Starting out with Soft Pastels

Where to begin?

With so many art materials available to us out there, it can be difficult to know where to start. My “safe” zone for many years was graphite and coloured pencil but even with those, now that I know more, I realise I was only using them to a tiny fraction of their potential.

I remember trying pastel when I was doing my Foundation Art & Design course at Wolverhampton Polytechnic many moons ago. I did a still life in soft pastel of some toys I had at the time, I was really pleased with the result and I think I still have the painting lurking in the garage somewhere. I also used them in a life drawing class where, as a cool student with a casual attitude, I was always late. This one particular week I was late of course and there was only one seat left. We had, what you might call, a vibrant model who was lying in a very uncompromising position. This very apparent seat had clearly been avoided for that reason and so this was my comeuppance for being late.

Self Portrait, by Estelle Robinson.
Self Portrait, by Estelle Robinson

Once seated I decided I wanted to spend as little time as possible looking at the vision before me. How to achieve this? Throw lots of colour at my painting to distract attention! I learned some very valuable lessons that day:

  • Don’t be late
  • Look at form in shapes and tones
  • Fudge areas you don’t want to or can’t draw
  • Use colour – if you see a colour, put it in there

The result was a vibrant painting and I loved it and earned forgiveness from my tutor for my tardiness. Another painting that I kept and currently lurks in the garage.

I wanted to be an illustrator, but opportunities back then were limited and I ended up going into Graphic Design which shaped my future as an artist. My style is tight and detailed and, of course, we all want what we do not have so I yearn to be loose. Later in life I returned to pastels thinking they may help, oblivious to how much things had moved on. The vast choices regarding pastels, colours, textures, papers, liquid mediums were mind blowing. I dabbled for a while whilst watching other artists creating fabulous pieces of work. These artists were also extremely generous with their advice and I learned such a lot from their kindness.

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I try to pass this kindness on when people ask me about methods and how I achieve certain things. In my pastel workshops I often hear people say they feel frustrated as they have tried every medium out there but cannot seem to settle. Pastels are a great starting point for this – they are loose, forgiving, versatile and you do not have to spend a fortune starting out. I get a huge amount of pleasure, seeing a student coming in for the first time looking apprehensive, being apologetic as they are “not very good”, assuming that all the students are way better than they are. They take one look at the lesson plan for that day and assume they will never be able to create it. Fast forward to home time and they leave with a lovely picture accompanied by a cheesy grin.

Techniques and work-arounds are a huge part of art, just being shown the way can make all the difference. Not all of us specialise in a medium, some of us are born to dabble. Soft pastels can be a huge confidence giver, especially on a textured paper. Make a mistake? Rub it away or just go over it and the problem is gone. Put off by the dust? Try velour, it hangs onto the pastel resulting in far less dust. Don’t like the feel of the chalk? Use pastel pencils. Prefer to paint? Give Pan Pastels a go or add a liquid medium. Prefer tight detail? Great, pastel pencils are the way forward. Want a textured finish? Lots of papers out there to help with that. Mixed media? Add whatever you like! Heavier papers will take paints and washes.

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Pastels will take you from an abstract, to a loose seascape to a hyper realistic portrait, they can be whatever you need them to be. The big question I often hear as a tutor, “What brand should I buy?”

Well this depends on what it is you want and where you are as a pastel artist. It is easy to think a cheap set will get you going and you can buy more after that if you take to it, especially when there is a budget to consider. There is some truth to this but, the cheaper the set, the less pigment you have and more binder. You will use so much more pastel trying to get the effect you want with limited success. If you prefer sets, then go for mid range as a minimum. A better option is to choose your starting colours carefully and purchase sticks in an excellent brand such as Unison. Not only will they be a dream to use but you will get the vibrancy you dream of with overall value. Less binder so you need less pastel to get the result you want.

Another thing to bear in mind is that, whilst your new pastels may look like a thing to behold in their pristine labels, sat in their immaculate box, they are there to be used, primed and ready for action! Break them into manageable sizes and get busy, your new purchase will be your best friend. Don’t worry about the mistakes as, who knows, they may lead to a happy accident. If, at the end of it all, you haven’t got any on your face then you haven’t been using them properly. Us artists are supposed to be grubby, it’s a way of life.

Not sure what paper to go for? The SAA offer mixed pastel paper trial packs at a great price with a variety of papers, ideal for when you are starting out. Need a hand to get going? YouTube is an endless resource of How To videos and tutorials, there are 1000’s of artists across Social Media but if you prefer a more hands on approach then look for a local workshop. These are also great for interacting with other artists, they can be a great source of inspiration and offer a sense of community.

