‘Pastels are quick, easy and rewarding to use but the uninitiated can find them daunting as there’s so much choice,’ says Robert Dutton. ‘I’m often asked which brand works best, what the difference is between hard and soft pastels and whether you have to buy the whole range to create a painting with them’.

Find the answers to this and more with our guide to pastel painting.

You can use the tabs below to jump to each section.

What are pastels? Discover the different types of pastels

Which pastels should I use? Discover the advantages of each

Discover pastel papers

Blending, fixing and pastel techniques

What are pastels? Types of pastel explained

Soft pastels

These contain more pigment and less binder making the colours vibrant and intense. They can be used easily and quickly to apply colour to large areas. They also blend easily. However they cannot be used for creating sharp edges or fine details.

Brands to try:

Hard pastels

These contain more binder than soft pastels therefore they won’t produce the same vibrant coverage, nor will they smudge, blend or layer as well, but they are ideal for crisp edges and fine detail.

Brands to try:

Pastel pencils

These are not as soft as soft pastels but are noticeably softer than hard pastels. This means they tend to blend and layer more easily. And, being in encased in wood, they are by far the least messy form of pastel painting.

Brands to try:

Oil pastels

Oil pastels comprise Artists’ quality pigments mixed with a small amount of wax, which is softened with a smaller quantity of oil. The sticks are not chalky or powdery to touch and they are dust free, making them ideal for those with allergies.

The techniques for using oil pastels differ from other pastels and are not covered here, but you can find out more with Tim Fisher.

Brands to try:

Pan Pastels

Pan Pastels offer a cleaner method of pastel painting. The soft pastel colour is contained in pans ready to be applied to a surface with your finger, a brush or the special Pan Pastel applicator.

Read Robert Dutton's full guide to Pan Pastels.

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Should I use soft or hard pastels? Discover more

‘The answer is – both!’ says Robert.

Soft pastels create beautiful subtle passages of colour very easily on all types of support and create sumptuous transitions of blends and layering in your work. However, soft pastels can fill the ‘tooth’ of the support really quickly so choosing a pastel paper with plenty of surface texture is a good idea – especially if you want to layer or ‘scumble’ your pastels one over the other to create optical blends and character-full expressive layering.

Hard pastels tend to create a much ‘dryer’, finer mark, with colours slowly being manipulated, merged and blended together as the pastels begin to work into one another and over one another. Quite often the layering can be subtle and considered but still there is plenty of scope to create vigorous marks and solid areas of intense colour with firmer, pressured applications and vigorous drawing techniques.

Combining hard and soft pastels in both pastel and mixed-media work gives the best of both worlds – fabulous passages of richly layered colour and detail and subtlety when required with harder pastels.

Winter Descent into Ennerdale, The Lake District, mixed-media ink and pastel on black Canson Mi-Teintes Touch 350gsm, (50x65cm)

For this dramatic scene I used medium and soft pastels in layers with scumbling techniques. Fixative was used extensively to darken colours, and to restore the tooth of the support for more layering. All 36 colours of the Unison Colour Moorland Set were used, as well as the tips, sides and various lengths of Rembrandt pastels for much of the topographical detail and sharp edges.

Top tip

Mix it up! Work with hard and soft pastels in combination to create different pastel painting effects.

Robert shares his top choices for soft and hard pastels

Hard pastel

My preferred brands for harder pastels are Royal Talens Rembrandt pastels, available in 225 pastels and renowned for their quality. All pigments go through strict quality controls to ensure there is no grittiness – just pure beautiful highly pigmented colours and tints that inspire total confidence in use.

For very hard pastels for drawing I very often use Royal Talens Carré pastels. Again, these are beautifully made and available in 18 colours with excellent colour rendition and accuracy of line, due to their sharp edges and rectangular shapes.

Royal Talens Professional Carré Pastels

These hard pastels are superb for creating sharp details and also really useful for sketching and drawing – they glide across the surface of the support.

Soft pastel

Unison Colour and Sennelier are my preferred brands for soft pastel painting. Unison Colour are magical to work with! Any artists using them will tell you how great they are – the size is perfect and they feel good in the hand. The pastels hold well together even when firm pressure is used when working with them. Colours are rich and varied and pigments used are of the top quality to ensure rich passages of colour in your work.

