Top Tips for painting children in pastels

  • Try to get to know your subject matter a little before embarking on the first painting.
  • Start with a simple subject. Often the best pictures of children are the simplest.
  • If working from a photograph, choose one with good light and clear focus on the subject. Don’t make life harder for yourself by using poor reference to work from.
  • Try to find a photograph that inspires you, or you make a connection with. It might remind you of something you did as a child, of your own children or grandchildren, or it’s just full of sunshine and makes you feel cheerful.

Four Musketeers, pastel on sandpaper, (50x50cm)

Top techniques!

I use a combination of several techniques, which I often build up in layers. It is essential to me to have a variety of mark making, to express everything from energy and dynamics, to the softness of skin.

Broad energetic strokes

It helps if you stand up to do this technique, as it should be full of energy. Break the pastel in half, and make quick, energetic marks, using your arm as well as your hand. It’s great for giving the impression of movement, but make sure you make the marks in the direction of the movement. It can be used to make a dynamic layer of under-painting. You can cover large areas quickly. Warning, don’t smudge too much!


Overlaying several colours and smudging in places is ideal for skin and hair. Remember that when you smudge the pastel it loses its vibrancy, so use that to your advantage, either to provide a contrast to a more intense focal point, to provide a smoother layer to work over, or as a muted background.


Making repeated light strokes going in the same direction, with the edge of a pastel or a pastel pencil, is a wonderfully subtle way to blend colours, especially on areas such as the face or hands. If you leave the strokes un-smudged, your eye will combine the colours when you stand back. There are so many colours to be seen in skin, both natural and reflected, it’s a great way to hint at them. On a small scale this works well with harder pastels, such as Inscribe, but the softer pastels can be used in this way on larger pieces. The technique can be seen in many of Degas’ nudes.

Twisting the line

Drawing with the side edge of the pastel, as well as the end, creates a lost-and-found effect. This can provide a variety of marks and variable lines, which all adds to the life, movement and interest of your picture. Great for capturing figures in motion, hair, and long fur on animals. It helps greatly if you leave areas of paper showing, and part of the picture just hinted at. Take a look at the vigorous dancers depicted by Toulouse-Lautrec.



To overcome the problem of overworking the surface of the paper, and the grey muddy mess of too much pastel that can develop, I use a blade or piece of acetate to scratch off the dust of previous layers. I used to watch my father do this with his architectural pencil drawings, and it’s a way of getting back to the surface of the paper, but still retaining a lot of the colour that you have laid down. Great for making your last highlights have more impact.


I am constantly looking for new papers, as the challenge of getting to know a new surface or background colour often leads to refreshing work. With pastels, the colour of the paper is part of your palette so makes a great difference to the look of the finished piece. Sometimes I pick a colour that harmonises with my main pastel colours, and at other times I want a complementary colour, to make the pigment really jump out, such as blue under bright orange.
Some pastel papers are more textured on one side than the other, and, if this is the case, I always use the smoother side, as I find too much texture complicates things, especially where delicate hands and faces need to be painted. I buy whole sheets from local art shops, varying between 50x65cm to 55x75cm and cut them to the size I want, usually a half or quarter sheet. My favourites include:

  • Canson Mi-Tientes, colour moonstone, is a lovely subtle undercolour for portraits.
  • Winsor Universal from Winsor & Newton has more tooth to it, and I’ve experimented with several colours, including terracotta and royal blue.
  • Canford Art Paper is smoother than pastel papers so lends itself to pushing the pastel across the surface to create the feeling of a figure moving. You can’t build up too many layers on smoother paper, however, or apply such intensity of colour. This intensity is achieved to some extent by fixative. This is the only time I use fixative, as generally it deadens tonal values, and destroys all my hard-earned dynamics!
  • Industrial sandpaper is traditional sand colour and very useful for beach scenes! Although the extra tooth allows for sumptuous, velvety colour combinations, and dazzling strength of colour, as so much pigment is trapped in the texture, it is hard to achieve the sketchy, lost-and-found look that I love so much.

Digging in the Sand, pastel on Canford paper, (70x50cm)


Pastels are a blend of two main constituents: pigment, which varies in quality, light-fastness and strength from brand to brand; and binder, which holds the pigment together in a stick that can be held and manipulated. I use several different makes of pastels:

  • Unison is my favourite brand. The colours are rich and velvety and the pastels are robust enough to withstand vigorous energetic mark making. You can drop them on the floor without destroying them, yet they are soft enough to build up several layers of colours.
  • Inscribe pastels are good for under-painting and laying out the basic composition, as they are harder and lend themselves to sketching. You can buy them in boxes of 64 half sticks for £10 to £12, which is fantastic value for a huge range of colours.
  • Sennelier has a range of intense colours and very dark darks, which I often need for theatrical, atmospheric paintings.
  • Schmincke soft pastels come in an extensive colour range, and are an excellent combination of pigment and binder.
  • Faber-Castell Pitt pastel pencils work for very fine sketches and detail on portraits, in mainly reds, sepia browns and whites. These work beautifully on tinted, buff-coloured paper, but it’s dangerous to use them too much, as they can encourage timid, little marks and limit the energy of my work.


Other essentials

  • An old and quite blunt razor blade or little piece of acetate (straight edged) for scratching off layers of pastel under-painting.
  • An easel so that I can work upright and pastel dust can fall down without sticking onto the painting. Also, it means I can stand back to view the work – essential when painting figures.
  • Boards to stick the paper to. I have several paintings on the go at one time, swapping after an hour or less on each one, and I prop the boards around the room so that I can look at them all.
  • Rocking chair in which to sit, look, consider and think, usually while drinking coffee.
  • A packet of hand wipes, as it can be a dirty business. I also wash my hands every half an hour or so, which is a great excuse to make another cup of coffee then return to looking at my painting more objectively again.
  • Tape to stick up reference material, and stick the paper to the board.
  • Rubbers, cut into various odd sizes and shapes.
  • Scalpel or knife to sharpen pastel pencils, and to cut up rubbers.
  • Cloth to clean pastels as I go along, as a dirty palette of colours won’t produce fresh work.
  • An old rug to catch all the pastel dust that falls down, and an apron to protect my clothes.

Lying in the Sand, pastel on sandpaper, (40x25cm)