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When I took my first steps with pastels, never did I imagine where they would take me both as an artist and a tutor. Moving to Unison pastels enabled me to turn a corner with the quality of my work which, in turn lead to enquiries for demonstrations and workshops. I now demo and tutor regularly both for art societies and hold my own workshops. I never planned to teach but I get as much out of it as my students. It has opened my eyes to see art used as therapy in my own community, it is an escape for so many people and there is a joy in seeing artist’s flourish. Beginners who make their first sale, I’m sure we all remember how fabulous that felt. Nervous artists who come to groups quiet and reserved, soon to be chatty and bubbly and making new friends. Art offers a certain freedom and confidence, embrace it, tis’ a wonderful thing and who knows where it will take you.

Finding the Time

How many times do we excuse our lack of creativity by using the phrase, I just don’t have the time”? I use the term “excuse” lightly as, in our busy lives, it is a very relevant reason for not drawing or painting.

Finding your Mojo, when all creative ideas desert you

For many of us, art is a refuge, a place of comfort. It is something we turn to at all points in our life, a place to escape to. For some, it’s vital as it pays the mortgage whilst for others it equals in importance as a therapy for anxiety and depression.

Announcing More New Associate Artists

We can now announce our second group of new Associate Artists to Unison Colour. Our Associate Artists perform a fantastic role for Unison Colour and we are proud to welcome the following people…

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25 responses

  1. Hi Estelle,
    At school, long time ago technical drawing was my top subject. Some 50 years later I lifted a paintbrush for the first time. Always looking for a challenge, started with watercolour but quickly turned to botanical painting. However, particularly after a botanical course lasting for many weeks I struggled to loosen up. Someone introduced me to pastels and I totally agree, you can almost let yourself go. I do not use pencils for the finishing touches, as I say I simply enjoy the freedom that pastels give you. I am now taking a more ‘structured’ approach and joining an online pastel course which should be fun!! However there are so many techniques that I know nothing about I am sure I will be entering a different world when I learn the basics of pastel and build from there. Thank you for your interesting blog.

  2. Where can I buy SAA paper packs as mentioned in your blog? Which pastel pencils do you recommend? Thanks for your advice.

    1. Hi Eileen, I use Caran D’ache pastel pencils, they are nice and soft with plenty of pigment. Derwent do a good range too, both are available online.

    1. Hi Liz. Could it be that you’ve tapped one of the images which would do exactly what you’ve described? If so, there should be a cross in the top right corner to make things go back to normal. Tapping/clicking the images makes them bigger, for viewing.

  3. Thank you for a really inspiring article. I’m not in a position to paint with pastels at the moment but hopefully in the near future I will be, and I’m so looking forward to getting to grips with it as a medium.

    1. Thank you Marilyn, no need to be scared, what’s the worst that can happen? A picture you’re not keen on, that’s all 🙂 By contrast you may produce something you love or, at least, enjoy the process. Give them a go, they’re really forgiving!

  4. Hi Norman, thank you for the response. Art is often more about the discovery and pastels are a brilliant vehicle for it. I’m sure you will enjoy the differences and challenges that they bring! Happy pastelling.

    1. Hi Liz,
      Maby art suppliers sell sample pastel paper packs which have several different papers, ideal for trying out. SAA and Jackson’s sell them. My personal preferences are Hahnemuhle velour and Claire Fontaine Pastelmat. They are both textured so will take a lot of layers, perfect for correcting mistakes!

  5. I returned to art after many years, and have just started using pastels instead of colour pencils, and realise how much there is to learn. I really enjoyed this article and hope to see many more to enable me to persevere!!

  6. Fantastic article and as always, inspiring. I usually get bored by the time I’m about half way through an article, but I found this very interesting and offers great advice. Just started using panpastels (birthday present) and loving them.

  7. Hi Estelle
    I am presuming you work from photos, could you tell me, is it better to copy by hand or trace for speed and less stress and would it make a differance for commision work.

  8. Hi Stuart,
    Well that’s a million dollar question and all artists have their own method! When it comes to commissions tracing or using grids are a great option in reducing stress and time…. The latter saves costs for your customers as well. Drawing out can take a long time, especially in portraiture, getting those features absolutely right. It also depends on how confident you are with your drawing skills. It can be easy to rely on photos so it is good practise to keep on top of those drawing skills, especially for commissions as it is not unusual to have to scale up or add additional elements. My view is that there are no rules, an artist should employ the technique that works best for them whilst keeping their prices affordable for their customers. Like any practise, tools are there to make life easier

  9. I love the breadth and depth of your work. You describe the process so well and I totally agree that discovering Unison Colour pastels totally changed my work and my love for pastels. A greatly inspiring read.

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