View Full Version : How to use new pastels?

12-27-2013, 07:58 PM
This will probably sound like a silly question. Since I got into pastels in the last few weeks, with holiday sales and all, I collected a few pastel sets of different brands :clap:.

I will be building some pastel boxes to store them. (I am a woodworker and will make some custom boxes soon.)

The question I have is what do you guys do with new pastels?

Do you remove the labels/how?
Store them wrapped?
Many of the boxes I see have no labels/wrappers. If remove all wrappers, how do you know what is what? IE when you run out of a specific brand/color, how do you know what it was?

Before I start ripping labels off, I wanted to get your opinions.

Thanks in advance...

12-27-2013, 09:37 PM
Since pastels are often used on their sides, many folks remove the labels. The only pastel brand that I would not remove the label is Sennelier, as they can crumble without the label. I just peel the label bit by bit as I use them.

Some people break the pastel in half and store the unused half (often with the label). This way when the first half is almost used up, they can (sometimes) match the second half - and know that it may be time to order a new one.

Lots of pastel artists keep a record of what they buy by making color swatches with the brand and color name/number next to it. This will help them reorder when the time comes. Mine are not very neat, but they are functional...


Hope this helps,


12-27-2013, 10:00 PM
after working in pastel a while, you'll know what each piece is. I keep longish trays--cutting an inch chunk off for the working piece, in the lower area of each tray, leaving the wrapper-chunk left on the upper part of the tray. some brands i leave in their original containers, like terry ludwigs, and set those on the top area with the wrapper-ed pieces.

but, i don't get real worried to find another that's exact. there are only a few that i'd have to be exact enough to replace, and those i know by heart, and always have spares on hand. otherwise, i just get close and that's been plenty good enough.

i am not going to spend (waste?) time making all those charts, some of the fun is getting new pastels, learning to make them work. i am not near any stores to buy pastels, so i buy online. so if i need an olivey green, i get 2-3, and within those, one will be close enough. if its a tad off, learn to work with it. long as the value is right, the hue can be different with excellent results. and texture, usually i am more worried to buy one of the same value AND texture than finding an exact hue replacement.

T Porter
12-28-2013, 01:45 AM
I cut the labels from the stick and tuck the label into the slot that the pastel came out of and put the pastel back into the slot on top of the label. I cut the label off with a box cutter knife. The label will stay on the pastel until the day I need it and then it's gets cut off.

Before you try breaking the pastel stick use a box cutter blade and score a line all the way around the stick. This will “usually” make a clean break in the stick and keep chunks from fracturing off of the stick.

I keep the pastels in their original box on shelves next to my easel so they are readily available. I have charts like Don has shown and they have been laminated to protect the color swatch. Each box has its own color swatch chart and that sheet is stored under the box that it coincides with. These charts are just a back up in case I loose a wrapper from one of the pastels.

I also have a tray that I made out of foam board and tape that holds odds and ends, sticks that aren’t part of a set and small pieces. This tray is in no particular order.

After you handle pastels a while you will be able to tell which brand you are using, from the brands that you own, by the way it feels to the touch and by the way it goes onto the paper.

Sarah Rose
12-28-2013, 11:56 AM
I break all of mine and put the part with the label back in the original box and store that away. I haven't worried much about replacing any as I have been at this roughly 16 months and haven't used anything up yet. The ones I use a lot I am familiar with and will know what to reorder when the time comes. The only
ones I couldn't do this with are the half stick Senns I bought that don't have labels and are the perfect size as is, they just went into my tray.

12-28-2013, 02:53 PM
I peel and break most of my new pastels, unless they're half sticks or something like Ludwigs where the original size and shape is about right to use on their sides. I didn't do this at first but I eventually learned to use pieces around the point I first bought some Mount Visions. Those are huge. I couldn't use a whole stick on its side unless I was doing a mural sized pastel, which would need a mural size frame afterward.

