Dexterity and Mark Making

How we use and hold our pastels will determine what amazing marks we will make. Eventually, with practice and discovery through play, this will create our style; how our pastel paintings are defined through the unique way we have found to move the pastels across our chosen surface leaving gorgeous traces of colour. This all relates to dexterity with our mark making. What I am talking about is the same as what makes our handwriting so totally individual and the style and flourish we employ in our signatures full of speed and movement combined with the particular way we hold our chosen pen/pencil/drawing tool.

Practicing our mark making is equivalent to doing our scales as a musician. It is essential to develop our dexterity in holding and moving the pastels around the paper whilst loosening up our fingers, hands and wrists and learning new expressive and experimental ways to use our pastels.  

Individuality in our art is extremely important whether a professional artist, a happy amateur or indeed a student with your eye on the prize! It is also the most exciting element of your work; did you realise that? The subjects that personally inspire you because you see them every day, whether it is sketching your pets from life whilst they sleep or painting the beautiful flowers in your garden which you nurture on a daily basis or the countryside/urban landscape which is on your doorstep. Your personal subject matter, your favoured pastel techniques, pastel papers, your considered colour palettes will all combine in the most amazing way to give your work its unique identity.

Although I am essentially a landscape painter and also known for my still life work, I spend much of my time experimenting with a huge variety of techniques which usually end up looking excitedly abstract. I keep all these playful studies in large sketchbooks which I now use for reference. They are my “Everything to know about using pastels” books. As a tutor of pastel painting, I encourage everyone to build their own reference sketchbooks and fill them with lots of mark making experiments, colour swatches and paper tests.

For example, have you tried any of the techniques in the 5 photos above?

From top left to bottom right,  

  1. sgraffito on Clairefontaine pastelmat with pastel on top to get great foreground grass effects.
  2. Fisher 400 sanded paper creased and scrunched and then flattened enough to get exciting,  wide pastel marks on top which resemble tree bark.
  3. Copying a Mark Rothko painting using a pastel/alcohol underpainting for stunning layers of colour.
  4. Working pastel into a wet pastel/alcohol underpainting for some sgraffito and also sprinkling lots of loose pastel dust which is then pressed in with the end of a ruler is circular movements for something really abstract and unpredictable.
  5. Dark brown Sennelier pastel card taped with a basic abstract design and worked on top using dry pastels and pastel dust sprinkled and pressed in before removing tape to reveal the paper underneath.

Above are 2 examples of using my sgraffito technique in my pastel landscape paintings and below an example of working on a pastel/alcohol underpainting with a variety of rolled edge pastel marks, dots, dashes and fine lines for much of the foliage and broader firm strokes in the muddy path to lead the eye into the painting.

Dexterity and Mark Making 5

Why experiment with mark making and practice your dexterity, you may ask? Well, this will increase your knowledge of using pastel. Experimenting with your materials and really pushing them to their full potential will teach you an incredible amount. You will begin to understand your papers extremely well in terms of whether they take liquid, have a scratchable surface, are they indestructible or extremely fragile do they have a pile or a tooth or maybe they are totally smooth. Knowing when to use which surface and with which pastel technique and for which subjects will give you increased confidence generally in your pastel work.

I always begin teaching new students how to develop an attitude of enquiry through experimental mark making and dexterity exercises so that they will immediately feel confident with the handling of their Unison Colour pastels… and yes, I only use Unisons with my students as my aim is to show them the best of what this medium has to offer. BEWARE the pastels which look like Unisons but are much cheaper as they won’t necessarily be soluble in alcohol or water, are probably not made using natural pigments, may be much harder or even coated around the outside so you can only use the end and will just be a huge disappointment.

Anti-Twilight Arch

I feel particularly blessed to be living in the Wiltshire countryside with its huge open spaces and beautiful sweeping plains. Also I feel incredibly lucky to be living in a position where I see this view of what we locally call Oliver’s Castle.

Nessie’s Sunset

I am really excited to be sharing this blog with you. The view is looking over the western side of the North Tyne Valley, towards Dallycastle in Northumberland.


