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I am new to pastel, so how do I begin on this adventure with soft pastels?

  • Seek out some help
  • Gain some handling experience
  • Seek out reputable brands
  • Choose your colours
  • Explore a few surfaces


When starting any new medium, we are often somewhat nervous, even anxious, and certainly don’t even know if we shall enjoy the experience.

Possibly the best way for a beginner to start is to seek out a pastel artist in your area or perhaps a friend who uses pastel. You could try and arrange a meeting with this person and request an overview of the medium with them. Watch them work and perhaps they will even allow you to have a play.

By seeking out an introduction experience, and possibly using the art materials in the studio space of the artist, you thereby become a little familiar as to what soft pastel feels like in your hands.

Because it is a handheld medium, it offers a somewhat different experience in its use than other mediums. To start with it leaves your hands coloured with pigment. It also spreads across a surface when anything touches it, meaning that even an inadvertent brush with a finger or the side of the hand, arm or sleeve will cause it to move, smudge or transfer to another surface. These are all factors to overcome in its use.

If you adore the effects that can be achieved in soft pastel paintings, you will be willing to learn how to manage the medium and overcome these initial handling concerns. Having an introduction will take the edge off the experience and you will be able to firsthand understand that joy any pastel artist has when using this seductive medium.

Once you have immersed yourself in soft pastels, you may find yourself enamoured and simply have to go to the store and purchase your own. SO, WHAT SHOULD YOU BUY?

However, just before delving into that, ensure you engage a tutor. Self-taught activities can foster bad habits, lead to frustration and inevitably seems to arrive at a very limited understanding of the versatility of soft pastel. You may only need a tutor for a short time, or you may require them for a year or so. This will be a highly valuable experience for you and one I would strongly encourage.

Okay, back to what to purchase. Ensure you always purchase “Artist Quality” Pastels. Do not fall for “Artist’s pastels”. Poor quality pastels can mean poor light fastness (the colours will fade) and poor layering qualities. Pigment density can be low and so the colour intensities are not present. In “Artist quality” pastels, there is plenty of pigment density and so a little goes a long way. Trying to build colour passages with inferior grade pastels becomes difficult and can result in abandoning the medium. So, try and buy the best grade that you can afford.

There are two main types (hard and soft) and many brands. Hard simply means not as soft as some and soft means anything from creamy to buttery to sumptuously seductive in both colour and tactile experience. Harder pastels (possess more binder) are easier to manage as they generally stay put on the surface, don’t crush easily, layer in separate glazes for great colour labyrinths. Whereas the very soft pastels (less binder to pigment ratio) move across a surface with relative ease and can require a delicate touch so as not to crush the sticks, leaving thick passages of rich colour that are thrilling. You will find that you are naturally drawn to either the soft or hard pastels, but each possesses its own specific nuances, that require specific attention when using them. All soft pastel brands fall between being hard and extra soft. Your love of either category can change often over time and can vary according to the subject matter and layering techniques employed.

I find it useful for beginners to try and purchase a few sticks of a variety of types and brands to gain a better understanding of how they work for you. We all respond differently to different types and brands. Once you have played with a few different brands you can begin to ascertain your type and brand of choice.

When it comes to what colours to choose – have at least two bright versions of each colour family and a dull version of each. Also, ensure you have one or two dark and light versions of each colour family. You will need a white pastel and either a black one or compressed charcoal instead of the black pastel.

The colour families are: red, yellow, blue, orange, green and violet (purple)

Purchase a few different surfaces specifically recommended for soft pastel. These can be a gritty surface, a paper surface, or a custom-made surface. They come in many colours. Initially, it is less confusing to remain with one colour surface until you gain some experience using the pastels. If you are constantly working on different coloured surfaces the process can become confusing quite easily. I recommend a mid-tone greyish colour when starting out. After about a dozen or more artworks, branch out to try another colour.

This article is not meant to be exhaustive, but I do hope it is sufficient to set you thinking about your journey into using soft pastels.