Monday, March 22, 2010

New to Pastels?

I was reading a blog of a fellow artist that I met on Twitter which you can find here. She was asking about getting started in pastels, what is a good brand to use etc. I tried to comment on her blog but for some reason it didn't go through. I figured this would be a good subject for a blog post so I'm about to hit you all with some knowledge...or experience...or whatever you want to call it!

To start I was trained in pastels by the most awesomest, Betty Shelton, at Laguna College of Art and Design. Yes, I know awesomest is not a word but I'm an artist not a writer! I also took at workshop a couple of years ago with Diana Ponting I have pretty much worked exclusively in pastels since my daughter was born 3 years ago except for one oil painting I did for a friend.

I started out with the largest set of hard Nupastels (96 pieces) available. This is a good starter set. If you can't afford 96 get the largest set you can afford. Hard pastels have more binder than pigment which makes them harder. When you paint/draw on your paper harder pastels leave less color on the page whereas soft pastel leave more. Its easier to learn with hard pastel because it does not fill up the tooth of the paper as quickly. Once the tooth is filled it is extremely hard to get anymore pastel to go on the page!

I usually start with hard Nupastel and then add soft pastels on top. This allows me to tone the paper without filling the tooth. My favorite brands of soft pastel are Rembrandt and Terry Ludwig. I purchased the set of 120 Rembrandts 60 full sticks, 60 half sticks. I have been extremely happy with variety. I have a special set of darks from Terry Ludwig. It is very important to invest in darks as soon as your finances allow! It brings a wonderful depth to your paintings. I have a couple of sets of Sennielier which I hardly ever use. I purchased them before trying any of that brand and then found out that I wasn't a fan. I suggest before investing in a large set that you purchase a few open stock pastels and take them for a test drive. They may be more costly when purchased separately but it will save you money in the long run when you can put more money towards a brand you love!

When to use soft and/or hard pastels?
Like I said earlier I usually start with Nupastels. I go in with Rembrandt pretty early because even though they are soft pastels they are on the harder side of soft. I use softer pastels on top to give it a rich velvety texture, especially in the light areas because it helps the lights to pop off the page, like when oil painting you layer thick paint in the lights and keep the dark areas thin. I sometimes go back on top of soft pastels with hard pastels for a different effect. You can push soft pastels down into the tooth of the paper with hard pastels.

In her blog Vanessa had expressed concern that the longer you use hard pastels the harder it is to transfer over to using soft pastels. I haven't found that to be the case at all. I actually feel that the longer I used hard pastels the easier it was for me to figure out how to use soft pastels. Soft pastels are fun but they can be very frustrating when you can't quite figure out how to use them. I think the biggest problem when learning to use soft pastel is that it feels the tooth of the paper so quickly that you can't layer any more pastel.

That brings us to paper! I started out on mi tientes canson paperr. This paper at the time I thought was expensive but now I think it is really affordable! It is easily found at Micheal's or Hobby Lobby for a couple of dollars a sheet. The next paper that I tried and fell in love with was Sennelier LaCarte pastel paper. It feels almost like sandpaper but much softer. The biggest problem with LaCarte paper is that it can not handle water at all. If you blow on you paper and you happen to get a little bit of spittle on the paper do not touch it. You must wait for it to dry completely or else the texture of the paper will fall off you will be left with a spit sized white spot that won't accept pastel! Colorfixpaper by Art Spectrum is another one that feels like sandpaper. I have only used it once but would really like to give it another try. My new favorite paper is Kitty Wallis paper. It takes tons of layers of pastel, you can get it wet...its actually really cool when you get it wet. Kitty Wallis paper takes tons of abuse! You can erase on it or totally obliterate your picture with water and the paper still looks like new!

Well I guess this is enough information. I hope I didn't overwhelm ya'll!


  1. Wow, it's so interesting that you started in pastels directly after your daughter was born. Same story here. After my daughter was born (2 years ago) I stopped producing art all together, just didn’t have the time and before that I was a graphite pencil artists... I started taking pastel classes on Saturdays as of the New Year and here I am, loving it and hoping to grow with it. I feel far more fulfilled with the pastel works then I did with the graphite, probably because the options and results seem endless. Plus working in colour is always amazing!
    I’ve started off learning using Faber Hard Pastels which have been really good. And I have already learned once how easy it can be to fill up the tooth of the paper when you don’t quite know where your painting is going, layer after layer… lol so now I make sure I have an idea of what layers I’m doing and how many versus “let’s just see what happens”…
    I definitely like your idea of using hard pastels as an underpainting/base and using soft pastels for your detailing and final layers. With my style I think this would work well for me. I had replied to your post on my blog and noted that I had a chance to try the Sennelier on the weekend and indeed they were waaaay too soft for my style. I would have a hard time controlling them and getting the effects I wanted. I also tried the Unison (have you heard of those?) They were amazing, and I’ve been leaning towards those.
    I’ll have to look into paper in more detail too, for now I’ve been using water colour paper because I like its durability, but haven’t experimented with anything else.
    Thanks so much for this post Amber, it was VERY helpful! I’ll be back to ask you a few questions on soft pastel techniques/tips 

  2. Hi Vanessa! I'm so glad this helped. Pastels are really nice when you have kids because the clean up is so easy! I don't spend all my painting time cleaning or prepping. Its funny that you asked if I've tried Unison, I just bought 2 sticks last week and then forgot that I had them so I haven't used them yet. I think you will love trying out new papers. Its amazing the difference paper can make! Any time you have a question feel free to ask. I love the internet, it makes it so much easier to connect with other artists.