View Full Version : Pastel Technique

Marilyn Ann
11-07-2017, 02:05 PM
I am a watercolor artist seeking to add pastel to my work. I have been experimenting with this for about a year. I have a couple of questions that I hope someone can answer or perhaps direct me to information that would be helpful.

First, although I have accumulated many soft pastel sticks, I never seem to have the right color and value. I find I can lay down several colors and blend them to approximate the desired color but then. . .

I lose my crisp edge. (I love lost and found edges but sometimes a clean edge is needed). I have tried manipulating the pastel with small tipped blenders and also securing the edge with pastel pencil. Not really satisfactory.

So my two questions:
How to get the right color on the paper.
How to make edges crisp.

Any good advice? I would really appreciate any insights you may have.

Marilyn Ann Deeds

11-07-2017, 04:34 PM
Marilyn, you mention you are trying to "add pastel to your work" - are you saying that you're putting pastel over your watercolour? Sometimes the sizing on watercolour paper can make pastel work a challenge. Thats not to say it cant be done & some love working on WC paper but it does accept pastel a little differently.

As for having the right colour, this is one of the only drawbacks of pastel: you can blend and layer, sure but ultimately, if you are looking for a very specific colour or tone, you probably need to buy that colour. Daniel Greene suggests buying a complete (like 200+ colour) set because eventually you'll need a colour or 3 that you just cant create your own.

11-07-2017, 04:38 PM
Hopefully you will get some good and different answers. One thing about pastels is that they come in many various levels of hardness - and many different types of paper - so there are many ways and techniques in which they are applied. As for getting the "right" color, here are my personal thoughts: Either buy 1,000 or more pastels or don't worry about getting the "right" color! I think most pastel artists have this same experience - no matter how many pastels you have, you still can't get the exact color you want. This is why many pastel artists have many hundreds, if not thousands of sticks. To me, matching the reference color or getting the "right" color no longer became a goal. Getting close - and more importantly, making sure the color is the right temperature - is good enough (and often better). I do blend pastels together to get the target color, so your experience with color mixing in watercolor should serve you well.

And, yes, hard edges can be very difficult to attain in pastels. I normally try and create hard edges and accents at the end where I can make the mark and then leave it. Using harder pastels for these strokes may be a good idea although I know many pastel artists use the softest sticks throughout. I tend to find working larger is easier as you can find a part of the pastel that is sharper and apply it more easily than if you work small. (After you begin using them, they wear in a certain way so that a sharper edge is usually there somewhere!). And the type of paper will make a difference, too - some papers being harder to get that hard edge.

As is the case when switching from one media to another, there are some advantages and disadvantages; things you can do better or easier and others that can't be replicated. With experience, you will learn more about the versatility of pastels and the pros and cons. Good luck!


Marilyn Ann
11-08-2017, 11:38 AM
Thank you Don and Justin for your thoughtful replies to my questions.

My objective is to add pastel to a watercolor using it as a foil and or to add texture and detail in some of the watercolor areas, not to cover the whole surface with pastel.

I am finding it hard to find a paper with a surface that works well with both mediums. Best so far is hot press watercolor paper but this has little tooth and I find I am limited as to the number of layers of pastel I can apply.

I think if I work larger it will help; right now I am trying to do some small things on cold press paper. Probably why I am having more trouble getting a sharp edge where I need it.

So thankful for this forum where we can share and get help from one another.

Marilyn Ann

11-08-2017, 06:36 PM
Have you tried a mixed media paper like the one Strathmore makes?

I did a series of videos for Strathmore when they launched their Toned Tan mixed media - unsuitable for your purposes because its a tan colour - but noticed that watercolour and pastel both worked quite nicely on it.

Perhaps you could try some of their white mixed media paper?

You may find that working with pastel pencil on top of watercolour is the easiest to 'get your feet wet' so to speak.

Donna T
11-08-2017, 07:16 PM
Hi Marilyn Ann, I've gotten frustrated trying to do pastels on cold pressed paper too - hard edges end up all squiggly. Have you ever tried using watercolors on top of a pastel ground like clear gesso on hot press paper? You could still get the loose washes of watercolor that you want then you could add pastel on top. If you do the watercolor on the paper first then coat it with a pastel ground you lose some of the vibrancy of the watercolor. I've had good luck with Liquitex Clear Gesso. Like Don does, I try to save any hard edges for the end - and usually decide that I don't need so many anyway. If I overwork an area that must have a hard edge I'll give it a spray with SpectraFix to settle some of the pastel into the paper before I attempt to make the edge.

