Behind the Scenes of a 5 Day Pastel Challenge – The Artist’s Perspective

Helen asked, “Did you enjoy the 5 Day Pastel Challenge?” “Yes! I did.” I said. “Book me at the same time next year!” So here we are!

I really loved working with you all on our Old Harry Rocks Five Day Challenge last year. I thought that you might be interested in hearing how it came about and the work behind it.

'Old Harry Rocks' pastel painting by Nina Squire.

When the coronavirus lockdowns started and I had to suspend my face-to-face pastel group, I decided to set up some online workshops for my regular students. We called it Carry on Pastelling! I thought that I might take the group on an imaginary journey through some of my favourite views and share with them the techniques and skills needed to recreate them using my favourite Unison Colour soft pastels.

This became, for us all, a kind of sanctuary. Sitting at our easels, yet connected over the internet, with our Unison pastels in hand, it was a real escape – a virtual holiday.

So it was that, when I applied to Helen to become a Unison Colour Associate Artist, I already had some online workshops to hand, and I sent her one as a demo. Helen, in response, said that she could actually imagine walking along the beach that I had created. Of course, it might have helped that I mentioned that there was a virtual pina colada at the other end of it!

Pastel painting of a sandy beach on a bright day.

Being accepted as one of Unison’s Associate Artists was very much a highlight of my 2020 year. So, when Helen asked me to develop a Five-Day Pastel Challenge I accepted, even though I didn’t have much of an idea what was in store. Helen had spotted my artwork of Old Harry Rocks on the Dorset Coast and thought this would be the perfect inspiration for a five-day project to develop an artwork with Unison Colour’s enthusiastic pastelling community.

The preparation that I had to put into developing a successful event began well ahead of the actual workshop week. Helen, spreadsheeting guru, gave me a timeframe to work to, so that I could be sure to finish preparing all of the resources that I needed to support the Challenge in good time. I used my experience as an artist and a tutor to help me to break down the creation of the artwork into manageable parts. If you did last the Challenge with me, then I hope that you found that this helped to make it all feel achievable to you as students, alongside giving you new skills, sharing tips to avoid frequently occurring mistakes and – above all – building your confidence in your developing abilities. To complement the actual workshops, I also put together a small ten-minute video as a taster of each day’s techniques, plus some notes in pdf form to help remind you of the key elements and techniques.

I learned a lot as I delivered the workshops last year, and I am looking forward very much to this year’s Five-Day Challenge. When delivering the actual live art sessions, I always try to make sure I give people plenty of reassurance. If you want to learn, it is important to take small steps and always be kind to yourself. Learning is about regular practice and sticking with it and most importantly, not being too hard on yourself. Too often we are our own harshest critics. Think of learning a language: you learn the vocab and the fluency comes with time and practice but only after making – and learning from – hundreds of mistakes!

If you are new to art, then you will be glad to know that, in soft pastels, you have found one of the most forgiving of media. They can be reworked, blended, rubbed out and layered over to your heart’s content! I love the confidence that pastel gives. Here are a few tips: you should always take plenty of breaks because they will help you see your work with a fresh eye. And the time that you spend in building up your initial outline drawing, setting out the shape and location of the key elements of your picture, is well worthwhile. Another tip (and I share plenty more in the workshops!) is to turn your image (and the reference) upside down from time to time and have a good look. You will be surprised what you will learn by seeing things from another perspective.

As a tutor I know the importance of sharing our experiences. Our Facebook group, despite the challenges Facebook can present, enables us to work together in a real virtual community of kindred spirits. Sharing our work with others – including sharing our mistakes and supporting each other when things don’t go to plan – is really important. If you are reading this, then you probably know at first hand the warmth and support available within Unison Colour’s pastelling community. One of the unexpectedly brilliant successes of our Five-Day Challenges is the way that you all help each other. Isn’t it satisfying to help your fellow pastellers to find resources, to share your own knowledge with them, and to support them when they are having a wobble? And never forget that Helen, Oliver and I are there behind the scenes, doing our very best to deal with all of your questions and making the technology behave. We are only three, so we always appreciate the community and the help and support you offer each other.