Colour is the element of my work which is remarked upon most of all. In fact I have many followers who tell me that they look out for my new posts as they find my joyful use of colour so up-lifting.

#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.

My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold A Rainbow In The Sky

The first difficulty in depicting a rainbow in pastel is not the rainbow itself but rather the treatment of the pastel dust in the underlying layers so that the beauty of the rainbow’s colours sit resplendent on top.

Associate Artist Recruitment

Are you a pastel artist? Do you use Unison Colour pastels? Would you like to be part of our Associate Artist family?

Breaking Pastels

Who would believe what possibilities and potential lie inside these neatly wrapped lozenges of colour? They are essentially chunks of pure dry pigment, more intense in colour than any tube of paint.

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10 responses

  1. Thank you for reminding me how important it is to just play and experiment. I am often guilty of the paralysis that comes from not knowing what (which) to paint. Your post also reminds that experiments, even unsuccessful, are never wasted time, effort or importantly, materials!

    1. Hi Judy, thanks for leaving a comment. Running out of inspiration or ones’s mind going blank is such a frustrating feeling. Just remember the importance of the process……the fun bit! Take away all the pressure of the result or even the subject and when you can, start a pastel session with a little mark making exercise- have a go at discovering how many different types of mark you can make also having a go with your less dominant hand too or even make a collection of surfaces with a whole variety of textures and see what happens when you use your pastels on them. Have fun Judy. Cathy

  2. Cathy. Your bold use of color, with your marks, is your “trademark”. You have a way of describing light in direct or silhouette that always stops me so I can look and admire. You genuinely know how to embrace the pure colors of pastels.

    1. Thank you Julia. I love using colour and I’m so pleased it shows. My view and use of colour is quite childlike as I am automatically drawn to all the brights. I usually emphasise colour, expanding on the colours I observe in reality whether for still life, floral or landscape. It is indeed the beautiful colours and infinite combinations which keep me using my pastels every day and of course their amazing buttery texture.

  3. I thought this was super inspiring!! Scrunching up the paper – I’m going to give that a try. Using 2 pastels at the same time…..such great ideas. Thanks for this blog!!

    1. My pleasure Lori, so pleased I have inspired you. I have been using pastels for at least 10 years now and continue to find new ways to use them. Have lots of fun with your experiments. Best wishes. Cathy

    1. My pleasure Lindsay. You just never know when something you discover whilst experimenting actually becomes a new and useful element of more serious work.

  4. Hi Cathy and thanks for a helpful article and inspiring art work. Having recently purchased the botanical set I’ve I’m enjoying work with pastels sometimes combined with watercolors. Also like drawing landscapes, I now want more colours and am deliberating between the Robert Dutton landscape set and the John Hersey – both have 36 sticks. Do you have any thoughts you could share regarding which to get? Thank you

    1. Hi Kathryn
      That is a very good question. The John Hersey Landscape set of 36 is a good overall basic set of colours which you might still want to add specific colours to and the Robert Dutton set is full of wonderful brights but also plenty of lights and darks well suited to the typical landscapes which he paints.
      You will need to ask yourself; What landscapes do you want to paint/draw? I always suggest to pastel students that if you have countryside around you then that is where you should begin your landscape journey. Take lots of photos on your walks throughout the year as well as make plenty of watercolour sketches and then scrutinise that research material, picking out the most often represented colours and build your own box of 36.
      So, to summarise, it depends what type of countryside is around you or what types of landscape you wish to paint not forgetting the amazing change in colour across the seasons. You will have seen, maybe, in a previous blog of mine, the set of 36 which I have designed for the specific landscape where I live in Wiltshire but I also added a box of 8 brights recently so that I have more autumn colours, blues for Summer flowers and Spring bluebells as well as a couple of turquoise and a yellow for flowering rapeseed as they are all so relevant to where I live and paint. I find spending time choosing colours and refining my collection extremely exciting, hope you have fun doing so too. Best wishes

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