Posted by: Julie Duell | May 29, 2008



Hello all!

Ah! Now this is a subject close to my heart!  I love working with soft pastels and the effects they give…and this Post is in response to enquiries about ways to use them.

First of all though, lets talk briefly about some of the many materials available besides paint that are available these days…

1. SOFT CHALKY PASTELS formed into various shaped sticks (thin, thick, cylindrical or oblong) as well as in pencil form, all of which can be purchased singularly or in sets. These are the subject of this Post.

2.  OIL PASTELS (crayon-like) can be soluble & therefore turned into “paint” with the addition of turpentine or other solvents (not water)- giving the option of drawing and/or  painting.  (Personally, I find them difficult to manage but they would suit some artists and types of artwork.)

3.  CONTE’ STICKS which can be waxy and hard /to dry and chalky depending on the grade of hardness. These are usually thin sticks which can be sharpened for finer lines, which is another option along with pastel pencils for fine lines.  In some ways Conte’s are better  because if pencils are dropped, they can break within the wooden surround making them almost impossible to sharpen.  However, you lose some of the Conte’ if you sharpen or taper the ends of the sticks. (If you are really frugal, you can save this ‘waste’ as a fine granulated powder to dip your finger into for toning.)


SOMETHING IN COMMON IN MATERIALS: It’s interesting to note that all coloured art mediums are created from the same original powdered pigments mixed with various binders (gums, emulsions etc.)  to make them into wet or dry materials, water soluble, solvent soluble etc.  Some are waterproof when dry (eg. acrylics & waterproof inks) whilst others soluble again after they dry (eg. watercolours & gouache/poster paints). Oil based paints need Linseed oil and special solvents in their use.


Below I have pictured one of the mixed assortments of various brands of soft pastels (round and square) that I share with our students. They are no longer in their original boxes but stored in a small fishing tackle box packed in rice to stop them rubbing together when travelling or fracturing if dropped.

Note that I store them roughly sorted from LIGHT TO DARK, WARM COLOURS ON ONE SIDE AND COOL COLOURS ON THE OTHER.  This is a great tip because it helps in choosing quickly the tint and tone needed without constantly searching…

The quality of the pastel is closely associated with the fineness of the ground pigment as well as the type and quantity of binder used in making the sticks.

Note that all wrappers have been removed and most pastels have been broken into half length sticks. This, I feel, renders them much more useful because this way they are able to be used on their sides for blocking in as well as drawing with the ends. 

The set below is still in its original box, wrappers removed and sticks have been broken and used. These sticks are quite slim compared to the large round and square varieties and I am showing this set because of the subtle colour range it gives.  All too often we can be attracted to the bright colours, forgetting that many soft greys, blues, beiges & olive greens are needed probably more often..

Besides needing a paper with some “tooth” or roughness to hold the grains of pastel pigment (proper pastel papers provide this), it is much easier to work on a non white background

This way you can allow the colour of the paper to be part of the picture.  Here are some lovely pastel paper tints available – some in large sheets and others in convenient pads of various sizes…

Before you buy pastel paper, study the grain of both sides and make sure it is what you want. Some have a honeycomb effect on one side I don’t always like, whilst others are more usable both sides which is handy (if you don’t like your finished result, just use the other side!)

Here is an example of the ‘honeycomb’ effect that is OK in this sketch, but I wouldn’t want it all the time – so would choose a smoother grain…


If you haven’t tried using pastels, they are very convenient way of working in colour on location without the problems associated with working wet.   For example, Tony and I took a small box each to Europe and were able to use them on the trains with virtually no mess.  We didn’t worry about spraying them with fixative at the time because being in a pad, they couldn’t rub with movement. 

 If you are buying a set, we would advise that you choose some that are not too thin to hold (or your hand can get a bit cramped) and don’t forget to look for subtle as well as bright colours.

An optional spray fixative can be used during and at the end of creating the artwork, to help adhere the pastel to the paper.  Be aware that fixative tends to darken the pigment slightly.  When the pastel is no longer being held by the paper and is sitting on top, you need to hold the artwork upside down outside or over a bin and tap off the excess before spraying.  Don’t blow it off, as you or others near you may inhale the powdered pigment and some people may be allergic. Once a pastel work has been sprayed, it will generally accept more added pastel … in fact, sometimes we spray work in progress a number of times to avoid smudging and settle the pigment into the paper.

A few pastel pencils or slim Conte’ sticks are useful for fine detail, and a cardboard stump (these are made from rolled cardboard shaped to a point) is handy for pushing the pigment into small areas. Also a kneadable rubber may be handy.

Now here are a few examples of different ways to use pastels.

You can see how the colour of the paper or ground you are working on is so important. When it is allowed to show through, a beautiful texture appears which is to me the charm of pastels – something that can’t be achieved with paint and brush.  If you don’t like texture you can finger blend as in the last example above.

One approach (my favourite if there is time) is to sketch very lightly in willow charcoal, using my soft rag as an eraser to dust the charcoal off where necessary.  Willow charcoal can be finger blended softly to suggest shadows very early. I like to think in areas of tone rather than just outlines (see post on Drawing). Once the foundation sketch is established, I blow & dust the charcoal back until barely visible and then spray with fixative.   From there, I can apply pastels confidently. You might like to try this and see if it works for you.

Here are a few examples of Tony’s and my pastel artwork to give you some idea of the versatility of this medium…



In this study I tried to depict movement in the sketch…

and this one of Tony sketching on site up Coffs Harbour way…the darkish blue paper was allowed to show & become part of the finished picture.