I bought a Dakota Traveller box and like it a lot. However, the Heilman has some features that would justify its cost. If I were a woodworker... I would study the Heilman and when choosing hardware get the long piano hinge to hold the sides together for folding. I don't know if you'd save money building it from scratch on one of those, but I can understand wanting to customize it.

Some pastels I've kept in their set boxes, that helps me to organize by texture and be able to grab hard pastels, medium texture soft pastels or super soft at a glance - my Unisons came in a gorgeous aluminum box with a clear acrylic lid so I've been keeping them in that as the clear lid lets me see them. Looking at them inspires me to use them, but for travel I put the foam back over them and the cardboard lid inside it. I lucked on the Unisons, a sale put the aluminum-case set in my hands at about $10 less than the same set without the aluminum case that I always liked. It proved to be worth it to wait and get that since I use those Unisons a lot more.

So if I was designing a box for studio use... I'd think about making a clear lid for the studio cases with Plexiglass or something cut to fit. This would keep house dust off the pastels but still let me see the entire range in the studio trays. It also keeps my cat off my pastels, without a separate studio room I definitely paint with my cat around and he gets curious about everything. He also likes to lay on things, anything at all that isn't the floor or a bare counter will get his fuzzy tummy on it and I don't want him washing toxic pigments off his fur.

Cats will do this and also anyone who's got a tame bird in their studio knows that birds are not housebroken, ever. Thus any open trays with pastels that don't have a cover but do have a cockatoo or parakeet around are going to get unpleasant additions occasionally. Bird lovers get used to that, but clear covers prevent the problem and still give you the stimulating view of all your colors in chromatic order by hue and value.

That was the first thing I learned about storing pastels - organizing them by hue in one direction and value in the other is the best way to handle them. That makes it super easy to use them and to find the color you need at the moment.

Past a certain point it's not as important to exactly match the color when replacing a used up stick. It's better to have a bunch of variations in often-used ranges like "light blues" and "yellowish olive greens" or "earth tones" so that while painting you grab the one that fits that painting instead of blowing through the one light blue stick that fast.

I came to pastels from colored pencils. It really did matter a lot with Prismacolors to match the same color. I didn't realize that was because I was using a range of only 72 and it had serious gaps in its range - when the olive green or the sky blue was used up, there was nothing near it for the next painting. Even when I extended the range with 120 colors in the 90s, it was still a problem getting replacements for "Goldenrod" (a warm color a bit like raw sienna) and light blue. Pastels are different.

Once I had a couple hundred of them, choices became easier and looser. Colors didn't wear down as fast. But what I discovered over decades with the Prismacolors was that I used every color I had, no matter how many colors I have. The difference wasn't "often used" or not so much as "does it get used over very large areas heavily?"

The colors that wear down slowly don't need replacing at all. They're accent colors. The colors that vanish fast come in groups and the more variety I have in that group, the slower all of them wear down. Also in general, pastels don't wear out as fast as colored pencils.

Big areas done with one stick usually tend to be a light first layer, often blended in to allow more layers over them. Then the fun begins of playing with variations within that big area and I'm reaching for different sticks, contrasting colors, all within a value range. It's important to me to have the spectrum in several value ranges including a small number of extra light near whites, a couple of tints, full color (mass tone) and darks, with a few super deep dark near-blacks. Muted colors in any direction are handy convenience colors, the grays and browns are very useful. I just arrange those by spectrum too looking at what hue they're closest to - a greenish gray or violet gray or blue gray, vs. yellow, orangy or reddish browns.

So I organize by brights in spectrum order followed by neutrals in spectrum order, all also laid out light at the top and dark at the bottom. The partitions are very handy for organizing color groups and for keeping the pastels relatively clean - if they rub against similar colors there's less of that grayness occluding their real color. Once in a while I take them all out and clean them with a rag if they got too grayish from handling.

So there's my thoughts on it. Custom trays and boxes have different purposes. If you like painting outdoors, build a pochade box of some kind or get something like the small Dakota box or backpack size Heilman. The bigger Heilmans and so on are better for studio use. But studio trays don't need to be able to be closed up so much as maybe stacked and have some sort of dust cover when not in use.

