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All About Pastels

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If you are interested in trying pastels or have booked into a pastel course here is a basic explanation of what they are, the different types available and how they are used...

Soft Pastels

The most commonly used type of pastel is the ‘soft’ pastel. Soft pastels have been widely used for at least 200 years, but simple chalks can be traced back to caveman times. Soft pastels are as their name suggests soft, chalky and crumbly; just how soft depends on the manufacture and preparation of the pigment. They are applied to (usually coloured) paper and can be blended with various tools or with fingers. A professional pastel artist will usually have far more colours than a painter, as colour blending is limited and generally only done on the paper, rather than on a palette.

Other types of soft pastels:

Conte Crayons: Square in shape and harder than standard pastels, they are good for fine details and mixed media work, less easy to blend.


Pastel Pencils: Pastel in pencil form, firmer than loose pastels and therefore less smooth to blend


Soft pastels in mixed media work:

Soft pastels can be used on top of any dry media, watercolour, charcoal collage etc

In the picture below I combined charcoal, white conte, blue and brown soft pastel on coloured paper.


Oil pastels

These are a comparatively new invention, and appeared early to mid 20th Century, prompted by requests from artists like Picasso for a robust pastel that could be used on a variety of surfaces including canvas and wood. More like a child’s waxy crayon than a chalk, oil pastels do not give off any dust so are therefore much cleaner to work with. They can be harder to adjust though and do not blend as easily. A variety of techniques can be used with them; they can be blended with fingers or tools and even softened and manipulated with heated tools.


Oil pastels in mixed media work

Oil pastels can be used on all sorts of supports from metal to wood to paper and in all sorts of mixed media work. It is worth noting that they repel water so can be used as a ‘wax resist’ type technique to great effect with watercolour painting. However once they are on your watercolour paper they will not come off, nor can you paint directly over them to cover the marks you have made.

In the mixed media painting (this is a cropped detail) below I used an oil pastel to make texture on the coral behind the fish.




Traditionally soft pastels are used on coloured paper, especially designed for them. Although oil pastels can be used on many surfaces pastel paper would be the best place to start for these too. Different types and colours of pastel paper are available, including luxurious ‘velour’ surfaces much loved by professionals. Paper comes loose or in pads (sometimes with a selection of colours). The colour of the paper will have a bearing on the final drawing, so light, dark, muted or bright - consider the final effect you want to achieve.




Much like paints you will pay more the higher the quality. Individual colours can be purchased or starter sets. Do not be afraid to snap or even sand your pastels if you need a sharper edge. Special boxes with trays of small divisions can be used to store a large collection, although some artists recommend storing pastels colour grouped in boxes of dried rice to keep them clean.




Tortillions – paper stumps used for blending
Colour shapers – a modern blending tool with a rubber tip
Spray fixative – this will not completely fix the painting, and can alter the colour balance if applied too heavily.
Baby wipes – perfect for cleaning your hands as you work.




It is a mistake to use pencil for your underdrawing, it will show at the end. Instead choose a neutral coloured pastel, or one close to the colour of your paper.


Start with broad, blended areas of colour, put very fine details on last or they will be lost as you work.


Whilst it is not impossible to combine both types of pastel, generally (and certainly whilst learning) stick to soft or oil pastels through your whole painting.


Tap excess dust off over a bin, rather than blowing, this will make a mess and could be hazardous to breath in.


Unless you have hundreds of colours you may have to accept not having a perfect match for what is in front of you. Using contrasting or unusual colours can sometimes make for a vibrant or unusual painting so just work with what you have!

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