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Starting To Use Soft and Hard
Pastels and Pastel Pencils

Soft and hard pastels have been around since the 16th century and have been used by some of the world's most famous artists.

They are extremely versatile and can produce intensely vibrant colors as well as (perhaps more obviously), soft subtle shades of pale tones.

In fact this causes confusion with some folks new to pastels.  They're probably familiar with the term 'pastel colorsin home decorating. 

Soft Pastels of Many Shades

This refers to pale, gentle tones to act as a backdrop for stronger accent colors in furnishings, carpets etc.

In the world of the artist however, soft and hard pastels come in a wide range of colors - both pale and extremely vivid and vibrant.

One of the limitations of soft and hard pastels is that colors cannot be readily pre-mixed as with liquid paints.


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So more subtle blending and overlaying process on the drawing surface needs to be adopted using related tones.

Sometimes this is achieved by blending colors on the paper with the fingers, sometimes by dampening slightly with clean water.

Often it is by carefully overlaying one color with another, so the lower layer shines through.

After being fixed, it also provides a good surface for the upper layer to cling to. I'll give you a couple of tips later on about 'fixing' if your not sure what this means.

To accommodate these pastel techniques, you will often find several shades of a color in a manufacturer's list, with four or five very similar but increasingly lighter shades of the same color.

The picture here of just one blue is a good example of this.

Blue Pastel Shades

Thus the total range of colors and shades available in pastels is usually much greater than those in say acrylic paints or oil paints.

The downside is that often you need to buy three or four closely related shades of the same color.

With paints, you would normally mix increasing amounts of white to achieve the same effects.

One of the side benefits though is that soft and hard pastels, being laid over or next to each other, rather than being mixed together on the palette, retain a purity of color unique to the medium.

In fact working with soft and hard pastels is almost the complete opposite of what many artists preach about a using limited palette of colors with paints.

I say 'almost', because even with soft and hard pastels you still need to exercise restraint over the total number of colors you use in one painting.


Ok, lets look at some of the things to keep in mind when using soft and hard pastels.

Oh, and I haven't forgotten pastel pencils either...

They're very similar in texture to hard pastels, so a lot of what I say about those, you can relate to pastel pencils as well.

Pastel Pencils

However, they have their own pros and cons and I'll pick these up where appropriate as we move through the article.


First, What's The Difference Between The Soft and Hard Pastels?

In many ways they're identical to look at. Both soft and hard pastels have a chalky texture and basically the production process is the same.

They come in the same sizes (usually about 2" - 3" long and from about 1/4"-1/2" wide, either square or round. They have a paper cover identifying the shade.

Pastel pencils are, as the name suggests, a hard pastel encased in a wooden pencil. Their main advantage is cleanliness in that you aren't directly handling the pigment, as with soft pastels.

They can be sharpened like an ordinary pencil and are used in much the same way so they will give precise, firm lines. They can be freely used with conventional soft and hard pastels.

One downside is that you can't use them for broad sweeps of color that you can achieve using the flat side of 'normal' pastels.

Soft and hard pastels are usually machine manufactured, but there are some hand-made varieties which vary slightly in size and shape. Invariably they are more expensive, but often of superb quality.

Don't just use the pastel end to draw with. It is quite normal to break off a piece perhaps 1" long and use it on its side, giving large swathes of color and textured strokes.

Soft pastels have more pure pigment and less binder than the harder versions. As a result, the colors are very strong and vibrant. They also impart a smoother, velvety feel.

However, this can be a disadvantage if you're careless. The reduced binder makes soft pastels prone to breaking and your drawing can be easily smudged if not fixed between layers.

Pastel Papers

The harder versions have more binder and less pigment and are therefore slightly less vibrant. However, this doesn't necessarily make them inferior.

They are stronger and can often be sharpened to a point. This makes them ideal for putting in finer, crisper detail that you can't get with soft pastels.

They're also good for use as an underpainting or outlining prior to overlaying with soft pastels.

