Tuesday, February 21, 2012



Pastels are pure, dry pigments mixed with a binder to form the familiar sticks. However, anyone who refers to pastels as chalk will be drummed out of the local pastel society! Why? We’ve worked long and hard to educate the public, explaining these differences: chalk is made of dyed limestone (now mostly gypsum), while pastels are the same pigments used to make familiar paints like watercolors and oils. Usually the sticks are made by combining these powdered pigments and a binder, most often gum tragacanth, rolled into sticks and left to dry. If you look at a particle of pastel under a microscope you’ll see that it has a crystal structure that reflects light in its color. This is why the medium has such clarity and brilliance of color. When I say “pastel,” I’m referring to soft pastels (not oil pastels), but under the soft pastel heading is a range of hardness depending on the ratio of binder to pigment. NuPastels are hard, Rembrandts are medium and Schminckes are soft, but all of them are called “soft pastels.” NuPastels have more binder than pigment, while Schminckes have more pigment than binder. You’ll find a ratio here: as the softness increases the cost usually rises. Pigments are more costly than binders.

Many people ask my favorite pastel brand, and I have to say that I really don’t have one favorite. However, I favor very soft pastels and generally use them in my personal work from start to finish, with only occasional forays into medium-soft brands. I generally use sanded papers and boards that provide deep tooth, resulting in a creamy, thick painterly look to the pastel application. This is my choice of technique and shouldn’t be construed as the only way to do it. In the classroom I’m far more interested in the student finding the materials that will work best for her chosen mode of expression.

For those just starting on the pastel journey I offer a caution: Pastelists are commonly heard to cry, “I need more colors!” In fact, I’ve had students complete an eight-week course of classes with a selection of only sixteen colors and learn a tremendous amount about creating various colors and controlling values by overlapping layers of colors, but I assure you that at the end of the class they invested in more pastels. The habit can become almost addictive. Because at this writing there are more than 5,500 individual color sticks available on the market (according to Multi-Brand Color Chart of Pastels, Huechroval, 2008), with more arriving all the time, it seems the cry will continue to be heard. If you find yourself becoming intoxicated with this versatile medium the chances are you’ll say it, too.

If you’re new to pastels I recommend purchasing two sets, one somewhat harder, and one much softer. The advantage to this is twofold. First, you’ll find the harder pastels more inexpensive, but you must have some softer brands in order to understand how differently they cover the paper. Second, you’ll find that working soft over hard pastels is a time-tested method that may give you more comfort as you move from thinking of the medium as one of drawing into one of painting. Don’t think that you can buy a medium-hard pastel set to do it all -- it simply doesn’t work that way. Shop around to find the best buy, which will often be found online at one of the large catalog stores, but in the end I believe you’ll benefit from trying different kinds of pastels to find the quality that works best for you.

My usual recommendation is a large set of relatively inexpensive harder pastels, such as NuPastels, and a somewhat more modest-sized set of very soft pastels, such as Great American. (I offer a hand-selected set of colors through Great American that many students working in the southwestern United States have found useful.) However, keep in mind that there’s a dizzying array of brands from which to choose. Whenever possible, purchase a few sticks of each of the brands that are available from open stock at your local art supply store before buying a larger set, or look into purchasing such a “sampler” from an online retailer. That way you can experiment to find out how they feel, plus you can apply them to all kinds of pastel painting surfaces to see what appeals most to you.

There are two key features that pastel painting surfaces have: tooth and texture. The best test you can use to determine the texture or tooth is the hand. You need to feel the surface to see if it’s fine-grained and machine smooth, rough and scumbled, or deep, soft and velvety.

Tooth generally refers to a coating added as a surface treatment to a substrate, whether it’s made by a manufacturer and sprayed on in a factory or mixed up in your studio sink and painted on your paper or board. Texture is generally patterned into the paper itself. It usually refers to the weave or other regular marks left on the surface of the paper that will show up more clearly when pastel is stroked across it. The pulp of the paper may be apparent, resulting in a slightly striated, bumpy or screened surface. Some of these papers have a laid surface, which is a patterned texture of parallel lines impressed in each sheet. Texture doesn’t have as much depth as tooth and won’t hold as much pastel in place, sometimes requiring a fixative or other finish to stabilize the pastel.

