Pastels are comprised of pure pigment and a binder, which results in a sense of immediacy and purity of color in pastel artwork. Pastels are an excellent medium for capturing texture and energy, whether it’s the soft fur of a cat, golden light falling upon haystacks in an amber field, or the movements and costumes of ballet dancers.
What is Pastel?
Pastels are usually in stick form, similar to chalk. A pastel stick consists of pure powdered pigment and an inert binder, such as gum arabic, gum tragacanth, or methyl cellulose. Pastels have a higher pigment concentration than any other artist medium (hence the rich, luminous colors that pastels can achieve). The powdered pigments used in pastels are similar to those found in oil paints.
Pastels can be hard or soft. Soft pastels have more pigment and less binder, so they are easier to smudge and have brighter colors. Hard pastels have less pigment and more binder than soft pastels. Hard pastels can stay relatively sharp, so they are ideal for pastel artwork that requires tight detail.
Pastel artwork can either be referred to as a “pastel”, a “pastel painting”, or a “pastel drawing”. What is the difference between a pastel painting and a pastel drawing?
A pastel painting refers to a pastel artwork in which the paper is fully covered in pastel. If the surface of the paper is not totally covered in pastel and some of the paper underneath shows though, then it is referred to as a pastel drawing.
Making your own pastels is a bit more complicated than making acrylic paints or watercolor paints, but overall it is still a fairly easy process. Here are the steps to making your own pastels:
Unlike acrylics and watercolors, which are mixed and blended on the palette before being applied to the paper or the canvas, pastels are blended directly on the paper itself. Pastels can be blended in a variety of ways, such as blending with a finger, a tortillon, a Q-tip, a cloth, or a special pastel blending tool that is designed specifically for blending pastels.
Next, explore how a pastel painting is created, from start to finish! We’ll examine several different techniques that artists use to create pastel artwork. In this demonstration, we used NuPastel by Prismacolor, which is a hard pastel – excellent for detail. The abrasive paper has a strong tooth, which catches the pastel pigments as the pastel moves across the surface of the paper.
Outlines & Background
The first step in creating this pastel painting was to lightly draw the outline of the still life in graphite. This same first step is also used to create realistic watercolor and acrylic paintings.
A light blue pastel was then used to block in the outline of the flowers and vase. The edge of the pastel was used to delineate the detailed outline closest to the flowers, while the flat side of the pastel was used for the broad application of filling in the background. Using the flat side of the pastel is a common technique for quickly filling in vast areas of color.
Smudging & Rubbing
Pastels on the paper can either be left as is, or they can be rubbed to make the surface appear smoother. Rubbing or smudging the pastel is ideal if you want to create a gradual blend of colors. Sometimes leaving the pastel as is (not rubbing or smudging) can be desirable also, because the resulting artwork will have a different energy and appearance. Oftentimes, artists use a combination of rubbed and unrubbed pastel to create their artwork. Can you think of which subjects would look best when smoothly blended? Which subjects would benefit from being left in a raw, unsmudged state?
Another technique of pastel painting is to layer a color over top of a previous layer of color to achieve a new color that is richer and/or more varied in appearance. This can also create a depth to the artwork. Similar techniques can be used when creating acrylic or watercolor paintings.
After adding a new layer of pastel, you can choose to blend the top layer or to leave the new layer as is.
In the images to the left, you can see an example of white pastel being added over top of light blue pastel. Layering colors allows you to get a specific color that you may not have in your set of pastel sticks.
Identifying Main Forms
The important step now is to outline the flowers and the vase with the main colors, which helps define the different forms. This helps you know “where you are” in the composition artwork, and forms the backbone for more layers of pastel.
In the image to the right, you can see how the outlines of the flowers have been added. At this point, a limited number of colors are used to make a limited number of lines. The purpose is to quickly capture the main idea of the image. Details will be gradually added later.
In addition to demarcating the main outlines of the flowers, it is also helpful to identify certain areas that share the same hue or value. In this case, it was helpful to identify the dark areas of the leaves and to quickly make marks in those dark areas. This technique is also helpful when creating an acrylic painting.
With the main ideas of the composition outlined, the next step is to work on the details. Any colors that are applied will form the foundation for future layers of color.
More layers of pastel are added to the gerbera daisy. Some of the bottom layers are blended, but the top layers will remain unblended. This creates an image that often has a richer depth and higher emotional impact than it would if the pastels were blended. Not blending colors is a good technique for creating texture and energy in a pastel artwork. Can you imagine how this gerbera daisy would look different if the colors were all blended?
When working with pastels, as with most mediums, it is generally wise to simultaneously focus on areas that fall into the same color group – as shown in the examples to the left.
For instance, even though the white and magenta flowers are not next to each other on the paper, it makes sense to work on them both at the same time. The same can be said for the orange flowers in the image.
One reason why it is smart to work in color groups is because pastels are messy. The pastels will leave colored residue on the artist’s fingers, which will need to be washed off before using the next color. If the artist does not have clean hands when using a new color, then the residue from the previous pastel will taint the color of the new pastel that is being used.
In the image to the left, notice how the vase has been smoothly blended, just like the background, and unlike the flowers. Does the smoothness of the vase feel differently to you than the unblended flowers? Does it create a different sense of texture?
To Fix or Not to Fix?
To the right you can see the finished pastel painting. Now that the pastel painting is finished, the question is whether or not to use a fixative. Most art mediums, such as acrylics and watercolors, benefit from using a final sealant, such as a varnish or a spray fixative. A fixative “fixes” the pastel particles in place – otherwise the pastel will always be in danger of being damaged through accidental smudging. Despite this benefit, using a fixative is generally not advisable. The fixative will wet the pastel, resulting in a permanently duller color. The vibrancy of the pastel artwork will then be lost. Instead of spraying a completed pastel artwork, it is better to handle, store and display the artwork with utmost precaution, rather than to risk deadening the colors. Part of the charm and allure of pastel is the rich vibrancy of the pigments, so it is best to keep them that way!
Thank you to Thaneeya McArdle, who contributed this page and based the information upon her work.