Starting out with Soft Pastels

The key to start using pastels is to ‘start’.

So many of us are nervous when we start a new hobby or a new medium, it’s daunting when we are surrounded by fabulous art wherever we turn!

We check out galleries, social media and YouTube for inspiration and guidance but there is literally so much out there that it is difficult to know where to start, especially when all the art we are shown is so fabulous – how can we compare to that?

A selection of Unison Colour half-sticks.

This can be especially true if we’ve treated ourselves or been gifted a fabulous set of gorgeous Unison Pastels… they look so pretty…

So, we stop, put the pastels in a drawer, and do something familiar instead.

What we tend to forget is that we are drawn to the paintings that we aspire to create, these paintings are the result of practice and experimentation, I can guarantee they were not the artists first attempt at using pastels!

So how do we start?

You’ll be delighted to know that there are a few top tips that can really help you get the most of your pastels and not leave you despairing and reaching for the drawer.

Quality pastels

You really do get what you pay for when it comes to soft pastels, however you can mix and match when you start out.

When I first started using soft pastels I started with a student set from the SAA with a beautiful blue from Unison Colour and a white from Sennelier. As my art improved I gradually replaced all my favourite colours with quality pastels (most are Unison Colour but there are a few Henry Roche and Sennelier there too!). You can also keep an eye out on eBay or your local seek and sell sites for anyone selling their old pastels – pastels don’t have a shelf life!


As with the quality of your pastels your paper will also be a ‘make or break’ experience. If all you have available right now is cartilage or watercolour paper, I would suggest acquiring some pastel paper before playing with your pastels.

The best pastel paper has some tooth to it – there are lots of pastel paper available, and you can get sample packs from most art suppliers which contain a variety of papers for you to experiment with.

My favourites are:

Velour – this is soft and is great for fur, the texture reminds me of ‘fuzzy felt’.

And Pastelmat – this is great for detail, and you can also get it wet if you were wanting to add some mixed media or even water with your pastel.

Soft pastels are full of pigment and that needs something to hold onto. Putting soft pastels on a smooth paper or even a heavyweight watercolour paper will produce a lovely smear, you’ll not be able to layer your colours and you will become disheartened very quickly.

Hare’s (sorry, couldn’t resist it!) an example using the same unison colour in each painting…


There are lots of artists who provide tuition and with online courses so popular you don’t need to travel to receive excellent tuition!

Again, there is SO much choice it can be very overwhelming…

My advice would be to find some artists working in a style you like and aspire to, then see if they offer tuition – if they offer in person tuition and it’s within your budget and location I would 100% attend an in-person class!

The main difference with an in-person class is you can ask questions as you go and get advice on your own painting (top tip for in-person classes is to photograph your work regularly so that you remember the stages you went through and take notes!).

The next best thing is a live online class, you can often ask questions and depending on the tutor you can sometimes show your work via a webcam and ask for advice (this will depend on the class, ask before you book if this is something you would like to do).

Lastly there are tutorials that you can do in your own time, these are also excellent when you’re starting out as you can pause the course and take your time. Look out for classes that state they are for beginners, I would do a few by the same artist before moving to another artist to get a feel of the materials – every artist will have a different style of teaching and you need to find the person who you resonate with.

You can often find these tutorials in places such as Unison Colour Pastel Academy, SAA, Patreon, YouTube and many other places. If you’ve found an artist you love they will often have links on their website for workshops and tutorials.

Remember to start is a really brave step to make, take small steps and you will be amazed at how your art improves – nobody saw Picasso’s first painting so don’t compare yourself with other artists, everyone is on their own path!

Happy Pastelling!

Associate Artist Intake for 2022

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One Response

  1. I work entirely with Unison pastels and am entirely self taught; I am not a great artist and my generous friends describe my work as “naive art”. I have covered my kitchen wall with my paintings such that it resembles a primary school classroom. I live in Newcastle. But I would appreciate getting face to face lessons to enable me to progress. Do you know where these are available in my vicinity?

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