12-28-2013, 04:23 PM
. . . if i need an olivey green, i get 2-3, and within those, one will be close enough. if its a tad off, learn to work with it. long as the value is right, the hue can be different with excellent results. and texture, usually i am more worried to buy one of the same value AND texture than finding an exact hue replacement.
I go at it exactly like Chris does. It's actually a lot of fun. I'm not just cranking it out. I am learning and experimenting and adapting and reacting all the time.

Degree of softness/hardness and value are the two most important characteristics. With temperature coming in close behind. For me.

There are a few must-haves-at-all-times (are they unique? I think so.), such as the Ludwig darks and the Ludwig lights, and a number of Girault neutrals. Of these I have a modest stockpile.


12-29-2013, 04:45 AM
Robert, your posts are so informative and helpful. Do you have any pics of how you organize your Prismacolors and pastels?

12-29-2013, 09:28 AM

Here's my Dakota Traveller, best example of how I organize pastels.


Same pastels box with a large cat for scale (15lb).


A smaller tray without partitions organized with some pieces of pastels. Set up to be a more or less complete palette.

I don't organize my Prismacolors by value since they're in elastic-band cases. They're just organized prismatic brights (including lights and darks) and neutrals (browns and grays, also prismatic.) It's not quite the same thing because those are organized by brand too - I have large sets in more than one brand of colored pencils but the largest maximum range is 150 and that's in two Prismacolor cases with some of their other products in the second case.

I think you can see how the partitions help with pastels sorting though. They make it a lot easier to see where you're strong and short in your collection. If you don't have enough greens, it's very obvious. Or purples - without enough purple landscapes become very difficult. You wouldn't think that but it's true. Pinks and purples are vitally important colors in pastel, both landscapes and portraits. Almost any subject. Pink, purple, turquoise and peach, the colors you don't get in kindergarten (Or didn't in my time, it seems like everything my granddaughter had for her first school year included those colors).

12-29-2013, 06:34 PM
Thanks Robert!

12-29-2013, 06:45 PM
I think original poster asked also how remove paper ? without nails.

12-29-2013, 06:57 PM
I tend to keep my thumb nail a little long for removing pastel papers and other things that take picking things up with my nails, also the nail on my index finger. Same thing. I got tired of picking up tiny things or grooving things without a tool being handy.

However, what I'd use without nails would be something like the blunt nail cleaner blade on my nail clippers, a darn handy tool for a lot of things. That works great to groove pastels for breaking. A pocket knife would work fine too, either the large blade or the small one - some have a smaller inch-long blade for various uses. A non-serrated butter knife would be fine or a palette knife.

Catching the paper to peel it away without fingernails might take using tweezers. I'm really not sure of that because I do always use my thumbnail for it, but it'd probably work to get the corner up and peel it off. Or just the semi-blunt knife you're using to groove the sticks.

A sharp blade like an art knife or razor blade could be used to slit the wrapper and peel it back in one piece. I just haven't done it that way.

Do one at a time and keep a piece of plastic or foil under where you're working.

If a stick crumbles, collect all the broken bits and powder. They can be reconstituted and made into a workable stick by adding very little water or rubbing alcohol a drop at a time till it's like a thick paste like dough, then letting that dry out solid again. This is also a good reason to keep the table or surface you're peeling on clean between colors so if one does crumble up completely you can get most of it up without mixing other colors in.

Would someone who's reconstituted crumbled sticks or made up new ones out of collected pastels dust please add to this, what liquid and how much? I haven't tried it yet because I don't have enough dust or anything in unworkable small pieces yet.

Deb F
01-01-2014, 08:35 PM
That's a beautiful cat, Robert.

01-01-2014, 09:25 PM
Thank you! He is my muse and my favorite model! Feel free to paint him if you like, I always share my Ari photos with my friends at WC as if they're in the RIL.