Introduction to Pastel Drawing

Skill Level : 1 Beginner

Medium : Pastel Painting

Subject : General

Tutor : Dennis Clark

Class Length : 1 hour 49 minutes

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Class Description

Pastel painting is a completely dry technique – no water used at all (not normally). It is usually in a stick form and with very little  binder to hold the pigment together. It can also be in pencil form. It needs a surface with “tooth” to enable the pigment to adhere to it. The final paint has to be protected behind glass to protect the pastel from smearing.

In this lesson you will learn:

1.  What equipment there is available
2.  What paper to use
3.  How to choose pastels
4.  How to protect your painting

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Class Video

Have you ever wanted to do some drawing in pastel, but you have never known what to buy or where to start? Well fear no more and read on…

Pastels are a wonderful medium to work in as you get bright, brilliant colors and an easy flowing feel to your drawings. The speed with which you can draw is also an excellent plus as you can make quick, yet detailed, drawings.

Pastel drawing works especially well for en plein air. You can get the scene sketched out quickly on location. You then not only have a dimensional drawing of the scene to work from back at home, but you also have a reasonably accurate color reference of the scene as well.
Let’s first take a look at the average bag of tricks a pastel artist uses.

What are Pastels?

Row of coloured pastel sticks

Pastels are made of pure pigment held together with a binder. This mixture is then formed into a stick shape.

You get two types of pastels – Chalk Pastels and Oil Pastels. The difference between the two is the binder, the pigment stays the same. With Chalk pastels a water based binder is used to hold the pigment together. Depending on the amount of binder used you can get either soft or hard chalk pastels. The more binder is used, the harder the pastel stick. Oil pastels on the other hand have an oil based binder.

This tutorial will only deal with hard and soft chalk pastels as they are used together and the technique for using them are the same.

The techniques used to work with oil pastel is entirely different. In fact the techniques are so different that working with chalk pastels is considered drawing where working with oil pastels is considered painting.

Hard chalk pastels are used for preliminary blocking in, Soft chalk pastels are used for detail work.

You can tell the difference between the three pastel variations by looking at them and by feeling them. Soft pastels look and feel soft like regular black board chalk. They also break as easy, or easier than regular white board chalk. They can be purchased as round or square bars.

Hard pastels are usually shaped square and are pretty hard. As the pastel has been compacted together using a lot of binder they also appear shiny.

Oil pastels feel like children’s wax crayons and are also shaped round.

Pastel drawing equipment

Basic color wheel

The standard colour wheel consists of three primary colours, red, yellow and blue. We can use that, along with white, to mix any colour under the sun by following the colour mixing rules.

Please view the tutorials about the Standard Colour Wheel as well as the one on the Colour Mixing Rules to familiarise yourself with these two concepts before continuing with this tutorial. This tutorial is an expansion of the previous two and requires you to know those concepts first.

How to choose a set of pastels

There are many different sets of pastels available on the market, deciding which to choose is really quite easy. Pastels don’t really like to be blended as the colors lose their vibrancy. You would then generally buy the biggest set you can afford, with the most amount of colors, to minimize the amount of blending you need to do.

Another point to look out for is the colors that have been grouped together in the various sets. Some sets have been put together with colors that would normally be used in a landscape drawing, some are grouped for portraits, others for seascapes, some are general color sets, etc. Buy a set with a color grouping to suit your subject taste.

The sets also vary according to the format of the pastel itself. There are sets containing round pastel sticks, other containing square sticks, others which only have a half length of pastel stick.

These pastels from Mungyo are the ones we use and can recommend. I normally buy the set of 48 or 64 (You can click the image to view it on Amazon):

Set of Mungyo Chalk Pastels

Click to view on Amazon

Chalk pastels also come in pencil format. These are fabulous if you enjoy traditional drawing or want to add fine details to your pastel drawings.

They have a lovely soft silky feel when drawing with them and and getting fine detail like animal hair, eyelashes or rigging is a dream when using the pastel pencils.