Marilyn Ann
11-09-2017, 08:34 PM
Thanks Donna for the response. I have used watercolor on a gesso surface but was unhappy with the quality of the washes. I love the vibrant washes that occur on good quality watercolor paper. On the hot press paper they are still nice a clean and vibrant but don't spread and move the way I like them to. Maybe my life quest is to find the perfect paper.

I am not familiar with SpectraFix. Is that like a workable fixative and does it glue down the pastel already laid down? That should help because I seem to be lifting up the pastel and getting it mixed in with the one I am using for a nice clean edge.
I do appreciate your suggestions; it helps me to think, retry and re-evaluate.
Marilyn Ann

Donna T
11-10-2017, 09:26 AM
Spectra Fix is a milk casein formula and it is completely odor free, which is my main reason for using it. This is from the back of the bottle:

Occasional spraying during the working progress enables deep layering of pastel, ensures a strong hold and helps maintain chromatic control. If desired, brush while still wet to create washes with pastel. Spectra Fix dries to an invisible matte finish.

Here's an older thread (http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=1002882&highlight=spectra) where it was discussed in this forum.

11-15-2017, 03:18 PM
Perhaps try pastelbord by Ampersand, Mi-Teintes Touch or Colorfix by Art Spectrum. They both have tooth and can take water-based media.

As for getting the right colour... I very much believe nobody needs hundreds of pastels. Mixing colour is a skill you will get with practice, trial and error. Honestly, it works. You don't need every colour. But a pastel paper with good tooth will take layering and if you can layer enough, you can get the right colour. If you don't have tooth, then this might be a problem of course as you would have to work very lightly and can only mix a few colours.
Having 'not enough' pastels is a brilliant way to learn colour mixing.

If you can't get sharp edges you can try changing your paper and perhaps stop blending. Blending is risky business: it can deaden a colour and it can fill up the tooth. Instead keep the tooth open by not blending, using the pastel lightly and layer various colours and lines.

My two cents! Good luck! (would love to see what you're creating!)

Moises Menendez
11-18-2017, 11:29 AM
Like some notorious individual said: I feel your pain. Agreed what Daniel Greene stated since I have all his videos, and he stated that you may need around 300 pastel sticks to get the right color. Eventually all of us will purchase more pastels to get the right color. I remember one famous artist, Igor Babaylov, who is a master using pastels. During his demonstrations he used only few hard pastels, mainly NuPastels. He was able to blend very well without creating mud and he got the right values when doing portraits.
Personally, I reached the millennial number regarding pastels. When I need certain color I use a different color but the right value!
Regarding hard edges I use either a pastel pencil or the side of a soft pastel.

Marilyn Ann
11-27-2017, 06:40 PM
Thanks for all these helpful suggestions.
I'll look for some of those papers.
I think I am trying to blend too much in order to "mix" the right color. I will try a lighter touch and let the eye do the mixing.
Looking forward to trying these things.

Bill Foehringer
11-28-2017, 09:55 PM
I use cold pressed. I use washes under my pastels either complementary or not. I do some blending as needed of pastels like a secondary wash. At some point my pastel strokes become much more like brushstrokes in oil. Harder and softer edges.
I save the softest pastels for the topmost layers. If I know I want a soft pastel on top in a certain area I make sure I am not laying in other soft pastels underneath. It's like thin oil paint under thicker then impasto in oil painting.
Keep painting and painting. Instinctively you will see ahead into the painting process and layer accordingly.
The glow of bright paper through a beautiful wash is hard to reproduce in pastel. Very soft pastels can also be dragged over these glowing washes but you only get one chance, softly softly. Don't lose the glow!
As for values. All of the strokes together make the painting work. Think about the completed painting. Think of it in terms of the colors and values you have in your tray.
I paint on location all in one session so I don't have a great selection of sticks but what I have I know inside out. I change selection with the seasons.
Now I am in the process of absorbing the light and shadow and colors of S Az after living in N Illinois for most of my life. New set of greens more violets and oranges. Different ratio of secondary and tertiary colors. Seemingly Deep shadows in relation to the lit surfaces. EXCITING!
Hope to be posting paintings soon.

12-05-2017, 09:24 AM
Hard edges... sanded papers it's easier than non sanded. Masking can help if you're going to be blending, cut a cardboard mask and press it firmly down to cover where the edge goes. Sharpening it with a hard pastel can help.