There's no doubt both soft and hard pastels can create a messy work area (and drawing surface) if you're not careful. The pigment readily comes off on your hands and it's dead easy to get this where it shouldn't go.

Use a scrap sheet underneath your hand if you can to minimise this problem. And try to work on this area of your paper last to avoid smudging it.

Have a clean damp cloth or paper towels at hand to wipe your hands regulary. If you look in a mirror during a pastel session, you'll be surprised to see just where you put your hands without thinking!

There's no doubt that soft pastels particularly, create a fair degree of dust. This may be a problem to some people. So consider hard pastels or pastel pencils, which tend to create less dust.

Both soft and hard pastels can be lifted off the drawing surface with a putty rubber or torchon (a sort of paper eraser). In fact a putty rubber, pinched to a point, can be used with pastels to create fine highlights.


Second, What Paper Should I Use With Soft and Hard Pastels?

Well, virtually any surface with a grain or 'tooth'. Have a look at the article on pastel papers for more information on this.

The tooth is necessary so that the pastel sticks instead of skidding over a smooth surface.

Other surfaces such as cloth or board can also be used, though cloth needs to be pre-stretched or glued to some sort ofboard beforehand.

Now look at the illustration above of just one supplier's color range of pastel paper. There are hundreds of other shades to choose from. But why tinted?

Often tinted paper is used to create a mood. It also saves a lot of time & pastel putting in a background color!

Specialist papers such as 'Ingres paper' are manufactured with various grains and in a wide variety of tints.

Many artists use 'rough' watercolor paper, pre-tinted with their choice of color and left to dry.

Some even use sandpaper for loose, representational effects.

There's no reason of course why you shouldn't use white paper.  However, one of the beauties of using soft or hard pastels is that the undersurface can shine through, adding an extra dimension to your work.


How Do I Store Soft and Hard Pastels And Keep Them Clean?

Ideally in a box with foam recesses for each stick to protect it from breakage.

Group them together by shades. Especially when they're well used and you've torn off all the paper cover with the shade number.

 It's incredibly frustrating sifting through a large box of different colors for the right shade as you are drawing. The spontaneity of your drawing (and your enthusiasm) will soon be lost.

Pastel Case

You need to be organised when using pastels as similar shades will soon get dirty and impossible to distinguish until they're on your picture. Usually, it'll be the wrong one...

Try this if you don't want to use a large, foam-lined box.  Have a number of small boxes or tins with lids with a small handful of (dry!) rice.

Keep your related shades in each box for easy identification.

When finished, put the lids on and shake the boxes for a minute or so. The rice will clean pastel sticks like you wouldn't believe.

As and when you need to, empty the dust and change the rice.

Don't use it to cook with though ... :-(


Oh yes... I mentioned about 'fixing' colors earlier. All this means is lightly spraying with clear fixative over a layer so you can, once it's dry, put another layer on top without lifting off the lower one.

Invariably fixative will slightly darken your colors, so goeasy with it. My advice is to not fix your top layer, especially highlights, but protect it by putting your picture under glass in a picture frame.

By the way, I don't bother with specialist fixatives promoted amongst the huge variety of art supplies.  A much more economical alternative is an unscented, inexpensive hairspray - the cheaper and stickier the better.

Lay the picture flat and spray lightly from about 12"-18" above. Remember, you're just 'fixing' the pastel, not trying to superglue it ...

And like all such sprays, use it in a well-ventilated area well away from any naked flames.

I hope you've found this article on soft and hard pastels helpful. Keep looking out for more related articles, as they'll be appearing at regular intervals.


Related Articles

Pastel accessories to improve your pastel drawings
Using a few, well chosen pastel accessories with your pastels can greatly enhance the quality of your work...

The rough guide to using pastel paper
Choosing the right pastel paper to use with your soft and hard pastels can be confusing at first...

Getting the most from oil pastels
Using oil pastels provides a dust-free way of drawing and painting with vibrant colors on a wide variety of surfaces...


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