My Three Studio Basics: The Tools of my trade

Part 1. Let’s talk about paper

There are many different ways of working with pastels – many of which are explored and explained in these great blogs on the Unison Colour website. The outcomes are diverse and endlessly varied, layered, or not, abstract, figurative, textured and so on.

I often get lovely comments about my work from people at art shows. One that crops up regularly is ‘I’ve tried pastels and just can’t get on with them’. The first thing I always ask is what kind of paper they are working on. Nearly every time, apart from a minority who can’t bear getting their hands dirty (if this is you, pastels are not your medium, look away now) they will either look confused or say they use something like sugar paper / general branded pastel paper in pads. These are all papers that lack any ‘tooth’. Attempting to work with even a few layers will end in failure. After 2 or 3 layers, the colours will just fall off the paper and it all becomes hugely frustrating.

In my style of pastel art, one of the most important parts is building with layers. I build many, many layers of pastels to create a huge variety of tints, shades and textures. For me, layers are central to the ‘painterly’ way I work with pastels. However, this technique cannot to be created on just any old paper.

This is why paper is one of main technical considerations with pastels. To create anything with a few layers, the surface is all important. I use three particular papers- Clairefontaine Pastelmat, Fisher 400 and Sennelier pastel card. Which one I use depends on the kind of work I’m interested in creating and the subject matter. It is vital to choose the right paper for the right subject.


Sunset on Pastelmat
Sunset on Pastelmat

When working on an image which is detailed, colour-filled and involves careful control of layers – for example a sunset, I will work on pastelmat. This is a paper with a very fine tooth. It feels deceptively soft and smooth to touch. However, when you apply a little pastel to it, the pastel won’t blend or move on the surface- in fact it takes many layers of pastel to get movement on this paper. But it’s well worth persevering as the results can be stunning. It allows you to control and retain colour, as well as create movement and light.

Blending layers on Pastelmat paper.
Blending layers on Pastelmat paper.

Fisher 400:

Fisher 400 Paper effect with pastels and charcoal.
Fisher 400 Paper effect with pastels and charcoal.

This an interesting paper to work with – it feels extremely rough to the touch but conversely – as opposed to the smooth feel of pastelmat – it blends more readily. This means is often ‘quicker’ to work with. However, this gives you less control over blending and mark making- so I use it for work where I want a looser and more textured appearance – storms or wilder weather. It also allows you to experiment as liquids can be used as well – either by creating a base – using inks or watercolours – or when working with the pastels – applying Pastel Liquefier. I enjoy creating brush mark effect with liquefier then working over with detail in pastels and pastel pencils.

Sennelier Pastel Card:

Sennelier Pastel Card effect with no blending.
Sennelier Pastel Card effect with no blending.

There are times when I just want to explore textures and layers and capture quick impressions – often semi abstract. This is a paper where it’s all about the very sandpapery surface. Blending is not an option and will simply leave you with a rather ‘blurred’ image. On this paper, I build thin layers and then leave it. It’s probably the hardest to work with – difficult to correct if it goes wrong, and easy to over fill the tooth accidentally and lose that textural quality. It is also very rewarding and can help you create evocative pieces. By the way, never ever get it wet or drip anything on it… the surface will peel away leaving you with a bright white patch that can’t be filled.

Hopefully this has given you an insight into the importance of different papers. I will be going through other equipment and materials that I use next.

Part 2. Have you got a shaper tool yet?

One of my most useful tools is my colour shaper tool. Without this I can’t create sharp edge or subtle details. No matter how tiny your fingers are, or how adept you are keeping one little finger clean, you will always slightly blur what you are working on when you blend. I started using a shaper quite by accident and experimentation many years ago. I remember struggling with edges when doing a pastel piece and finding one of these things in my art box, unused for many years. I gave it a go – and have never looked back. It’s now one of my essentials.

There are a number of ‘beginners mistakes’ that are often made with shapers – in relation, initially, to their purchase. Firstly, don’t buy the cheap multipack ones from your local discount store – they’ll be too hard or sharp edged. Secondly, a colour shaper isn’t one of those strange paper wrapped tools. Every artist tool box always has at least one of these – usually lurking in the bottom – unused and looking rather grubby. If you ever work out a good use for those things, let me know.

