Achieving Colour Harmony for the Pastel Artist

As artists we have many choices to make, starting with the medium we choose. The pastel medium is unique in many ways, and each of you can tell your own story about why you have chosen it. My reasons for choosing pastel as my medium are a story for another day. This article will address a topic that pastelists frequently inquire about – how to choose a harmonious palette for a painting.

Huge collection of soft pastels, neatly arranged by colour.
The full selection of pastels

Choices

With a box full of colours, how do pastel artists achieve colour harmony in their paintings? Having all those colour choices is wonderful but, at the same time, can be overwhelming. Using too many colours in one painting can create chaos. You have heard the saying “Less is more.” Here is a good place to apply that maxim.

As you begin the process of creating a painting, you have many choices: choices in design and composition, in what details to include and what to leave out, what mood or emotion you want to convey, whether it will be high key or low key, what colours you will choose, and more. You can create chaos or harmony. If harmony is your goal, a well-thought-out plan will be of great benefit in achieving that goal.

Whether plein air painting or painting in the studio, careful planning makes the painting process come together quickly and with greater success. Choosing the palette ahead of time gives you control over colour harmony and the overall mood of the painting. For most paintings I try to limit my total selection to less than 30 pastels.

As I choose my palette, I keep the selection in a separate tray (in the photo below). This selection is kept separate from the main box of pastels until the painting is finished. If I set the painting aside for a while and come back to it later, I still have all the colours used in the painting at hand without having to search through the entire inventory of pastels.

Selection of pastels with grey scale and colour swatches.
Selection of pastels with grey scale and colour swatches.

In the process of choosing the palette I ask myself several questions.

  • Do the chosen colours enhance the mood of the painting?
  • How are the colours reacting to each other and to the whole?
  • Is there a full range of values selected?
  • Are the darks dark enough? Do I need a darker, more colourful dark?
  • Do the colours sing when placed next to each other?
  • Do the colours create harmony?

Testing

Using a gray scale aids in getting a good range of values (lights and darks) for each colour used in the painting. While choosing the palette I look for a selection of both warm and cool colours plus greys.

To test the colours, I use a colour swatch of the same surface I will use in the painting. This allows me to see how the colours will appear on the paper I have chosen and how the colours will appear next to one another.

A good way to “see” the values of the colours selected is to take a photo of the colour swatch, the gray scale, and the pastels. Then, using a photo editing program, convert the photo to black & white.

A photo of the previous image, in black and white.
Checking the values using a black and white photo

Colour Study

Using the same paper choice that will be used in the final painting, I do a small, quick colour study. You might think this is a tedious and unnecessary step, but 20 to 30 minutes spent on the study will allow for any problem areas, such as colours, values, and composition, to be worked out before the final painting is begun.

Pastel painting of a lake, in summer.  Smooth ripples in the surface of the water
Colour study for Enchanted Evening

If the colour study is kept handy while you paint, you can continue to use it as a testing ground. For instance, if you feel the need to add more colours as you paint, they can be tried out on the colour study before adding them to the painting, avoiding mistakes on the final painting. I save the spicy, juicy bits of colour and the lightest highlights for the very end, once again using the colour study to try these colours to see if they will add interest without being distracting.

The finished painting on the easel with the colour study and colour swatch.
On the easel. The colour study, colour swatch and finished painting.

Time spent in preparation can save frustration and disappointment. With a plan in place the final painting can be approached with confidence. But even if you do get carried away and add something you regret, do not fret. Remember pastel is one of the most forgiving mediums and you can always brush off your mistakes and try again!

The finished painting of Enchanted Evening, by Susan Klabak.
Enchanted Evening, by Susan Klabak

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22 Responses

  1. (Translated)I really like these tips and comments because they are strong right. This realization reveals the harmony quite rightly as well as the sweetness of this nature “enchanted evening” – thank you for sharing the different approaches of your artists. For five months I paint pastel and it is a very beautiful discovery, I can not believe the full potential of this medium, and your colors are extraordinary, how not to succumb to all …

    (Original)J aime beaucoup ces conseils et commentaires, car ils sont forts justes. Cette réalisation révèle l harmonie très justement ainsi que la douceur de cette nature «soirée enchantée » .merci de nous faire partager les différentes approches de vos artistes. Depuis cinq mois je peins au pastel et c est une très belle découverte, je n en reviens pas de tout le potentiel de ce médium, et vos couleurs sont extraordinaires, comment ne pas succomber à toutes …

    Béatrice BEAUDEQUIN GUICHARD

    1. Hello Beatrice,
      Thank you so much for taking time to read the blog post and for your comments. Thank you for your very kind words. I hope you are enjoying your pastel journey as much as I am enjoying mine.
      Warm Regards,
      Susan

  2. (Translated)Lovely landscape Susan! I am not familiar with such thoroughness of preparation for drawing. I’m guided by a rush of feelings. Apparently affects the small experience of a novice artist. I like the combination of heat – coldness, it creates volume and some energy. Grizaille is also an interesting genre, but I’m closer to the color solution of the image. It is necessary to apply in practice the selection of colors on a tone scale, so that as they say, the color shines!

    (Original)Прекрасный пейзаж Сьюзан! Мне не знакома такая тщательность подготовки к рисованию. Я руководствуюсь порывом чувств. Видимо сказывается малый опыт начинающего художника. Мне нравится сочетание тепло – холодности, это создаёт объем и какую-то энергию. Гризайль тоже интересный жанр, но мне ближе цветовое решение изображения. Надо применить на практике подбор цветов по тоновой шкале, чтобы как говорят, цвет звенит!

