Making a Point in Pastel


Sharpeners, replacement blades, pocketknife, pastel pencils, and sharpened hard pastel sticks. “]Pastel is a French word that first appeared in 1662. It’s derived from the Latin word pastillus, meaning paste. The high-grade pigments used to produce pastel sticks are the same as all fine art media, including oil and watercolor paints. To form the pigment into a usable shape, a minimal amount of binder consisting of gum tragacanth, gum arabic, or methylcellulose is intermixed with pigment and water. This produces a paste and is formed into the sticks we commonly use today. The higher the binder ratio to pigment, the harder the pastel stick will feel. Some manufactures may add chalk, gypsum, talc or even pumice powder for effect.

Most commercially manufactured pastel sticks are cylindrical, brick-like or pillow shaped. These standardized shapes facilitate a multitude of techniques. When broken, even more possibilities arise (read my September 2007 and May 2009 blog posts for more on that). While these pastel shapes may facilitate an application akin to the brushwork of our wet compatriots, they can prove quite frustrating when attempting highly detailed renderings. For this style of painting, it’s often easier to rely on pastel pencils or sharpened hard pastel sticks. Fortunately, there are a number of very fine pastel pencils and hard pastel brands currently on the market.

The pastel pencil brands that I have consistently relied upon and have been the easiest to sharpen because they are encased in a standard-size wood barrel are: CarbOthello, Faber-Castell Pitt and Cretacolor. For the hardest pastels in my palette, I rely heavily on the Cretacolor line supplemented with a few Nupastel and Faber-Castell Polychromes. One nice advantage to the Cretacolor pastel line is that the pencils and hard pastel sticks are available in the same colors with corresponding numbers.

Retaining a sharp point on a pastel pencil or forming one on a small stick of a hard pastel can be extremely frustrating due to the inherent brittle nature of pigment and binder. For most pastel pencils, I’ve found it best to use the “Stabilo” sharpener that is provided with the Carbothello pastel pencil sets (model #4514). These are made of plastic and aren’t expensive, making them virtually disposable and easy to travel with.

When selecting other brands, I tend to go for the heavy brass models that have a steeper blade angle. For pastel pencils and hard pastel sticks, it’s best to avoid pencil sharpeners with standard blade tappers. While these work well with most leaded drawing pencils, the flatter tapper cut of the blade angle tends to break the exposed pastel. It is imperative to replace the blades frequently. After a few cuts they become dull and easily mangle the fragile pastel. If all else fails, use an extremely sharp pocketknife. A little practice at whittling, reminiscent of those evenings on the front porch at the farm, can often make the best point with the least amount of sharpening frustration.


Richard McKinley on DVD

Watch art workshops on demand at ArtistsNetwork.TV

Online seminars for fine artists

Get a copy of Pastel Pointers, the book!


You may also like these articles:

2 thoughts on “Making a Point in Pastel

  1. richard mckinley

    Nita, thanks for the tip. Straight utility razor blades, often used in some brands of professional mat cutters work well too. They have a blunt protective edge on one end making them easy to hold. Even with the tape or protective edge, they are very sharp and need to be handled with extreme care.

  2. Nita

    A fellow artist in my life drawing workshop showed me how she sharpens pencils with a mat cutter blade. Wow, much sharper than regular knives or razor blades. I put a protective layer of heavy tape on the back edge for safety. For the first time ever I can easily hand-sharpen my pastel and charcoal pencils.