Canson Mi-Tientes is often the first paper people try, if only because it’s commonly available, inexpensive and comes in a beautiful range of colors. It’s lightweight and easily handled, and invites a drawing technique in particular. It has a nice woven textural quality that resembles the look of canvas. However, because it has little tooth it’s not suited for use with the softest of pastels, which may quickly become muddy in inexperienced hands. Instead, most artists prefer to use a slightly harder pastel on Canson.

Sandpapers are usually made on a backing sheet of some kind, covered with a coating that contains pumice, sand, marble dust or other silicates that provide the irregularity needed to hold pastel in place. For instance, sandpapers are generally fine-textured and rather smooth to the touch, but have deep tooth. You can easily work with both hard and soft pastel brands on sandpapers, which customarily hold many layers of pastels. One excellent advantage is that sandpapers can be erased and reworked to some degree. Another thing to keep in mind about painting on any of the sandpapers is that very soft pastels fill the grain of the tooth rather quickly. This does not mean they’re inappropriate to use on that surface, just that you might want to use a light hand in applying the softer pastels so that they’re not needlessly wasted.

In my classroom I recommend using Wallis Professional grade sandpaper, which I use about 90 percent of the time in my studio. It’s a wonderful, versatile surface that has very few limitations. It has the tooth necessary to hold the little pastel crystals in place and accepts many layers of pastels without filling up and shedding pastel. It has a nicely machined surface texture and the bright white color can be easily toned to any color you desire. I suggest beginning students try Wallis sandpaper first. (See the chapter on Surfaces and Effects for more information.)

Suppliers are always coming up with new products for pastelists, but some of the most innovative and useful tools around are called Colour Shapers. These gadgets have a handle like that of a fine brush, but rather than being tipped with bristles they have a soft silicone point (a rubber tip, most of us say) that can be used to move pastel pigment around much the way your finger does. How many times have you wished that your finger were small enough to reach into a little corner? Using one of these, it is. Colour Shapers come in soft and firm grades for different effects, as well as five different shapes and sizes. Use them to grab the pastel and move it around much the way you use brushes to move paint. Enjoy the way you can soften and blend edges and colors or add definition with the side. I suggest you buy the flat chisel shape, but be aware that the square corners will slowly become rounded as you use it. The tips wipe clean easily so that you don’t contaminate colors.

Another innovation are the Sofft® tools, which are dense foam pads in various shapes that you can use to move and blend pastel. I use the larger round, flat ones to mass and smooth transitions, or remove a light layer of color when needed. The wedge-shaped and squared tools are useful to grab and transplant a long line of color from one spot to another, or to create grassy strokes.

I often use a plain white plastic eraser for many effects, too. It’s very handy on the Wallis paper, where I use it to erase areas in the tone, restoring the bright white of the paper, as well as to literally erase mistakes. The eraser becomes quite black with use, of course, so occasionally I’ll briskly scrub it on the underside of a table, restoring a small section that’s bright and clean, and use that spot to do some clean-up or details in the drawing stage.

If you were to sign up for one of my classes today, this is the list you would receive .
The following is a list of the materials I use. Don’t feel that you have to have everything on the list. Some materials will be available for sale in class. Bring what you already have on hand, and feel free to contact me with questions.

