Pastels are liberating used as a drawing medium, says Martin Williams – and the intense colours are ideal for jockeys’ silks

The term ‘pastel painting’ has its roots in the 18th century when aristocrats and the landed gentry were portrayed, and in the majority of cases flattered by a smoothness of face and finery. This illusionistic quality was produced by totally blending a small amount of pigment, until no marks were visible, with a pointed cotton stick called a ‘torchon’. However, I tend to consider pastels as primarily a drawing medium, albeit with a full palette of colour. I view the pastel work of Degas, for example, as great coloured drawings, although ironically Degas referred to them as ‘painting’ in pastel. 

I find completely ‘filled in’ pastel paintings which have very few, if any, visible marks and a uniform smoothness of texture too ‘slick’. In such cases I always feel it is a case of trying to make pastels do what oil paint is far more capable of achieving. Because of its directness, pastel should be an essentially liberating and responsive medium. Paula Rego, for example, positively wrestles with the physical nature of her life-size figure drawings using large crumbling chunks of pastel. It is certainly true that the medium has a certain rough immediacy and spontaneity which comes with working directly with your hands. Fingers can push, blend and cajole pigment, whilst palms can smooth out sections or add sweeping movement to large unfixed areas of pigment.

As in many of my oil paintings I like to leave areas underworked, in the case of pastels with the support showing through and with basic structural drawing marks, and then work a certain amount of detail into other areas, creating focal points and a rich, layered, impasto texture. The combination of flowing drawing lines merging in and out of more defined passages adds life and dynamism to a majority of subject matter.


Drawing and mark making are fundamental to my way of working. I aim to have a range of marks visible in a finished drawing and keep blending and ‘smudging’ to a minimum. The quality, strength and nature of marks can strongly influence the subject matter; for example powerful directional lines drawn with both the end and side of a pastel will add far more impact and interest to a stormy sky.

Although they are not in pastel I am always inspired by the mark making nature of Toulouse-Lautrec’s oil paintings on cardboard – they are full of life and energy with areas of the buff cardboard left showing through as an important part of the final composition.

The Hurdler, pastel on pastelboard, 8 x 11in (20 x 28cms)

Initial drawing is usually done with charcoal, pastel pencils or crayon if I am working on a smaller scale (see The Hurdler, above). This is a crucial stage, obviously, for establishing composition and form, but also because I like the option of leaving areas of drawing visible. I try not to be precious about the base drawing, preferring it to be rough and restated where necessary. If an area of drawing works particularly well at this stage I will leave it alone on the ‘less is more’ principle, in which I am a great believer. This principle applies particularly to Indigo Silks where the jockey’s breeches were stated in seconds with four colours, and the charcoal drawing remains clearly visible. If I do need to blend or soften areas I will use my fingers, or for larger areas I tend to use kitchen roll and because it is not totally smooth or pliant it will blend while allowing a controllable amount of marks to show through.

The direction of marks is important in supporting areas (see Tennis, Biarritz, below). I keep them roughly in one direction unless making a specific statement such as highlights. If this isn’t adhered to the result can be a mass of busy marks that are hard to decipher and ultimately detract from the subject matter.

Tennis, Biarritz, pastel on board 13 x 17in (33 x 43cms)

Colour and colour mixing

Leaving the Paddock, pastel on board, 11½ x 16½in (29 x 42cms)

My attitude to colour is essentially the same as for oil painting.  I aim to bring as much subtle colour variation into my work as possible. By looking hard enough you can see far more colours in any subject than you thought possible – I tend to make a feature of these colours, for example a flick of greeny grey on the horses’ legs in Leaving The Paddock. I always try to add a stroke of unexpected colour to any subject, where a reflected shadow or a complementary colour, to bring a spark to a dull area. I will often contrive reasons to add touches of red to areas of foliage, or orange to beach scenes.

Because I currently work mainly on equestrian subjects, particularly horse racing, colour has a high profile in terms of jockeys’ silks, which if you attempted to represent every tonal subtlety in their folds would take an eternity. I fall back on simple bold marks and a little blending with the finger. Pastels do, however, have the clarity and intensity necessary to do silks justice.

Layering of pastel gives both rich colour and textural variation. Allowing lower layers to show through in places means effectively that the eye does a certain amount of natural blending. It is always a sound policy, as in oil painting, to start thinly and then build up more texture, in the case of pastels by applying more pressure to emphasise impasto highlights, for example.

Layering works particularly well for passages of dark tone. I always find a flat burnt umber of black kills off a drawing – by working reds, blues, mauves and greens into these areas they have life and interest and tend to harmonise more effectively with the rest of the composition. Fixative is crucial to layering and pronounced texture – I use it lightly and at fairly regular intervals.

My approach to composition is slightly different when working in pastel. Rightly or wrongly I feel the medium offers more scope for experimentation and it is difficult not to be inspired by Degas, who challenges many of the so-called rules of composition, particularly in his racecourse-based work.

Subject matter 

Fundamentally, what really matters is subject, and not materials or technique. In many cases a preoccupation with technique can lead to slickness, which is to be avoided. As with my oil painting I tend to look for subjects that offer a distinct quality of light which adds its own dimension to the composition. It gives something to strive for apart from a mere depiction of chosen subject matter. It is always important to have an impression in your mind of what you are trying to achieve and communicate. Skies, horses and beaches figure prominently in my work mainly because the light is always doing something interesting, either in cause or effect. I thoroughly enjoy, for example, flicking in highlights in pastel because their clarity brings a subject to immediate life.
It is advisable to avoid complex subjects because they can become far too busy, particularly if you are aiming to retain distinctive marks. Excessive detail is also to be avoided where possible.


The Talking Horse, pastel on paper, 18½ x 12in (47 x 35cms)

I am constantly searching for the ideal surface for my approach to pastels and have yet to find it despite numerous experiments. My preference is for pastel board either created by me or purchased, such as the ‘old’ Sansfix.  I do use pastel papers and particularly like the texture of Canson Mi-Teintes, which was used for The Talking Horse, but I find it too easy to crease and I find it’s becoming increasingly difficult to buy a pristine sheet of pastel paper.

Indigo Silks, pastel on board, 10½ x 15½in (27 x 39cms)

For my own surfaces I use 2mm or 4mm thick MDF coated both sides with rabbit skin glue to prevent warping, and conservation quality mounting board which I obtain from my framer. I have recently experimented with a variety of acrylic-based textured gels, of which there are now many available, which blend with any quantity of acrylic colours and mediums. I generally find Golden Pumice Gels, which range from fine to extremely coarse textures, to be of very high quality, particularly when used in conjunction with the Golden Acrylic paints for underpainting. Both Indigo Silks and Tennis, Biarritz are varying results generated by working on such surfaces.

There is little logic to my accumulation of pastels. For example, I don’t have a vast range of tonal variants from a base palette of colours. Although I can see the benefit of this approach it doesn’t necessarily suit my drawing-based approach.  I tend to collect colours as and when I need them for specific subjects. My range includes a majority of major brands, namely Sennelier, Unison, Rowney and Schminke and I find them all to have their own particular qualities. Unison are velvety in texture and crumble easily whereas Schminke are creamier and very soft. My preference is generally Sennelier and Unison. I also use a collection of harder Conte crayons, which I tend to use to redefine a drawing, as well as pastel and charcoal pencils and basic crayons.