FAQ - Pastel techniques and materials

Pastel techniques and materials
Protection, fixation and framing of pastels
General recommendations

If you have any question to add to this page, you are welcome to email it to Marie-Lydie Joffre.

 
What is a Pastel?

A Pastel is a drawing or painting done with a soft, chalk-like pastel "stick" composed of powdered pigments held together with an aqueous gum binder.

In appearance, the pastel stick essentially looks like a piece of chalk, although it is actually somewhat softer and smoother.

A drawing or painting created with this kind of stick is called a Pastel. An artist who works in the medium of pastels is called a "Pastellist".

Which medium should I use for my Pastels?

Any paper medium is suitable, as long it is neither too smooth nor lacking in sufficient stiffness to accept the strokes of the pastel stick. The choice is really only limited by the creative imagination of the artist.

The most essential consideration in choosing a medium is that the medium's surface be at least textured enough to enable the pastel powder to adhere to its surface.

For example, the highly textured paper normally used for watercolor work is also quite suitable for work in pastel, since its comparatively rough texture is sufficient to wear down the pastel stick enough to transfer the pigment and thus produce the image.

Another consideration is that any paper (or surface) which might be used as a medium for pastel painting or drawing can itself form an integral element of the final work in that, for example, a piece of paper can be died by the application of a colored wash before beginning your pastel.

Or the medium can become an essential part of your final artistic "statement" simply by its own shape or texture (as with my own "PastelLithes," which are pastels executed on stone).

To summarize:

Traditional media
Traditionally, pastels have been executed on paper only, and nearly all "fine-art" papers, after they have been properly prepared for pastel work, are suitable. There are a lot of different kinds and grades of suitable paper: hand or machine-made, textured or smooth, and every artist must experiment with each of them, in order to find the precise sort which he or she feels will best convey her own artistic intent.
Other media:
The possibilities are really quite unlimited! Plywood, chipboard, cardboard, "kraft" wrapping paper, silk paper, a piece of canvas, or of stone, etc. Literally almost anything that might come to your imagination can be used!
What are the differences between oil pastels and soft pastels?

Here are some of my feelings about oil pastels and soft pastels.

They have both equal merit. The stick of pastel is a linear agent and coloring instrument combined. What do they contain?

  • Oil pastels: pigments, wax. As they are non-toxic, they are used in schools. Sometimes the colors have no good light resistance.
  • Soft pastels: pigments, a little kaolin, gum arabic.

So they don't have the same "temper".

Some artists are much attracted by oil painting. They are fond of mixing colours over and over again in order to get their own paste and hues. They love the painting process.

Others prefer "light" paintings such as watercolour, bodycolour, tempera, ink, pastel. These are more interested in swift touches, sometimes out of ready made colors and they are often keen on drawing.

Yet there is no rule...

The same design features could be applied to oil pastels and soft pastels. For example:

  • Oil pastels can be worked, diluted and thinned like oil paintings.
  • Layers of soft pastels can not be built up indefinitely because the pigment adheres to the texture of the painting ground.
  • Oil pastel: thick, adhesive medium, gleaming and felt-like at once
  • Soft pastel: ethereal chromatic brilliance, friability, matt aspect, inner light; because the colors remain on the surface in a powdery form.

Anyway, the specific features of both media can all be inverted by the artist! Examples:

  • Oil pastels mixed with turpentine turn matt.
  • Soft pastels worked on adequate supports such as "pastel card" turn glossy. If fixed, there is adherence between each layer of colour. Degas made an intensive use of fixative and this allowed him to work over earlier layers without disturbing them.

And to make it a little bit more disturbing, each medium can be combined with other media and additional techniques!

What is encouraging is that the medium never does the work really, the artist does it in using the medium as a flexible tool to suit his own purpose.

Then in any technique the painting ground is an important partner - with pastels it’s 50% as important as the medium.

Try both pastels on various kinds of painting grounds, papers of different colour and texture, cardboard, plywood, any surface which has "tooth".

