Pastels - anyone?

Good Afternoon Artists,
I am on the road again, and decided to give pastels a try. I was on some online gallery looking at work, and was amazed with what some artists are achieving with soft pastels. I got to tell you, the idea of a dry medium is very attractive to me, being on the road all the time and away from my oil studio. I bought the pastels, and quickly lost control.

First, my started kit came with 36 colors... considering I have been oil painting for a year now with only primary colors, and a burnt umbr and white... i thought, this was enough... i quickly ran into trouble... i lost my lines in the face - from all the dust... and mixing... also, the idea of mixing to get the flesh tones that i was so use to doing with oils didn't workout so well... the flesh tones quickly greyed out... is the big secret with pastels is that you need like 5000 colors to get the result you would get with oils? I mean i went online, saw some videos, and these artists had endless amounts of pastels... one guy had a "portrait palette" of like 300 different fleshtone colors... - wow-... i was led to believe you can mix pastels ... but I'm not so sure now... maybe a portrait is too hard to do with limited palette, and i should stick to apples, and still life with the 36 starter colors... maybe my technique was wrong... i am going to give it another shot tonight, and i'll try not to mix the colors till the end....

another big mistake was sketching with pastels over my original pencil sketch - with a burnt u... like i do with oils... i should have just tried to find the color i wanted instead of trying to make one.

If anyone out there is a pastel artist, or dabbled with them before... help! guide me! thanks!

Mark A


  • Markalex, I have used Soft Pastels but not for a portrait. You can mix colours and if you use a "textured" or "sanded" paper you can put on about 5/7 layers. Pastels will not mix like oil or acrylic, so you need a much greater variety of pastels.If you are going to try a portrait, it is more important to concentrate on tone than the exact skin colour.Pastel dust can get everywhere !
  • Marieb,
    Thank you for your response. It is amazing what some artists can achieve in this medium... but I think I'm a little over my head... think i'll just stick to oils and watercolors :)

    I did buy a book by Richard McKinely on Pastels... i'll give it a few more tries... :D
  • To avoid getting dust on your painting as you work on it, you will need to put the pastel board on your easel with the top tilted out so the dust fall off the paper and not down it. You can fold poster board and put it under the painting and it will catch a great deal of the dust. It is better to work with hard pastels to begin with and work up to soft pastels.
  • @Markalex777 I have done a few soft pastels and enjoy the medium, but they are, indeed, tricky. As others have said, you can't mix the colors like you can oils. One trick is optical mixing - so, to grey down an orange (if you haven't picked the right pastel stick in the first place) you might cross hatch blue over it. And yes, you pretty much have to have a enormous supply of colors and storage and counter space to lay them out... a limited palette is not an option for a pastel artist. And, although dry, they are not very practical for travel. That said, once you have a palette set for a particular painting, it is possible to narrow your supply to 10 or 12 sticks - for that painting - but they will likely come out of a box of 200 or so.
  • Dlonergan, I learned the hard way... as with all art, i bought a very cheap supply of 36 soft pastels... maybe in a few years I will give it another shot... i just can't afford to buy the 500 plus soft pastels required... esp not a student grade - runs you around 1400 dollars. I'll stick with oils and watercolor for now :)
  • edited November 2015

    @Markalex777 I totally understand. I bought a large set about 25 years ago - they were expensive then, but no where close to what they cost now. The good news (and the bad news) is that a set of pastels will last forever, with the occasional replacement of a color that you use often; so, anyone who has ever bought pastels will probably hold onto them forever (like I have), so you are not likely to find any used sets unless you stumble across one in an estate sale. I think, though, as you suggested, that you could do some successful still life and landscape paintings with your palette of 36. I do go on, but one art teacher once told me that the best instruction he ever had was when he was given a red apple and three tubes of paint, one warm, one cool, and one neutral, none of which was red, and told to paint the apple. His approach was to paint the color temperature - so if the warmest color on the apple was bright red and he only had yellow and blue paint, he used yellow where the red should have been - you get the idea, I am sure. Kind of throws color matching out the window, but it is an interesting approach to learning value and temperature. Best of luck with traveling - you might consider colored pencil - some of the same mixing problems as pastel, but a bit cheaper :-) This is a pastel (8 x10 ish )that I did about 25 years ago. I just photographed it. It is vibrant as it was when I painted it.
  • Interesting problem and a good answer.
  • What a beautiful painting! Thank you for sharing your painting and interesting story. :)
  • Hi, I have been working with PanPastels for a while and sincerely I love it.
    A lot less dust than the usual pastel sticks, they have great tools: palet type to apply it, check their videos. Good luck

  • I've played around with pastels but not enough to give you any advice.  Although you mentioned watercolor, I did put down some watercolor and, when dry, applied pastels to it. It was of an apple and was fun experimenting with both mediums.
  • EzraEzra -
    edited December 2015
    I've done a considerable amount of pastel work. There are special assortments you can buy for certain scenes: wildlife vs urban. etc. Also you can get them individually.

    I have three sets of pastels, a 12, another 12, and a 24 which I only use some of.

    For blending there are a few different methods. Did you try drawing one stroke, and then another on top? Also I use white a lot as I would with oil paint - to mix. 

    With all due respect to the people above, you can blend pastels, but it's more difficult. You don't need 500 colors, but you need the right colors. Many sets have these neon bright colors. you don't need too much of that.

    For dust, get those blue tack blue gummy things, they pick up dust and are good erasers.

    Yeah, you can't do dark underpaintings.

    Pastel, like watercolor, does not allow you to correct mistakes.

    I use the hardest pastels I can buy. 

    You can also mix  pastel with other medium.

  • My current set is Nouvel carre. sometimes spelled differently. They're japanese. Rembrandt has the different scenario sets. Faber Castel sells individual sticks. 
  • edited November 2021
    Oil pastels are among the most versatile art media that you can buy. Even if you are a complete beginner, you can use the best oil pastels to make great-looking artwork. Oil pastels are less messy to use compared to oil pastels. They are also easier to blend compared to colored pencils and crayons.
  • I've used soft pastels some... although oil pastels were more favored for me. With both though, the support plays a huge part in success I think. 

    Sanded paper is great, but if you want a soft portrait, suede mat board is great.
  • Good day, dear friend. I see that the question was asked a long time ago. But  if this topic is still relevant and there is interest, I can share my experience with pastels. You can see my work here on the forum, by my nickname . in any case, I will be glad to meet you. Have a good day☀️
  • KitKit -
    edited July 14
    By the way , I was made my portraits , that represented in this forum , by only 24 colors. 
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