The set I use is the Stabilo CarbOthello range (you can click the link to view the set on Amazon):

Set of Stabillo CarbOthello Pastel Pencils

Click to view on Amazon


The biggest problem when working with chalk pastel is that the the powder of the pastel dries out the skin and the texture of the paper can be rough on your skin, especially when doing a large artwork. If you use surgical gloves when working with pastels, you won’t have this problem and you have the added bonus of your hands staying clean too.

Do, however, avoid inhaling the pastel dust as this can be dangerous. When working with pastel I try not to work in a windy area to avoid the wind blowing up the pastel dust into the air.

Choosing paper to draw on

Row of multi-coloured pastel papers

It is important to choose your pastel papers correctly. Unlike graphite drawing you can't just grab a sheet of photocopier paper and start drawing.

The chalk needs a rough surface to adhere to. If the surface is too smooth the pastel will simply lie on top, falling off the minute you pick up the sheet of paper.

Fortunately there is an incredible variety of pastel papers available on the market at reasonable prices.

They vary in their roughness - called tooth - as well as their colour.

When choosing the roughness of the paper there is always a trade off. The smoother the paper, the less pastel can adhere to it. The rougher the paper however, the more the tooth (texture) of the paper is visible.

Think of it this way: With a smooth paper, the pastel stick just glides over the surface instead of sticking to it. Rough paper has valleys and peaks, as the pastel stick slides over it, the pastel gets stuck on the peaks but cannot reach down into the valleys leaving them exposed. Here is an example so you can see what I mean:

Example of the roughness of pastel paper

Smoother papers allow you to get crisp details, especially when using pastel pencils. You can however not draw several layers of pastel over each other as the paper is too smooth.

Rougher paper allows you to add multiple layers of pastel down before the valleys fill up. You however loose fine detail as the detail lines break up as shown above and the detail is lost.

In both cases, when the texture of the paper has filled up with pastel dust, you cannot work over that area anymore as the paper simply doesn't accept any more pastel, it just slides off the surface.

You thus need to decide how much layering / texturing you require in the drawing as well as how much detail and then decide on an appropriate paper texture from there.

The next consideration is the colour of the paper. There are three general rules here:

1) choose a neutral colour for the specific drawing. For example if you are drawing a seascape you will choose a paper similar to the dominant colour in the sea. That way if there is any of the paper texture showing through, it optically blends away.

2) choose the compliment of the neutral colour. For example with the seascape you will choose a brown / orange coloured paper to draw on as that is the complimentary colour of blue. The theory here is that when complimentary colours are placed next to each other, they make each other look more vibrant. So if any of the paper's texture is visible, it will help to make the drawing look more vibrant.

3) choose a background colour. By choosing a background colour you save a lot of pastel as you don't need to fill in the background with pastel. This technique is popular when drawing still life scenes.

Pastel papers come in different sizes. These sizes are generally the same as standard canvas sizes as well as the standard paper sizes. Smaller sheets are also available in pad format which are fantastic for when you go on holiday. You can do several drawings while on holiday and not be concerned about how to transport the individual sheets or keep them out of harms way. The pad takes care of that for you. When you get home you can then remove the drawings from the pad and have them framed.

The two most common pastel paper brands are Strathmore and Canson Mi-Teintes

Standard Colour Wheel

Basic color wheel

The standard colour wheel consists of three primary colours, red, yellow and blue. We can use that, along with white, to mix any colour under the sun by following the colour mixing rules.

Please view the tutorials about the Standard Colour Wheel as well as the one on the Colour Mixing Rules to familiarise yourself with these two concepts before continuing with this tutorial. This tutorial is an expansion of the previous two and requires you to know those concepts first.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis has been drawing and painting for most of his life (since 1944) and shortly after that in watercolours. During WWII there were no art books so to speak, so he had to teach himself through experimentation, sweat and tears. He teaches the following mediums online - Watercolours, Pastels, Acrylics, Pencil, Pastels, Pen and Ink and Oils.
Read more about Dennis Clark

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