*Please note: we are using SOFT pastels, sometimes called ‘chalk’ or dry pastels, NOT oil pastels. Ideally you want a selection of hard- and soft-textured pastels, but no one brand makes both. Any of these will work:
Schmincke Pastels (very soft)
Great American Pastels (very soft)
Ludwig Pastels (very soft)
Mount Vision Pastels (soft)
Girault Pastels (medium soft)
Cretacolor Carré Pastels (hard)

If you are newly purchasing soft pastels, I recommend a set such as one of these (in no particular order): Great American Art Works Southwest Landscape sets (39- or 78-piece), Ludwig Pastels Maggie Price Basic Value set (60-piece), Mount Vision Landscape set (50-piece), Schmincke Assorted Soft Pastels (60-piece), Girault Landscape Set (25- or 50-piece), Unison Pastels half-stick sets (63- or 120-piece). You might additionally purchase a set of harder pastels such as Cretacolor Carré Pastels (72-piece) or Faber-Castell Polychromos Pastels (60- or 120-piece).

No matter which set(s) you choose, try to also bring the following if possible:One stick of either Schmincke or Great American white
One stick each of Schmincke Ultramarine Blue 0620 and Cobalt Blue 0640
One stick of Nu-Pastel bottle green 298-P
One stick each of Unison Green 13 and A-43

I suggest you purchase a small plastic container with a tight fitting lid and fill it about halfway with plain old dry cornmeal to safely transport the pastel sticks you’re using to complete a painting.

Assorted other materials:
Wallis sandpaper, 24”x36” Pro Grade sheet (18x24” flawed sheets available in class, $10.00)
Extra soft thin vine charcoal, a few sticks (available in class by the stick, $1.00)
Smooth drawing board, about 18”x24” or larger, plywood or Masonite
White Artists Tape
12x18” Newsprint Pad (or larger)
Foam Paint Brushes, 2-3” wide
Paper towelsBaby wipes or moist towlettes
Optional materials: Colour Shapers, #6 flat chisel, #1 flat wide (or other brands of these tools)
Sofft Sponges, flat bar and angle slice flat (only Sofft brand recommended)
SpectraFix Pastel Fixative (please do NOT bring any other brand of fixative into the classroom)
Picture Perfect 3-in-1 Viewfinder or grayscale value finder and red viewing filter (separately)


  1. I've decided to open the book up for comments, so if you have any questions or want to discuss an issue, feel free to post it here. Thanks!

    1. I see so many pastel artists arrange their sticks without wrappers and and by color, hue etc. How do you know what you ate out of? I have my sticks in Aetbin pastel trays on a table by color and shade, and pull them according to the piece I am working on. Tedious! After complete, sticks go back in slot. How di you keep up with needs to replace. On a separate issue, how do you keep the air clear of dust? Thank you!

    2. Avery, that's a good question. I'm sorry to tell you that back when I worked in pastels I never was very organized about keeping track of the colors I needed to re-order. As a certifiable pastel junkie, in those days, I probably had ten times the amount of sticks I really needed, which means I could always restock my working palette with sticks I had on hand, even if it wasn't the exact same brand and color. Oh, there were a few necessary ones, such as I listed above: a soft white such as Schmincke or Great American, Schmincke Ultramarine Blue 0620 and Cobalt Blue 0640, Nu-Pastel bottle green 298-P and Unison Green 13 and A-43. As a landscape painter I kept those on hand in multiples, but as for the other colors, I just went to the art supply store and got more in the color range I wanted.

      As to dust control, I HIGHLY recommend getting a room air filter of the finest kind you can afford and using it religiously when you paint, as well as leaving it on after you finish. The dust factor is a good part of the reason I retired from using pastels and moved on to gouache instead. I wish I had been far more careful in my studio. Wear a filtering mask, use a room air filter, and do not blow on or otherwise raise the dust whenever possible. Take care of yourself.

  2. Richeson has three different types of pastels available. I've tried the hard square pastels, they're good and I like them. Later on I'll get some of the round soft ones and their hand rolled ones to compare to the other pastels in my collection.

    They might have taken the lead in manufacturing a three-stage range of hardness in pastels. If their hand rolled ones are comparable to the other good hand rolled brands, they may be a great choice for starters since they're not as expensive on average as others of their types. Jury's out on that till I try their softer ones.