All you really need to learn how create your own pastel works of art is time, a habit of regular practice, and the determination not to be put off by the odd off day. I often hear the claim that “I can’t draw” before somebody joins one of my workshops. Then they learn, with my help and that of the other members of our pastelling community that if you can write, then you can draw. Although many people haven’t drawn since, when they were a child, somebody looked at their drawings and sadly shook their head. Disheartened, you haven’t since picked up a pencil, so your drawing skills will take a while to return. You can actually find your drawing mojo surprisingly quickly. Just like training for a running race, even if you only start with a fast walk, you will, in time, find that regular practice, careful coaching will turn you into the pastelling equivalent of a long-distance athlete! Aptitude helps but you can enjoy art at whatever level, not everyone needs to be a professional athlete to enjoy sport!

Behind the Scenes of a 5 Day Pastel Challenge - The Artist's Perspective 1

So here we are, a year after my first Five Year Challenge and here I am preparing for the next one. I’ve carefully selected another beautiful view of Dorset, that I can’t wait to share with you. Together we will recreate it using several different techniques using soft pastels, both dry and with liquid, which will illustrate their amazing versatility. Although at the moment I’m buried in my studio in video editing, PDF writing and choosing my favourite eighteen pastels, it won’t be long until we see each other – it’s only a week away now and you can sign up here (Challenge now ended).

Behind the Scenes of a 5 Day Pastel Challenge - The Artist's Perspective 2

Challenge has now ended

Here are answers to some of the things that people ask me most frequently:

What paper do you use?

This is an excellent question. The choice of paper is very important. Although you can use traditional pastel papers, they have a smooth surface and aren’t always suitable for liquid. I therefore recommend papers with sanded surfaces because the ‘tooth’ of the paper helps you to build lots of layers of pigment and my favourites allow use with liquid.

I myself use quite a wide variety of sanded papers. They all have different qualities and I recommend trying a few so that you can find which suits you best. I can recommend the Jacksons Art Sanded Surface Sample pack, which allows you to try them all and see which one suits you best. It’s worth noting that if, in a workshop, you don’t use the same paper as the tutor, it is hard to get the same results, which can be frustrating.

For my seascapes, I love the texture of Fisher 400 paper, which is similar to Uart. As well as drawing with dry pastels, I love to paint with them too. I do this by using a liquid to liquefy the pastels and create a base layer. You can use water, but I use alcohol as it evaporates quickly. Not all pastels liquify successfully so try yours ahead of a workshop. They should create a silky paint like liquid. Fisher 400 allows me to build up layers of colour and the surface seems to emphasise the buttery quality of the Unison pastels, which I love! This paper is also very robust so I know I can work back into it with pencils and several layers.

Pastelmat is another fantastic surface, but I do prefer to use that dry rather than with liquid, as it tends to grab the liquid rather than creating a beautiful flow with liquified pastel. It is a great surface to try first, since it’s so forgiving, but it is not as robust as Fisher 400, Art Spectrum, Mi Teinte Touch and Uart which is why I don’t recommend it for my liquid-based workshops.

What size should I work at?

There’s no right size but I suggest at least A4, as it allows you to explore the surface and mark making. If you are feeling brave, then go for A3 so that you can explore marks and colours with confidence.

How do you choose colours?

Hold your pastel against the reference image. It helps you to see the colour and decide whether it needs to be lighter or darker, warmer or cooler.

How do I get a sharp edge with a pastel?

Your pastel will develop sharp edges through using it. When I apply large panels of colour my pastel develops a chisel like edge. Experiment to find these edges, which will help you to become more confident at using them. You can also break your pastels to create edges and some artists take a pin to them to create a shard. There are many different ways and, as ever, practice makes perfect. Do keep any broken pastels. You can always use them for background or for details. Some people will use tweezers to grasp a small chunk and create sharp lines. It is actually possible to make a pastel from your collected dust by rewetting the dust and drying it to form a pastel stick!

Paper colour

Go for a colour that suits your scene. Rather than a ‘right’ colour, look for one that suits your image and your personal response to the ‘feel’. If you want to try ‘moody’ go dark. For a ‘light’, sunny feel then try a lighter colour. I look for the paper surface colour in the image that I am going to recreate. Seascapes tend to have warm blues, greys, creams and tans so investigate these colours. I often find a colour that’s in my colour palette, that way I know it’s sympathetic to the artwork.


If you develop your soft pastel paintings by using liquid, then you want to invest in a good quality brush. I’ve found from running workshops online that choice of brush can make all the difference. A watercolour brush holds too much water and can almost remove the pigment from the surface. I like to use a light hog haired brush.

