How do you hold your pastel stick and what size are the sticks you use?

We each find our individual comfort zone when holding and applying pastel, but there are a few factors that will affect the outcome. First, to what surface will the pastel be applied? Every surface accepts the pastel differently and only through experimentation will it be clear how you wish to apply the pastel.

Secondly, what brand of pastel is being applied? Some brands of pastel flow like butter onto the surface and others scrape across in a gritty fashion. For this reason most of us, myself included, prefer to have an assortment of brands at our fingertips.

The third factor is how much pressure will be used, and this is the thing we have the most control over. Inherently, we might have a light touch or a heavy hand, but with practice, can learn to control the pressure applied. Facilitating a varied touch will allow for a variety of applications.

6-stick-image[1].jpgTo hold the pastel stick, I use a “three finger” hold. I came to pastel having worked in oil for a number of years and this influenced my technique. I wanted the pastel to go onto the surface like a brush applying paint and found that by holding the stick between my thumb, forefinger and middle finger I was able to utilize its side for broad strokes. If I rock it up slightly, I create a hard and soft edged stroke. If I tip it up even more and work with the forward edge and dab it, I create smaller dashes. These motions all related to common brushwork I’d been using in my wet painting that have stayed with me all of these years.

As for the size of the sticks, my choice varies depending on the size of strokes desired. Most of the pastel pieces in my cases range from a third- to a half-stick (for an average size major pastel brand, about an inch to an inch-and-a-half). For a larger painting I would use larger pastel sticks. This may be why most of my paintings range from 9×12 to 18×24, as the sticks I have allow for strokes that work well within that size.

As I said at the start, we each come into our own technique with time and experience. Mine is to think like a wet painter and apply the pastel as if it were a brush stroke. A nice side effect of this 
is that my oils and pastels are hard to tell apart because they both retain a similar application, which represents my style.

If you have questions for Richard, make a comment here on the blog, or email your question to The Pastel Journal editors at

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