Sets of pastel colours are one of the most economical ways to start a collection of pastels. Many brands have attractively priced half-stick sets these days and they are great value for money – a great way to get you started. Royal Talens have mini sets of 5 and 10 half-stick sets of carefully selected tinted, earth and brighter colours, which are welcome additions to any pastellist’s colour range.

Top tip

Don’t be precious with your pastels – unwrap them and break them! If you only use the tips you are missing out on a huge variety of techniques. Use them on their sides as well as the tips. The lovely sharp lines and details you crave in your work are created with the sharp edges of newly broken pieces of pastel.

What paper should I use for pastel painting? Find out here

‘Before you start a pastel painting which will possibly involve a lot of textural work, it is important to choose the right support,’ says Charmian Edgerton in her 1994 Leisure Painter series on pastel painting. 'Pastels need a paper or board with a ‘tooth’ or an abrasive surface, otherwise the surface quickly clogs with pigment'.

Types of paper for pastel painting

Sandpaper or other gritty surfaces which are less harsh. These can be more expensive and you will use up your pastels more quickly.

Brands to try:

Ingres or laid papers which have a very distinctive gridline pattern embossed into the surface. These are affordable and make it easy to blend your colours. Note that the pattern will show through though.

Brands to try:

Honeycomb or dimpled papers are similar to Ingres but have a less distinctive texture embossed into their surface so is less likely to show through.

Brands to try:

Velour surfaces which have a velvety, material-like feel to them. They can take a little bit of getting used to but hold a lot of pastel and work well for artists who are looking for soft edges.

Brands to try:

You can also make your own marble dust board by mixing acrylic gesso with marble dust and paint it in thin layers on to the smooth side of a piece of hardboard. You can also work on watercolour paper but it is best stretch this on to a board to avoid any cockling of the paper.

Top tips for pastel paper

  1. Explore different surfaces. Pastel works exceptionally well on watercolour paper and often watercolour works just as well on some pastel papers.
  2. Combining pastels over a watercolour underpainting on different textured surfaces and colours makes for wonderful eye-catching mixed-media effects.
  3. Before you start your painting, experiment with your pastel on spare paper samples. The pastels will give you a wide range of marks and before you start on your picture it can be wise to practise overlaying colours and combining areas with dots and dashes.

Pastel papers come in many colours, which ones should you choose?

Pastel papers come in a wide range of colours and good quality pastels will completely cover even the darkest coloured papers. This means you can experiment and see what results you achieve. Different coloured paper will result in different finished paintings.

‘I generally choose a colour that I consider will unify the image as I like to allow the paper to show through and become a colour in its own right,’ advises Derek Daniells. ‘This may result in choosing a mid-toned ground where I can immediately register the light and dark tones.’

‘For a hot sunny subject stay away from bright yellow supports as you will be constantly battling with the paper colour. Instead choose a dark background and literally paint the sunlight, making the paper colour do much of the work in the shadow areas.

Read more from Derek in his 2001 article from The Artist.

Top tip

Working on a paper which is a complementary colour to the local colour can give striking results.

What else will I need? Discover the tools required for painting with pastels

The simple answer is - not much, but you may find the following useful:

  • Sharpeners. If using pastel pencils a craft knife or sanding block is needed for sharpening. Don’t try sharpening hard or soft pastels though.
  • Erasers. A plastic/vinyl eraser and a putty eraser are both useful when pastel painting. Recommended brands are Faber-Castell and Staedtler. For very precise work you could try a Tombow Mono Retractable Eraser.
  • Blending tools. Easiest and cheapest is to use your fingers but you can also use a blending stump or tortillon, pastel shapers or a soft brush or cloth.

To blend or not to blend?

It’s widely considered that far too much rubbing and blending will rub and blend the life out of a pastel painting.

You can use pastel sticks scumbled one over the other in different directions with multiple strokes to blend colours together. The result is less soft and ‘fluffy’ and creates more depth.

For his mixed-media drawings Robert uses occasionally uses PanPastel Sofft tools with a selection of their colours, such as the range of neutral greys and black, and their Pearl Medium, which is available in both white and black in fine and coarse textures. These colours work exceptionally well to create cloud and mist effects – useful when you are working in the mountains of the Lake District and moorland terrain in the Pennines in combination of course with other media.