Shaper tool.
Shaper tool.

I use a brand of Colour Shaper Tool made by Royal Sovereign – their colour shapers come in soft, medium and hard. I use the soft ones. My recommendation is a size 10, Flat Chisel, SOFT. They come in many shapes and sizes but this is by far the most versatile. It’s got flat faces which allow you to blur and soften in – great for clouds – and also sharp edges when you tip and tilt – ideal for hilltops, textured grass etc.

If you love pastels, get one – try it out. But remember – it’s best used towards the end of the work – not when you are blending large areas. Use it sparingly to add subtle or sharp details to your focal areas. Don’t press hard, let the weight of the shaper itself drift over the surface. When doing clouds, don’t point it like a pen – hold it beneath your palm so its parallel to the surface.

Part 3. Final essentials, your pastels

I love the challenge of mixing harmonious, complementary or contrasting colours to create wonderful tints and shades. (Yes, ideally you will need a working knowledge of colour theory). I think it’s vital to do this to create a truly natural feel to things like clouds, moors or seas: layers let you capture that multiplicity of tones and movement that then underpins the detail that can be drawn on top.

Of course, I use glorious Unison Colour Pastels – in my opinion probably the best pastels out there. Is there anything better than opening up a brand new set of Unison Pastels and seeing them cradled in their foam alcoves, looking like the most delicious exotically coloured sweets? I have to remind myself not to eat them every time. They are almost buttery and creamy. Beautifully smooth and soft with an amazing range of subtle or strong shades. But… why do you need to invest in these lovely pastels? Well, putting aside other considerations like the use of pigments to create them, this quality of pastel is fundamental to my work because you can create layers. The tooth of the paper like pastel mat will be filled fairly quickly so these creamy pastels then bind and work with both the paper and each other – and this means you can happily carry on building many, many layers. When using a cheaper and more chalky pastel, you will find that as you add more layers, the pastels won’t hold on the surface and stop working properly. This is when you have to use your good quality pastels to complete the work.

So these are my three basics – all things to consider before you begin your pastel journey. Enjoy!

One of our associate artists at her easel

What some of our Associate Artists Think

Here at Unison HQ, we know how beautiful our pastels are & how much time is taken in the creation of these soft pastels. However, this is what some of our Associate Artists of Unison Colour have to say about them…

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17 Responses

  1. Please Please Please. can you change the dreadful frustrating method you have of scrolling the screen down. The system you have jumps and jerks and you can never see the paintings all at once or even be sure that you are reading the next line of text. plese just give us a simple scroll down.

    Yours Penelope Mahon

    1. Hi Penelope,

      Thanks for your comment. We don’t have any unusual methods on the site. The scrolling is handled by your browser. If you drag the scroll bar on the right (the gold coloured portion) up and down, that’s one method to accurately move the page. If you’re simply clicking the scroll area above and below, this might give less accurate scrolling, but that’s the normal behaviour of the browser.

      The other alternative is to use the up and down keys. This should move the page in small increments.

      I hope that helps.

  2. Thank you Sandra for this really helpful and informative blog on the materials you use.
    Your explanations on how the pastels work on different papers was so clear and for the first time makes sense to me.
    I have so far found Fisher 400 the best paper to work on but I look forward to trying pastelmat to build the colours and create more detail.

  3. Love your work. Will get a colour shaped and give it a try. Thanks for the tips. I use Fisher 400 paper usually, however like you I vary by subject and intent.

  4. Excellent and very useful explanations and recommendations for someone like me. I have no idea about how to use pastels or about types of paper to use.
    Thank you.

  5. Thanks for your comments about the color shaper – I have one, but have never been clear on how best to use it with pastels – very helpful!

  6. A great insight into the various papers available andbyour information is so useful. I will look at getting a colour shaper too as l must say even with small fingers it is difficukt to get small shapes with sharp edges. The blogs we see on this site are just so helpful.

  7. Really clear and useful advice which I have followed in your tutorials too. I found the shaper tools a challenge but persevered and it has really given me a really useful technique to use on sky and water which has made a big difference to the details and I can get in my work. Lorraine

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