  3. Thank you so much! It was so nice of you to take time to respond. Your kind words are appreciated!
    Let the light shine in fragments of pastel dust!
    Susan

    1. Hello Prudence,
      Thank you for taking time to comment. I think the methods I have outlined could be applied no matter the subject matter and perhaps are even more important in portraiture. I have watched several tutorial videos by artist Alain Picard. He does landscapes and portraiture. I am including a link to a youtube video he made on portraiture. You might like it. .https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmlxHMhz38M
      Happy pasteling!
      Susan

  4. Beautiful tranquil ‘Enchanted evening’ Susan! loved reading your clear tips on preparing your Pastels, something I need to do as I dip away into my mix! I am determined to turn over a new leaf!
    Great blog thank you Susan!

    1. Thank you Nicky for your very kind words. If you try this method of preparing I hope you find it helpful. I sometimes get anxious and dive right in but I usually have better results if I take time to prepare by following some, if not all of these steps. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me.
      Good luck,
      Susan

  5. I like how Susan sets about a painting,especially the section on tone/values.No two people see things the same,but the use of grey scale certainly helps.l think sometimes our eyes deceive us,as we like a colour so much,we use it,though our brain tells us we shouldn’t.

    1. Thank you Jean for commenting. Getting values right is probably the most difficult part of painitng. and such an imortant part! We all see colours differently, too. And how would we determine which is the “right” color? The artist trying to paint in a realistic manner is freer to choose colours more randomly if the values are correct.
      Enjoy painting!
      Susan

  6. Thank you for the insights into your painting process. I will now try to restrain myself and begin by selecting the pastels to use before starting. I have tried to organize them recently into colour groups and this has led me to use a colour wheel with more emphasis on the green/blue-green area. Your array of pastels illustrates how important this region is, especially for landscape painting. Please would you allow me to use your photo 1 as an example to show the hues that are available? I used to teach science and I’m always struggling to escape from over analysing rather than relying on intuition and imagination. Experience and practice, of course, underpin both of these and the secret is getting the balance right.

    1. Hello Bernice,
      Thank you for your comments. You may certainly use the photo in any way you would like. Recently I saw where an artist arranged her pastels on a round revolving table top. She arranged the colors as they appear on the color wheel. I thought the idea was amazing and if I had a designated studio space right now I think I would try it. But many artist arrange in a similar way that I have in Photo 1.
      You are so right! Experience and practice is what will take us where we want to go.
      Happy practising!!
      Susan

  7. This has been one of the most useful and helpful contributions to this series. Thank you for taking the time to express your approach so succinctly and clearly.

  8. Hello Bill,
    THANK YOU for taking time to comment. I am glad you liked the post. If you try the methods let me know how that goes, and if you have any questions. Your kind words have encouraged me to try my hand at writing another article.
    Regards,
    Susan

  9. Hi Susan,

    Great article. I can see where your organization saves time and creates harmony in your paintings. I especially like your tip lining up your pastels next to the value scale and taking a black and white photo. All your paintings are stunning and now I have a little insight into how you achieve such harmony. I am awaiting your next article.
    Thank you,
    Louise

    1. Hi Louise,
      Thanks for your very kind words. I have been really enjoying the portrait work you’ve been doing. You can paint ANY subject!
      Thanks,
      Susan

  10. Really great advice, Susan. Color studies are something I sometimes skip, but they would probably save me a lot of time and frustration.

    1. Hello Vanessa,
      Thank for reading and taking time to comment on the blog post. When I don’t take the time to prepare I am usually not very happy with the results. We’d all love to be more spontaneous and, of course, there is a time and place for that, but I find I am happier with the results after preparation. When I paint plein air I like to take a few moments to sit in my surroundings and listen to the sounds of nature and fully experience the moment. Then I can begin to paint (after making my palette selection, of course! – Well, usually! 😉
      Happy Pasteling! Let’s make some dust!
      Susan

  11. Thank you for a really informative and useful blog. Having watched and followed seascape workshops recently I am feeling more confident and ready ready to start using my own photos to paint a seascape picture and I have just printed off the photo to start selecting colours. I love the idea of the grey scale and will certainly use this as I put my pastel colours together and as I print off the photo in black and white too it will help me ensure I have a tonal range. Clearly preparation is key to producing a good painting.

  12. Hello Mo,
    Thanks you for your kind words. Yes! Prepartion is key and beside what I wrote about in the blog, there are also Notans, and thumbnail sketches, and underpaintings, and….Oh my! So much to do! But, it’s all so fun!
    Enjoy the process!
    Susan

  13. Being fairly new to pastels this blog was really useful and informative. Probably means I need to buy more pastels as well.

    1. Dear Tony,
      I was just looking over the comments on my blog….I noticed that my response somehow never got posted. (probably me doing something wrong!) So hopefully you will get this very belated comment.
      First – I want to thank you for your kind comment. I am glad you found the article informative.
      It is exciting to be new to pastels with so much to learn and all the fun in the process. There are so many great articles, tutorials, videos, etc online to learn from. If I can be of any help in answering questions you might have please feel free to contact me. But one thing I always mention when teaching: there is no ONE way, no RIGHT way to use pastels, so have fun experimenting!
      Susan
      sklabak@gmail.com

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