View Full Version : Life saving tips for a first timer?

12-12-2016, 10:23 AM
So I'm primarily an oil painter, but I have received a set of Faber-Castell pastels because I've always admired pastel work.

The first couple of tries came out mediocre. I think that perhaps I over-work the pastels? What's the proper way of layering? If there are some key tips for working with pastels, please send them my way! Thanks!

12-12-2016, 08:31 PM
There is a lot to learn about pastels - primarily because some brands are very soft, others medium softness and then the harder pastels. While most of the medium brands handle similarly, there is a big difference between how very soft and hard pastels handle and how well they layer. The softer the pastel, the easier it is to layer opaquely on top of previous layers. Plus, the paper makes a difference too - and there are many different pastel papers!. You will be able to place more layers on a paper with more tooth, such as sanded papers. To get a feel for how sanded papers work, you can try some experimentation on regular hardware store sandpaper - perhaps 200 to 400 grit. Hardware store sandpaper won't last, but it handles the same as the much more expensive pastel sanded papers.

Because of all of the above, it may take some experimentation and practice with different materials to get a good feel for what works best for you.


12-12-2016, 10:19 PM
Play with sanded papers, even goof around on cheap sandpaper to find out how that works. Or get a sanded primer and use it on 140lb watercolor paper - you can get cheap brands in pads and save money, but if it's decent watercolor painter and you use good pastels the primer version costs a lot less than the sanded papers.

Other than that, try Canson Mi-Tientes on both sides. One side has a "weave" texture that's very distinctive for broken color, the other is smooth but very toothy for a plain paper.

Get a large general assortment of half sticks that has warm and cool versions of ROYGBV (two sticks of each that lean in hue toward their nearest neighbors on a 12 color wheel), and some lights and darks. Pure white and black are less useful than tinted lights and darks.

Richeson has some sets of three textures, sampler sets with semi-hard, round (extruded) and Hand Rolled sticks in the same set. That would introduce you to three texture categories. The firmer they are, the less binder and I'd use them on the first layers. You can also blend first layers with your fingers or a blender and work over them with fresh strokes in later layers. Softer pastels go over harder ones. Soft over firm is like fat over lean in oil painting.

Softer pastels give a more painterly look.

Break your sticks in half, if they are huge ones like Mount Vision try thirds or quarters. This lets you use the sides of the pieces for broad painterly strokes and edges of the broken pieces to get fine linear marks or dots.

Semi-hard / hard pastels tend to be long narrow rectangular sticks like NuPastel, color Conte crayons, Cretacolor Pastels Carre, Richeson or Mungyo Gallery or anything Semi-Hard. I like the Cretacolor ones for a good combination of price and quality because unlike Nupastel they don't seem to have fugitive colors. They are the least expensive per stick.

Round extruded sticks include Rembrandt, Art Spectrum, Mungyo Gallery Soft Rounds, Richeson soft rounds, anything soft rounds. That's a medium texture that's firm enough for some hard pastel effects and soft enough to get painterly with work. A generalist's pastel. Rembrandt is a popular workhorse and available in Half Sticks sets. Half sticks are economical and let you get twice as many colors for your money, very useful that. A range of 120 half sticks is going to include everything you need.

Hand Rolled include Unisons (the best, also available in Half Sticks), Mount Vision (huge, go in thirds or quarters), any brand's Hand Rolled (Mungyo and Richeson etc.), and these tend to be among the most expensive but worth it for their wonderful texture. They go over soft rounds easily and work either for all layers or for just final layers.

Sennelier, Terry Ludwig, Great American, Schminke and others are Super Soft, best for finishing layers, require a very light hand to use by themselves and some blending in early layers unless you use a coarse sanded paper. They will fill the tooth of the paper fastest and have the least binder. Sennelier Half Sticks sets are a best buy in this category, especially if you mainly intend to use them for finishing. They give thick, intense impasto strokes with any pressure at all and the sticks are sometimes crumbly. Sennelier half sticks seem a little sturdier than their normal width ones because they are molded a bit thicker. These will wear down the fastest.

Uart is a good sanded paper that takes wash underpaintings and comes in multiple grits, from super fine 800 to coarse 280 grit.

Art Spectrum Colourfix comes in 20 colors and I love the stuff, the grit is a little softer because of the acrylic binder but still gives plenty of sandiness. It also comes in pint jars of primer in all those colors including Clear. Clear Art Spectrum Multimedia (Colourfix) Primer will let you do a watercolor underpainting on watercolor paper, then prime over it with two or three thin layers and have sanded paper either tinted or underpainted as you like. Ink or even very thin oil paint can be used for the underpainting.

Other artists prefer Golden Pumice Gel for the same purpose as the Clear. I liked the colors in the Colourfix primer though, and have been thinking of using black and white primer together to create a notan to paint over with the pastels - white in the lighter areas of the painting and black under the darks and mid-dark areas of the painting.

If you're on a low budget, check the Swap Shop and eBay and look for used sets and used collections. You can get a lot of pastels for very little money and secondhand batches while they might be multi-brand, may be already pre-organized in good useful pastel boxes. My other good bargain choice for artist grade is to watch for sets on sale or Clearance. Most pastels sets come in very sturdy, useful foam-lined boxes that protect them and store them well. These are practical and you can always reuse them, don't throw out set boxes once you use up the pastels!