Getting the right color is interesting. I have about 1,250 unique pastel sticks and pieces, lots of half sticks. That's one way to go about it. Exact right color isn't always about color matching, sometimes it's about effect. If I've got very saturated blues and violets and the only green I have is a dull olive, it's going to look way off when I'm doing the gay rainbow flag rippling in the breeze. There are ways around it with a small palette.

Not caring, just getting the values right and letting a limited palette create mood is one way to keep the amount of pastels on the spot or in your budget down to reasonable. But there are also other ways. Back in the Pastel Learning Center, there's a class "Still Life the Colourful Way" in which Colorix taught a particular pastel method that got me over needing 1,000 colors to do what I wanted - and let me get all the subtle muted colors while using saturated vibrant ones.

The other reason to have 1,000 pastels is to have gradations of value within color areas. Look at the 525 color Sennelier set in an ad. There's four or five sticks in each exact color. So if I want the particular orange-red in value 2 where it's very pale but not quite near-white, I can find that and reflect the color of an orange-red rose onto a nearby white one... and that's where exact isn't about matching the photo but creating the effect.

It's possible to get just about anything with 48-60 colors using Colorix's palette, which she gives in Rembrandt numbers. It's very easy for me using the 120 half sticks Unison set, because of how that's laid out in both hue and value. Having darks and lights in each of the colors lets me plan values without needing to do sudden color substitution. I like deep dark violet. I don't like having to substitute a greenish blue in the deep darks, that doesn't give the same effect - and neither is the very muted violet-blue-gray of reality, but within my vibrant painting that deep dark violet is perfect.

Last reason I didn't just select a favorite and get rid of everything but my Unisons is texture. Hard pastels, then medium, then hand rolled or super soft will give very rich effects and save a bit of money over using the super soft ones from the start. Also some brands have unique textures, like Girault, which is really good for both linear effects and a painterly look. I tried a lot of different brands in medium-size general assortments to get this collection, and I bulked it out with several big used assortments of Who Knows What? pieces from friends and Swap Shop and Ebay.

What I think of as essential is two lights, a pure tone and a dark in 12 colors for the 12 color wheel - warm and cool versions of ROYGBV. Then half a dozen near whites and deep darks, using browns for deep dark orange and yellows (but also getting the actual shades as they are really great olive greens). I sort my grays and browns and muted colors by spectrum too, what spectrum color they're closest to. Pure neutral gray seems to read blue in that arrangement, close enough to just put them in that row without worrying about it.

If I just have the spectrum colors, as in some small starter sets, I'm going to use up a lot of white and some black creating tints and shades. That can also get clumsy with the number of added layers to make those tints.

Best way to come close to that arrangement is to look for half sticks sets laid out in spectrum order with lights and darks in all the colors. Both of the Great American half sticks 60 color sets are laid out that way. Unison's half sticks sets are organized that way and it's beautiful. Terry Ludwig 60 color Maggie Price assortment is laid out that way. Many other sets around the 60-120 color range are well organized in terms of what's in them but need to be rearranged to get something like the layout - and that layout makes those mentioned among my favorites.

If working with a random bunch of colors, having "warms" and "cools" in four or five values can create a great limited palette with surprising results and harmonies. It's okay to use a pink sky instead of a blue one, that sort of thing actually works well. And some colors are just dead useful in everything, like a dusty gray-violet that does wonderful face shadows on pale complexions, soft highlights on dark ones, shadows in landscapes and mid tone bark, distant mountains, various flower shadows... I just use that gray-violet all the time and never suspected I would. It looked really ugly in the box and is there in almost all general assortments within a middle value range. Sometimes a little lighter or darker or bluer or pinker but the general type of color is always there.

But read that class to really understand color mixing, that will help a lot.

Marilyn Ann
12-11-2017, 08:07 PM
Thank you Robert for sharing such a wealth of information. I've been looking at the lessons in the Learning Center that you mention. What a great exercise in color and shadow. If I could only discipline myself to work through it! It is very humbling making me realize how little I know.

I think I will reorganize my pastel pallet. Expecting some additional pastel sticks from Santa.

12-12-2017, 08:49 PM
If you can discipline yourself to work through that class, you'll never have trouble with color again in any medium. It was an extreme eye opener for me. I was there when she first did the class and it was amazing. I'd try the exercises and what I got afterward was gorgeous, jumping off the paper. My final painting still stands as perhaps the best still life I've ever done, a pale blue tea pot and a spoon I think, and the color was just incredible.

It starts garish and tones down to realism with a prismatic undertone, a sense of vibrant color even in the most muted areas. It's harder to describe, you have to see how it looks in person to know how powerful that technique is. I love it and whenever I do it, I wind up loving the art that results.