Saturday, February 09, 2008

Getting started with soft pastels

Spring Flowers in Volissos #1
Pastel 19.5" x 25.5" NFS

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

I 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.

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.
Which websites, galleries, pastel societies or artists would you recommend?

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.
Getting started - try a range of supports

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.
In my opinion tutors who I rate as excellent are those who are diligent and hardworking, good communicators, supportive of workshop participants, offer constructive feedback and are excellent artists in their own right.

Tutors who I know personally and who I know are excellent are:
Which tutors would you recommend as suitable for those getting started in pastel?

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!]


  1. Not much to add to this well rounded intro post. A harder subject to teach than people realize, yet not to be considered a "hard medium", IMHO.

    I might add that one is well served by doing some drawing first, and that skill more than anything else will get you down the right path to your pastels.

    Is anyone in the world able to get Sakura Carre "hard" pastels? They are my favorite (Japanese), but I can't find them anywhere.

  2. Katherine,
    Again, wonderful information. You've inspired me to try pastels again. I have a medium set of Rembrant Pastels and tried them some time ago on paper. Just as you said, I was quite discouraged and put them away. I don't have time now to get into them again but I've printed out this post and pinned it to my "To Do" board. I will definitely be looking at the other links you gave. Thanks again for the inspiration. I always learn something of value on your's a good place to visit.

  3. Katherine,
    Again, a wonderful informative post. I've been interested in pastels, even purchased a small set of the Rembrant Pastels you mentioned. I'm one of those who tried them on paper and put them in the drawer out of frustration. Thank you for the inspiration...don't have time to work with them again now but printed out this article and pined it to my "To Do" board. I'll definitely be looking into the links you've provided. Thank You

  4. Yes, well I'd really like to go there right now - to your Greek Island and wander barefoot through that field of flowers, trailing a crystal glass and an almost full bottle of fine white wine. (I think winter is getting to me).

    I absolutely agree about Dianna Ponting - I took her online tutorial on that Big Forum (where I discovered you, through your Sketching in Public tutorial. Bless you) and I was astonished at the work she helped me produce. But the style is not for me, I'd like to have a lesson (hint, hint) from someone who uses a beautiful loose, hatching technique.

    I'm now writing out 100 times - I will not buy another art book. I will not buy another..... etc., etc.

  5. I took classes here in Hawaii with Helen Aeia, the president of our local pastel society. This was after my husband introduced me to this incredible medium. Currently, I am working on my own with the aid of The Pastel Journal, The Pastel Pointer's blog, Casey Klan's Pastel blogsite, your very helpful site, and daily practice.
    My advice to anyone who would like to try pastels is to get a good surface to work with (not white if you are not familiar with underpainting), and five or six basic colors of the best medium hard pastel you can afford. I think a lot of frustration can be avoided if you have good materials to play with.
    I agree with Casey about drawing first. I also would add practicing making different kinds of strokes before you start any painting. Learn what the sticks can do.
    Thanks for this great post about my favorite medium.

  6. A very informative site - stumbled here via Kim and a lake full of trees.

    Will be back....I am adigital artist.


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