Pastels can be used minimally too, as in this portrait of Angie…

Here are a few examples of Tony’s 9 year old grandson’s use of a pastel set we gave him.  Some illustrate books he is reading and others reflect the environment around him.  We think he is off to a great start in expressing himself in this medium.   As you can see, because most pastels are light in tone they show up very well on black background.  Unless you particularly want some white paper showing, it is much more difficult to get effects on white paper.



This is the same boy who saw leprochauns in an Irish forest and drew them for us (below) so its not surprising he has a touch of magic in his artwork!


Of course many Artists over the years have become renowned for their beautiful glowing pastel work – Edgar Degas (for his magnificent ballet paintings & portrait studies) and Henri Toulouse-lau-trec (for his great impressions of French characters, particularly those frequenting the Moulin Rouge nightclub.  Who can forget his amazing Can-Can dancers admired by elegant men in top hats?)  

Tony and I were lucky enough to see the originals in Paris last year and they have stood the test of time.  Pastels are usually framed under glass with a backing to prevent moisture. A cardboard matt surround prevents them from touching the glass.  We were disappointed however in most of the overseas galleries we visited to find all these wonderful paintings (oils, watercolours and pastels) presented in very dark rooms!  OK so they want to preserve them against fading, but if people can’t view them sufficiently to enjoy their vibrant light and colour – what is the point?  The exception was the top floor of the D’Orsay    Impressionist Gallery in Paris, which was flooded with natural light and a joy to the eye. 

It is helpful to approach tones as falling into 3 categories: dark, medium and light.  If your paper is any one of these to start with, you will need to add the other two in pastels. (e.g.  If paper is dark, add medium and light tones leaving the dark paper to represent the darks.  If paper tint is medium in tone, then add the darks and lights. If paper is light in tone, add the darks and medium tones in pastel. By doing this first, you may decide to leave much of the paper colour untouched.) 

Just to finish up now, here are some pastels of mine that show different forms of rendering and subject matter.

Drawn from life, I called this one ‘Relaxation’…


This next one was an on-site study of Wollombi wattle next to our camp site.  It was a glorious yellow against the incredible blue sky that day and the dry texture of the pastel suited perfectly an impression of  the dry fluffy wattle blooms.


For added interest, here’s a close up photograph of some wattle blooms.  There are hundreds of varieties of wattle (or acacia) growing in Australia, to suit every environment. They all take turns in flowering so as to provide ongoing food for native birds, animals and insects.


If you want to travel ultra light (or need to work quickly, as in a life drawing group) you can still achieve dramatic artwork by using  only black and white pastel on strongly coloured backgrounds…


This one, of Australian Eucalypts (or gum trees) I chose to render in all vertical strokes, giving it a softened atmospheric effect. You can see the colour of the paper I used at the bottom RH corner – a dark warm brown.


Here is another rendition of the Australian bush where I worked on a tough paper undercoated roughly with acrylic paint which gave a textured surface for the pastels. I used a brush and water to wet the pastel in some areas to turn it into a “paint” and settle it into the texture.  When dry I sprayed with fixative to prevent rubbing.


The painting below is a moonlit bush scene. It is done in acrylics but I plan to execute it in pastels.  The colouring is very dramatic and unusual and gives an air of mystery. I will use either a deep blue or black background when rendering it in pastel…


Here is a pastel study of one of Australia’s “bush babies” – a BRUSH TAILED POSSUM.  As a ground, I undercoated a rough watercolour paper with acrylic first.  By using a medium tone, I needed only to put in the darks and lights, letting the paper show through for much of the sketch.

I have a soft spot for these beautiful soft furry shy possums and used to feed them by hand as a child.  Being nocturnal, they would romp around noisily on our tin roof at night so my father wasn’t too pleased!


When Tony and I travel, we usually take pastels for convenience.  You can see some of our small ‘travelling’ studies in the post about Ireland.

I hope you have enjoyed this topic and don’t forget, if you would like to add something – please make contact via comments. 

Cheerio Pastel People!



  1. Hai julie
    I am Sreebala from India
    I really like your tutorial..
    It is a new experience for me.
    Thank you 😊

    • That is wonderful to hear Sreebala. I hope you enjoy your art.

  2. Thank you for taking the mystery out of working with my new box of pastels. Your tips are remarkably helpful for someone experimenting with pastels for the first time. My love has been watercolor, but after seeing stunning portraits of children that were done by my brother’s wife, I decided to try my hand with pastels. You have given me good advice and taken away my hesitation.

  3. Hi this is cool

  4. Hi Julie, After painting with watercolours only for the past few years I’m finally breaking out and attempting pastels. I’m attending a three day pastel workshop next week and I don’t want to appear a total dummy so I looked up your post on pastels and feel a lot better now after reading up on colours, papers, storage etc. Thank you for all the valuable information you so willingly share. Jan

  5. thank you for all this sharing. I’ll be back again and again for inspiration. I’m finally taking an extra day off from work to play with my pastels that have been waiting for me since the 70’s. Now I am in my 70’s and ready to begin. Once again, thanks so much for the sparks. Virginia

  6. Greetings Reiko and thank you for your appreciation and kind invitation. If ever I am nearby I would love to visit. I wish you great success and much happiness in your artwork. Julie

  7. Hi Julie,

    I am a new learner in art & I love it very much. My late father was a painter, but during his time, I was not interested in art, but now…, after getting into it, wow… Art is really good, in anything for peaceful life.

    Today, my teacher will teach me how to use pastel Before she teaches, I like to browse & learn from the internet, so that I am not totally blind.

    I have used pencil, pen, oil paint, water-color, acrylic.
    Your pastel paintings are fantastic, I really love them. I will try & hope one day can do it like you.

    I am now in Guyana, join my husband . If you are near by, would like to visit Guyana, You are most welcome! I would love to have you in my home if you agree.

    Thanks for sharing your experience & free tutorial which are really good for people who love to know more. Excellent Paintings.


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