A Break in the Clouds above Great Gable, the Lake District, hard and soft pastel on black Canson Mi-Teintes Touch 350gsm, (50x65cm)

The eye will always follow the direction of the stroke, so describe a shape or land mass by leading the eye through it or along it. Notice how the different changes in angle were used to depict each land mass and swirling cloud. Lost-and-found edges were used throughout to give the effect of emerging and disappearing mountains.

Should I use a fixative?

‘The use of fixative with pastels seems to be very much a ‘Marmite’ choice – you either like it or you don’t,’ says Robert Dutton. ‘Most artists think that it darkens your pastel, dulling the bright colours and creating a rather disappointing effect’.

Ways of using fixative
  • You can use fixative to darken passages of colour – thus extending my colour range by creating dramatic darks. To make a bright colour look brighter, place a dark next to it; to achieve this, mask off the brighter areas before spraying with fixative to protect them from being dulled.
  • By spraying fixative at close range, then further away from your work, and varying the length of time, angle and direction of your spray, subtle transitions of colour blends between different colours can be achieved. It’s also very effective for pushing pastel deep into the tooth of your support so that you can scumble colours for rich textural effects and optical blending.
  • Liquid fixative offers you a whole new ball game with your pastel painting. Apply it in varying amounts – the pastel is liquefied and becomes more like a thick paint that you can manipulate over the surface with a brush for wash effects.

Derek Daniells recommends lightly spray-fixing your work once or twice during the painting process but to restate highlights and certain accented areas afterwards, leaving these unfixed to retain impact.

Top tip for fixing pastels

Use fixative, NOT hairspray! Hairspray will yellow your pastel paintings and damage your pastel work over time. Don’t ignore the creative uses of fixative, such as masking, spraying and layering.

How do I use pastels? Pastel painting techniques explained

Top tip from Derek Daniells

‘I find it useful to make notes about what turned me on to the subject and what to portray,’ says Derek. ‘Pinning notes to the easel can be useful in focusing your thoughts. Although the journey through the painting may have some exciting turns, getting distracted can lead to a confused and disjointed image’.

Top advice from Robert Dutton

  1. Work vertically and place a catch tray under the base of your board to prevent the pastel particles dropping onto the floor. You won’t accidentally smear your pastel painting with your sleeve as you work, either.
  2. Using sticks of various lengths, start by using the side of the pastel to lightly block in the dark areas and lightest lights. It is helpful to work gently early on to preserve enough tooth in the paper to float on the subsequent colour.  
  3. Keep your early tones a few notches away from their actual value so there is still room for the final ‘hit’ of colour in the finishing stages.
  4. As you progress, build up the painting using both side strokes and the tip of the pastel to develop form.
  5. Create a loose pattern of darks and lights, avoiding outlines which you may later wish to remove.  
  6. Don’t knit and stitch your pastel painting together working inch by inch, top to bottom. Adopt a freer approach and build your pastel paintings all over, all at once to create more unity and harmony and energy in your work. Working over the entire image also means you can evaluate progress as a whole.
  7. Turning and working on the painting through 90, 180 to 360 degrees will allow you to see the image afresh as a collection of shapes and tones and helps to vary the direction of pastel marks, making for a livelier surface.
  8. Try to avoid too much blending, aim to float one colour over another until you achieve the colour and tone you want. Too much rubbing can destroy the freshness of the pastel and lead to a ‘woolly’ image.

Above Hebden Bridge – Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, Rembrandt pastels on black Canson Mi-Teintes Touch 350gsm, (50x65cm)

A pastel painting in transition. Having initially created this on site I now have the necessary structural foundation to complete it in the studio – the first-hand outdoor experience being essential to the way I normally work. Notice the directional strokes and scumbling, as well as the limited colours used – you don’t need to use the whole box of available colours to create a successful pastel painting. This approach really does do you and your painting plenty of favours.

Ready to give pastels a try?

Follow Tony Paul’s demonstration to paint simple landscape.

For advice on how to frame pastels see top tips from Ken Gofton and Cheryl Culver.

See the asscociated articles and videos below.

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