Spring Flowers in Volissos #1I contributed to a thread in an art forum a while back with my recommendations about what to focus on when getting started with soft pastels. This is what I said - plus I've now added in some some additional thoughts and examples.
Pastel 19.5" x 25.5" NFS
copyright Katherine Tyrrell
Pastel 19.5" x 25.5" NFS
copyright Katherine Tyrrell
Getting started: take a long look at some good pastel drawings and paintings
Once you see what can be done with pastels you really get inspired to try and achieve something similar.
You can get a good sense of what can be achieved in soft pastels through the following.
- Take yourself off to an art gallery and go and look at some really good pastels. For example, see the Degas pastels in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris or in the National Gallery in London.
- Visit the exhibitions of leading Pastel Societies - for example, the Pastel Society in the UK exhibits at the Mall Galleries each year.
- Look at websites containing images by good pastel artists - past and present.
Getting started: get a good book
Get one or two good books on the subject - preferably those which have a good explanation about materials and which also provide good and detailed images about working with pastels and building up a pastel drawing or painting.
The book which got me well and truly hooked was "The Pastel Book" by Bill Creevy.
I've included the pastel books which I rate in my information site Pastels - Resources for Artists which (as it suggests) provides resource information for pastel artists - both newbies and the more advanced. Jackie Simmonds provides good instructions books and videos for those new to pastels.
Which books would you recommend for those getting started with pastels.
Getting started: get a good basic set of medium soft pastels and then build from there
Pastels which are too soft or too hard probably give the wrong impression of soft pastels and might turn people off rather than on to working with soft pastels. I'd always recommend starting with a set of pastels which are categorised as being 'medium' soft pastels (as opposed to 'very soft' and 'not very soft')
I started with a set of Rembrandt pastls - which I continue to use under softer pastels. They weren't as expensive as some pastels, provided a good range of colours and were relatively easy to get hold of in the UK. I'd recommend them to newbies.
After that, :
- Try a few softer pastels from open stock in different ranges until you find one you like. Remember how they work can vary across the colours - a good test of a pastel is to try the really dark darks.
- Get some harder pastels - maybe conte sticks or nupastels after you've decided you want to pursue pastels. They're good for getting harder edges and sketching in initial marks. (The tutor in my drawing class also uses them with a brush and water to create a painting!)
- Read what other people have to say about pastels and why they like/dislike them - but bear in mind the way they describe and rate pastels may be different from the way that you do.
It's my belief that different people respond to different types of surfaces. If you try pastels for the first time and don't like it, the problem may be the surface rather than the pastels.
My pastel work only took off when I tried an abrasive pastel surface for the first time. I wasn't getting on with paper and absolutely loved the way the abrasive surface gripped the pastel. Others will feel completely differently. There is no right answer for everybody but there is a right answer for you as an individual. The main thing is to try different surfaces and see which feels right for you.
You can read more about supports for pastels on my information site
Getting started - try a workshop
A pastel workshop is a really great way of picking up tips earlier rather than later - otherwise characterised as how to avoid learning the hard way!
- Artists may be excellent at art and not so good at communicating. Good communication skills are an absolute requirement for those aiming to teach people who are new to pastels. People who write well can often explain things clearly as well.
- Pastel societies (see Pastels - Resources for Artists) often run workshops and should only be using reputable tutors in pastels.
- Art Journals often include details of workshops. The best journal for findings pastel workshops is The Pastel Journal - although these tend to be based in the USA (but not all of them are)
- I'd always advise having a really good look at a pastel tutor's own work before you sign over any money. There are a lot of good tutors out there and unfortunately there are quite a few mediocre ones as well. Having a look at the work tells you something about their own skill levels and whether they have anything to teach you. Whether they can teach or not is something you find out either through experience or through the word of mouth recommendation of others. Occasionally you will see written recommendations on sites which are not owned or influenced by the artist. Everybody who's been to a pastel workshop loves to tell you what it was really like
- Artists who primarily work in another medium may not offer a lot of expert help in pastels - hence why you need to look at the work.
Tutors who I know personally and who I know are excellent are:
- Sally Strand (USA) - does pastel workshops each year; San Clemente, California and Scottsdale Arizona are regular venues
- Jackie Simmonds (UK) - a very supportive teacher who has written a number of art instructions books and videos and writes on a regular basis for the art journals in the UK. in 2008 she has a one or two week workshop in Ithaca.
- Dianna Ponting (Canada) - delivers workshops in Canada and sometimes travels to do workshops in the USA and UK.
Who have you been taught by and would recommend - maybe to those a little more advanced - and why?
[Note: The image is of a large plein air pastel - which I started and completed one morning while I sat by the side of a road outside the small town of Volissos on the Greek island of Chios. In terms of composition and execution it contains a few problems which I didn't spot at the time. In terms of transporting me back to that particular painting holiday and that warm and sunny May morning - it works every time!]