My favourites are called ‘flat thins’. I talk more about my favourite materials on my website at the link below. If you can get two, then buy one small and one large, if only one, just choose a middle sized one. They are lovely objects in their own right!

Use a solid surface.

It’s essential to have your paper attached to a solid surface. I use the back of an old picture frame. You might choose something similar, or you can buy a board from a hardware store. I’d recommend something about A3 size. When you’re not working on your artwork it safely stores your artwork too. You can just cover it with a layer of greaseproof paper, taking care to tape it securely.

Should I spray my work to fix the pastels?

You’ll find that this is a hotly debated topic. Many people don’t fix their pastel paintings at all, while others swear by cheap hairspray, and certainly we used gallons of it when I was at art school. However, this is not guaranteed against yellowing over time. If you wish, you can buy specialist art sprays or fixatives. in fact, Unison Colour have created their own for use with their pastels. It’s worth noting that even with the best fixative the surface of a pastel will never truly be fixed. If you are going to spray, then it’s worth studying the spray brand’s advice. Try a sample of your pastel and then spray it. See what happens to the colour, rather than risking your artwork to start out. You will find that simple things like distance from the paper and making sure the nozzle is clean can be so important.

Some artists like to spray their work between layers so that they have fixed a surface ahead of working on it again. This also has a tendency to darken colours which can be of benefit in some circumstances. It’s worth noting that this is very much a personal choice but if you’re starting out then carefully storing them is probably more important.


The longevity of soft pastel relies on storage. I recommend taping your work to a board or similar and then covering it with greaseproof paper or glassine paper. Tape both down firmly and make sure that you don’t rest anything against the surface. It will then be safe to transport or store. You can layer artworks on top of each other in this way.

Im nervous about doing things wrong

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if you ask ten different artists then you’ll get ten different answers about how they use soft pastel. If you look for artists whose work you admire and then follow what materials they use, you’ll find that there are many, many ways of creating pastels. There’s no wrong way, just your way! Plus, pastels are very forgiving. You can remove pastel with a putty rubber or a wetted or dry brush. Wash the pastel off carefully or take it outside and take the excess pigment off with a stiff brush.

The best advice of all is “Get stuck in! Youll love it!”

Happy pastelling

Behind the Scenes of a 5 Day Pastel Challenge - The Artist's Perspective 2

Challenge has now ended

#thepastel8 Visit to Thorneyburn

A fabulous day was spent at Thorneyburn last Friday in the company of Fiona Carvell, Michelle Lucking, Nina Squire, Cathy Pierce, Lynn Howarth, Meral Altilar, Lucy Brangwin and Rebecca de Mendonça.

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8 Responses

  1. A great blog really encouraging for the new and old members full of very useful and helpful information thank you very much 😊

    1. Thank you, Ray, that’s lovely feedback, I’m glad you enjoyed it. These 5 Day Challenges are great for beginners or experienced artists, they’re always fun! x

  2. Thanks for such a great opportunity. I loved reading your blog as well. This challange comes at a time when it is really needed. This challange has become my motivation to dust off my pastels and paint. Thanks so much for this exciting challange.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment, Patricia, I hope that you will fall back in love with your pastels, it’s going to be a lovely week, I can’t wait to see all the beautiful sunsets appearing. See you there. Happy pastelling. Nina x

  3. I am looking forward to the challenge and only sorry I was not involved in your Old Harry’s Rock challenge. I have learnt so much from your workshops, it has certainly opened my eyes and proved that anyone an produce art if they have the right encouragement. Thank you Nina and I hope you realise how much joy you have brought to so many.

    1. Thanks Jilly, I appreciate your lovely comments, I am so happy you are enjoying them! It’s a lovely friendly online art community.. I’ve enjoyed it too. Looking forward to the 5th March workshop. Nina

  4. Thank you so much Nina for doing this challenge and the next. I have learnt so much every time I have been lucky enough to do one of these challenges and tried new methods and painting new subjects I would never have done otherwise! You are so encouraging and inspire us all to give us confidence to try things new.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comments, it is my pleasure, I have enjoyed sharing my love of art and encouraging others to learn. So much can be achieved in 5 days, it just shows a little of what’s possible with practice and time at the easel. Have fun pastelling. Nina

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