Did you know that it’s possible to paint with pastels?

Like most art mediums, pastels were developed during the Renaissance Era and famous artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo used them to sketch and plan their paintings before they put paint to canvas.

If you enjoy drawing with pencils and charcoal, you’ll love working with pastels.

Pastels are still being used by painters and artists across the globe for drawing, but did you know that this medium is also great for painting? Pastels can create intense colours, are easy for travelling and its versatility is ideal for mixed-medium artworks.

Are ready to learn about pastels and why both beginner and professional artists alike enjoy working with them?

What is Pastel?

Similar to paint, pastels are made from pigments of colour that are compressed or held together by a binding agent. The difference to other paints is that pastels come in small cylinder or square sticks, which makes it incredibly easy to use.

Pastels are powdered pigments bound into a stick format

Pastels are incredibly useful to create lines, or you can use the entire length by turning it on its side to cover bigger areas. They provide a textured feel that adapts to the medium you paint on which means they’ll resemble a granular look on rough watercolour paper while appearing smooth on normal paper.

What makes it great is once you’ve applied pastels to your substrate, you can start to blend and spread the colours by adding water or turpentine to it. All the pastel you apply won’t always dissolve, but the lines that remain are useful to guide you to sticking with your original composition, especially if you start painting as a beginner.

The Various Types of Pastels

Pastels were originally created as the soft, dry and chalky, but since then pastels have been developed and packaged in many different forms to give artists the versatility they enjoy. The two core types of pastels are dry pastels and oil or wax pastels which can be found at specialist art shops in your area or online.

Water is an easy supplement to enable painting with dry pastels while turpentine or thinners only work for wax and oil pastels.

Like most art materials, pastels are sold as student or professional ranges where the professional type has a definite, distinct brighter colour quality. If you are new at pastel painting, we recommend dry student pastels, but here are the types of pastels you could buy, why not decide for yourself?

Wax pastels
Wax pastel painting will allow you to create the same colour intensity as oil painting - Image by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

Dry Pastels

Soft pastels are the most well-known pastels for artists to work with due to their intense colouring. They are fragile, powdery consistency and because they were the first type that became popular it’s said that there are up to 300 different colours to choose from.

The hard pastels are similar, but a lot harder due to the fact that they have additional binder added. These pastels are generally a lot more durable than the soft type, their colour intensity is slightly less due to their tough nature, but they are ideal for more detailed work and finer lines.

Pan pastels is a fairly new presentation for pastels which is the same as watercolour paints. These pastels have become very popular due to the high amount of pigments they have, and they produce impressive, extreme colours. Artists who enjoy pastel painting prefer these as it’s easy to lift colours off the hardened pastel blocks with the tip of your paintbrush.

Lastly, pastel pencils will be a useful addition to a dry pastel collection if you plan to do a more fine and detailed work. These are similar to coloured pencils which are made of thin strips of hard or soft pastels encased by wood to protect them.

Dry pastels
Hard pastels are more durable than soft pastels and scattered pieces of colour isn't uncommon in artist studios - Image by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

Oil or Wax Pastels

If you like the colour vibrance of oil painting, you’ll love to work with oil pastels. They are packaged in exactly the same cylinder shape as dry pastels, but their colour pigments are bound with oil.

The biggest benefit is they can give you the same bright colours and impastos as oil paints without all the chemicals which makes them easier to use than oils. They also don’t smudge and crumble as easily as dry pastels and therefore won’t produce the pesky chalk dust you’ll get when painting with soft pastels.

These pastels come in two types and both have a creamy wax-like consistency that are very similar to crayons. What differentiate wax pastels from the oil ones is the wax that’s used as binding agent.  Both these are quite useful if you paint with watercolours as they will repel water from the areas where they are applied, something to try out if you ever plan to do mixed-media artworks.

One downside to oil pastels is the fact that they cannot blend as well with other media as soft pastels. This makes them less versatile as an artist medium for beginners and they are also incredibly sensitive to heat, so ensure you store them in a cool place.

Oil pastels
Oil pastels have a bright and luminous appearance that - Image form Pixabay

How to Use Pastels for Painting

You might already have a set of dry pastels and are ready to get started? Here are some core guidelines and tips on how you can go about if you are doing your own pastel painting art class.

Using a board as a holding platform for your painting will make it a lot easier for you to draw and paint with pastels. You can place this on an easel if you have one and in most pastel painting tutorials, you’ll notice how the professionals use masking tape to stick the edges of your paper down.

What paper you might ask? Unfortunately, normal paper is not thick enough and it will buckle and curl once you add water to it. Set yourself up by using specialised watercolour paper before deciding what you’ll paint. Most art classes get new students to paint still life, which could be fruit or any object around the house.

The time for drawing with your pastels has now arrived. Draw the outlines and shadows first and if you watch a pastel paint tutorial, you’ll see that the colours and shadow details will only come to life once you actually start painting.

Professional painters will warn you against the over-blending of colours as it could easily represent a coloured mess. This does however not mean that there’s no space for blending as it’s the best technique you could use to create the colours you’ll see in a sunset or the water in landscape paintings.

The beginning or drawing phase will lay down your picture composition and the ground layers for your painting. Use any paintbrush to then apply water onto your newly created pastel foundation and remember to allow these base, dark colours to dry before layering on new and lighter colours.

Unlike watercolours, light pastels can be blended and applied over dark colours. Professionals thus recommend that you work from dark to light and if you use both types of dry pastels to apply the hard pastels first.

This is where experience and skill kicks in and a professional paint tutor or going to a formal art class will expose you to pastel painting application techniques, blending techniques and how best to dilute your pastels. Don’t get discouraged if you are only starting out and struggling at first, most painters take years before they master the skill of painting with pastels.

Pastel Art
You'll be able to create impressive paintings once you master the art of pastel painting - Image from Pixabay

Tips on Becoming More Skilled

If you’ve already experienced the wonder of pastels and are ready to take your art to the next level, a professional artist will be the best person to ask for advice. I know it sounds expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. There are multiple qualified art teachers that can help you along the way and online tutors is an easy way to set up classes for you or a group of friends.

Here are some additional tips to incorporate if you want to become more proficient in your pastel painting, or any painting for that matter:

  • Practise frequently
  • Attend weekly art classes
  • Do your own research online around painting techniques
  • Study the work of famous artists
  • Allow yourself to play and make mistakes
Paint with water
Experienced artists can mix watercolours and dry pastels as they explore mixed-medium usage in their art - Image by Sarah Brown on Unsplash

True creativity and talent will surface once you start to master the foundational painting techniques. Automatically, you’ll discover how chalk pastels and watercolours behave similar and you might even start experimenting by adding pen or oil pastels to the mix.

The possibilities in the world of art are endless and pastel painting is a magnificent and vibrant medium to take your art skills to the next level.

Happy Painting!

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Writer and qualified yoga instructor, who is passionate about health and well-being.