Unlike paint, the more values you have within a hue helps a lot. At least three or four values of say, green cast blue, will let you get much more nuanced effects and shade up than if you're alternating white with a single stick of Pthalo Blue Green Shade.

Don't forget neutrals - nuanced grays, leaning to cool colors, and browns that lean toward the red through yellow range are very useful. You can mute the pure saturated colors by overlaying complements, either optically or by blending them, but having earths and grays is very convenient especially in values. This is why so many pastelists wind up having a lot of pastels.

Some specific colors wind up dead useful even if they never were before. Bright pinks, turquoise, a caput mortuum or purple-gray color, rich intense ultramarine - there's these particular hues that just become seriously useful and the sticks wear down even if they're unlikely colors. The longer I painted, the more I discovered these weird favorites, another point in favor of getting as many as you can.

Pan Pastels are different. They handle much more like paint, so a ten color Painters Set general assortment is actually enough, in the same way a ten color watercolor pocket set might be enough. The five color starter is a little too limiting but it's well balanced in its primaries. I liked having secondaries and a couple of earths too, thus the 10 color recommendation. Those go on with Sofft sponge tools that are not the same as makeup applicators but handle like those and superficially resemble them. They mix freely. I have the full range but having all the pigments is there in the 20 Painters Set.

Hope this bit about materials helps!

Other tips - semi-hard pastels are really great for sketching, small sets of them can fit in pocket and go on unsanded paper. Finger blending allows mixing colors and working on white, the semi-hard ones can be shaded by thinner application, blending onto white with dusty fingers. As the least expensive, they may work out well for a start.

What you want to put into it to start with is up to you, but there's some tips.

When you get your pastels, try goofing around making marks and experimenting with how they handle. Chart all your colors on paper including different colors of paper. Black paper is gorgeous, especially with light and bright colors, you can get glorious effects on black paper. Try doing small studies in different techniques. Any pastels can be sketched with, for a painterly approach keep the sketch simple and then block in with the main values and hues of broad areas, refine in later layers, add final details over the rest.

Hope all this helps!

12-12-2016, 10:33 PM
This is great, Rob - I am not a first timer, but I found many of your tips quite useful - things that I had not consider and others that I had forgotten. I have been out of the pastel world and art in general for a couple of decades and just returned about a year ago. There is so much more on the market now than when I first shopped for pastels, it is nice to have your concise guide.

12-20-2016, 11:28 AM
So glad you enjoyed that! I love writing these long posts. When I do, they always give me a strong desire to get out my pastels and do something. I wind up reviewing how the different types handle and think of the ones I have, then it turns into a reprise of the day I got the new set when I settle on one.

Heh, this could be why I collected over a thousand pastels over a decade, every year I add some more. I reached a comfort level long ago but any new pastels are always a thrill. Then charting them is a thrill. Then using them for the first time is another. Then going back to them after a while because they're just right for something I want to do, rotating my pastels keeps me energized.

12-21-2016, 10:47 AM
Welcome to pastels! You'll find a lot of similarity to oils.
Work upright. Don't blow your dust around. Just like oils, blend sparingly.
Listen to Rob. :p


01-08-2017, 12:02 AM
I'm a newbie too. I purchased a complete set of PanPastels at Walmart for almost $100. less than any art store online sells them for, and was thrilled to get such a great deal. I was just wondering if I could use them for my underpainting? I haven't tried, which I know I should before I even ask, but just wondering if anyone has used these pan pastels for this purpose? I think it would save some of my more expensive pastels. Thanks so much!

CM Neidhofer
01-08-2017, 09:31 AM
I'm a newbie too. I purchased a complete set of PanPastels at Walmart for almost $100. less than any art store online sells them for, and was thrilled to get such a great deal. I was just wondering if I could use them for my underpainting? I haven't tried, which I know I should before I even ask, but just wondering if anyone has used these pan pastels for this purpose? I think it would save some of my more expensive pastels. Thanks so much!

Walmart sells PanPastels??

01-08-2017, 10:23 AM
I use Pan Pastels for under paintings most of the time. They work great for that purpose. A lot of the time I will use the different values of one color, plus white if I need to lighten anything, for a monochromatic under painting. You got a great deal!


01-09-2017, 04:10 AM
Fabre Castell are a student grade pastel; a good one but student grade. They are good to try, but you will soon be frustrate by the lack of value ranges. Rob gave you some good guidelines on brands, but if you're looking for value per stick you may want to look at the Mungyo pastels from Jerry's Artarama. The Gallery lines are professional grade. They have the hard square sticks, a softer round stick that is actually a very good starter set many of my beginning students use. That would be th Gallery Soft Pastels. Then they have a top line they call Gallery Handmade Soft Pastels. They're more expensive; similar to Unison or Mount Vision in size and feel.

The surface you use is extremely important. Canson Mi Tientes on either side will teach you not to overload the tooth of the paper. It has a limited number of layers it can hold. However, it is still a favorite paper of some highly professional pastel painters. Look at Lorenzo Chavez' work. Deeply textured papers hold more layers, but unless you know a lot about color theory and color "mixes" many newbies find they end up with muddy looking paintings because they don't layer correctly.

There are many good books on how to approach pastel painting. If you can, go to a library and check out some of them before buying. Everyone has their favorites, and what works for one person may not work for you.