweight papers (around 140-300 gsm) with a rough or textured surface to provide tooth for the pastels to grip onto.
    Mixed Media Paper: Mixed media paper is designed to withstand various wet and dry media, making it suitable for water-soluble pastels as well. These papers often have a versatile surface texture and can handle multiple layers of pastel and water.
    Pastel Paper: Pastel paper is specially formulated with a textured surface to grip pastel particles. While it may not handle water as well as watercolour paper, it can still be used effectively with water-soluble pastels, especially when used with minimal water.
    Watercolor Canvas or Boards: Canvas or boards primed for watercolour painting can be a unique substrate for water-soluble pastels. They provide a sturdy surface for working with wet media and offer a different texture compared to paper.

    Mixed Media Canvas: Canvas designed for mixed media allows for experimentation with various media, including water-soluble pastels. These canvases often have a textured surface similar to mixed media paper, providing tooth for the pastels to adhere to.
    Illustration Board: Illustration board is a rigid surface made of paper mounted on a backing board. It can handle water-soluble pastels well, especially when using minimal water. Look for boards with a smooth or textured surface depending on your preference.
    Watercolour Blocks: Watercolour blocks consist of sheets of watercolour paper bound together on all four sides, preventing the paper from buckling when wet. They are convenient for plein air painting or working on the go with water-soluble pastels.
    Handmade Paper:  Handmade papers with unique textures and fibres can add character to your water-soluble pastel artworks. Experiment with different handmade papers to achieve varied effects and textures.



    When choosing a substrate for water-soluble pastels, consider factors such as surface texture, weight, absorbency, and stability when wet. Ultimately, the best substrate will depend on your artistic preferences and the specific techniques you plan to use. Experimenting with different substrates can lead to discovering new possibilities and effects in your artwork.

    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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