When working, you will feel which medium you are most comfortable with. What I believe is that the choice of any artistic medium is a question of intimate sensitivity.

Yes, I think soft pastels are most utilized than oil pastels. Perhaps because oil painting -which is a very rich medium- is prefered to oil pastels.

Then soft pastels provide a luminous immediacy that isn't available with any other medium.

Which kinds of pastel pencils should I use, and for what purposes?

Soft pastels, also called "dry" pastels are manufactured by many companies, and the differences between them are quite significant.

One must simply try out a number of different materials in order to find what matches one's own personality and needs, without making any a priori assumptions about what is best.

The choice of the paper (or other) medium is as important as the choice of the pastel stick itself.

In fact, among all these considerations of medium or type of stick, the most important thing is the discovery of one's own, personal "touch" -and this will only emerge as you work in the pastel medium, regardless of which tools you happen to be using at any given time.

For example, Sennelier brand sticks are very smooth in texture, and the colors are quite beautiful (especially the reds and blues); while the Schmincke brand sticks are rather "velvety" in texture and seem to "stick" to the paper.

As a result, however, these color-rich pastel sticks are not always best for "layered" work, where transparency and clarity of detail are important.

The line of sticks from Talen called "Rembrandt" -or other brand names of similar quality from other manufacturers- feel firmer in the hand, are easier to use, and meet almost all normal needs.

What is the best way to draw details or smaller-sized objects with pastels?

For details, you can draw your finer lines with the sharp edge at the end of a new stick and, when it becomes blunted through use, resharpen it with a knife or cutter; or you can form it to the exact shape you need by rubbing it on a rough surface like sandpaper.

You can also use so-called "Pastel Pencils," though the composition of these really has nothing to do with true pastel. Although they can be used to enhance the contrast of a piece, the composition of these latter materials are of quite limited quality.

The somewhat oily chalk sticks known as "Conté Crayons" can also provide quite beautiful effects; but one must always apply them on top of a pre-existing soft pastel ground and never the other way round.

All this relates to the actual strokes you make with the sticks themselves. But you can also suggest the details using more minimal means, perhaps with just a few light touches, here and there.

For example, if you want to draw a glass on a table:

  • Don't draw it with your stick, but...
  • Paint the background: the table, the wall, both of them, or any other object present nearby.
  • With the relatively sharp edge of the end of the pastel stick, draw the contour of the glass very lightly. A deft touch of highlighting will then be enough to create the illusion of transparency. Some slightly darker touches and a few strokes in a color lighter than the background can then create the illusion of a liquid within the glass.

Above all, don't bother too much with details.

As a general rule, the smaller an object is, the less it must be "worked" to achieve the desired effect. Rather, such objects should be suggested by a subtle use of light and shade; and, since these subtle effects are quite difficult to achieve, they should be executed near the end of the working process.

I always begin my work with sketch in graphite pencil; do I need to change this when using soft pastel?

Yes. Unless you intentionally intend to use the effect of this sort of relatively hard line, it would be better to give up the use of the graphite pencil when drawing sketches, because graphite is a rather oily material which has the capability of actually changing the chromatic quality of the pastel pigments themselves.

In any event, a good general rule of thumb for the compatibility of materials in any artistic medium is to always use an oily material over or on top of the non-oil based, thinner ones.

On the other hand, charcoal will blend well with pastel and will confer a certain depth of tone to the pastel parts of the work. So, I would suggest using a charcoal medium for your sketches, and then not erasing but leaving these preliminary lines when you do your final "touching up."

For example, if you use a green with charcoal you will find the effect very beautiful indeed. In addition, the initial sketch in charcoal, being a very volatile medium, will blend in naturally as you draw later with your pastels.

Of course, you can also use pastel directly for your sketches, if you draw with a somewhat light touch. To do it this way, select rather dark colors, as the darker colors are less intrusive when used for this purpose.