  3. Robert, thanks so much for this further information. I haven't used the Richeson pastels at all, so I appreciate your knowledge. Let us know what you think when you try the soft ones.

    I'll keep an eye on your materials blog, and I hope others will, too: http://robs-art-supply-reviews.blogspot.com/

  4. Someone has asked why PanPastels aren't listed here. I think they should be, and I will be adding some information on them here in the comments section as soon as I have a chance to write it. Good question, and thanks!

  5. Deborah:
    I realize you opened up for suggestions... But . . .
    Can't imagine anyone "complaining" or even mentioning about things left out of your generous and wonderful work!! :)


  6. Thanks, Jim, but I sometimes miss things and I'm open to the idea of discussion and even other inclusions! I'm delighted to know you're visiting the book blog, and I really appreciate your kind comments on it. :)

  7. I'm going to read each of your chapters from beginning to end. I'm a new pastel artist and really have a passion for it. I bet I'll pick up some great tips here. Thanks for taking the time to post them!

  8. You're more than welcome, Vanessa. Welcome to the wonderful world of pastel paintings. I do hope the book is helpful. Enjoy!

  9. Deborah,
    I am playing catch up. what a fantastic gift you have given to us all.
    A million thank yous from my heart
    Mary Brigid

  10. Glad you're catching up, Mary B! You're welcome. You know how much I enjoy sharing this stuff...

  11. Deborah, thank you so much for sharing your wonderful book.

  12. First let me say that I pray that God rewards you ten fold for what you are doing here. What an amazing gift. I am brand new to all of this and have done a lot of research about brands. The thing with Richeson Pastels is that they are made in China. I have come not to trust the contents of such things.

  13. Thank you for sharing your knowledge - it's a tremendous amount of information.

  14. I am with Dana on the Richeson pastels made in China. Buy the Great American ones, made in in the USA with a tremendous selection of colors. It also guarantees we keep Americans employed in making these wonderful pastels.

  15. Thank you so much for this book! I've only read the first chapter so far but it looks like it will be valuable for someone just getting started on pastels (like myself). And thanks also to Robert Sloan for pointing me to it :)

  16. I'm fairly new to pastels, love them, but there is so much I want to learn. I first saw your Pan Pastels demo (beautiful sky painting) and had to find out more about your work, and so found this web site. Your generous sharing of your knowledge is a God-send - literally. Thank you.

  17. I can't begin to tell you how much I'm enjoying both your watercolour and drawing courses. I tend to dip in and do a bit here and there in my spare time maybe not the best way a student should work but it seems to work for me. Thank you- Ealy Mays

  18. So sorry to have missed this comment until now. I didn't receive several notifications! My fault--but I want to thank you for your comment and cheer you on. :)

  19. That's really something extraordinary. It’s like thinking out of the box and producing this kind of excellent stuff in front of everybody. Really very impressive.

  20. I use Rembrandt pastels and love them, but want to try others. I noticed for medium-soft pastels, you recommend Girault. Could you please tell me why that are preferred over Rembrandt? Thank you!

    1. Girault pastels have more pure pigment in them and the binder used makes them a little less "stiff" feeling than Rembrandts. I would recommend you try a few sticks of Girault pastels and see how you like them. They're softer, creamier, and give more of a paint-like look, particularly when used on sandpapers. I find that it's good to have many different brands in your palette, as each one can give a slightly different result that's very useful.

  21. Thank you Deborah for sharing your knowledge. Bless you

  22. Deborah,

    Thought I'd take the opportunity to say hello. I think the article you wrote on this page is very informative to beginning pastel artists - great job. A couple of years ago I wrote an article of my own on my blog explaining that pastels are probably the most permanent of all the painting media. Over the years, I've had so many clients question the longevity of pastel over oils. It's annoying, but I do understand their concern.

    Hope you still are painting with gouache. I liked the paintings you showed me in the beginning of your adventure. Keep up the good work you are doing with your paintings and informative writing.



Thanks for your comment on Painting the Landscape in Pastels ~Deborah