The Planned Pastel Painting Palette| Our Keyboard to Color Harmony

Painting is often compared to playing music. When individual notes of pigment or sound are arranged well, a pleasing outcome is produced. This musical comparison makes the palette of the painter the same as a musician’s instrument. Both have to be in tune and capable of producing a full range of notes to allow an artist full freedom of expression. To facilitate this, a painter’s palette must have a full color spectrum. Think of these as musical notes. It has to be capable of representing them in varying degrees of value (lightness/darkness) and chroma (saturation/intensity). This is akin to playing an instrument quietly or loudly. The wet-media painting palette is more like a violin; four strings are mixed together to produce the complete range. The dry-media pastel palette is more like a piano, in that many individual keys are struck in unison to produce a harmonious sound.

pastel color palette | pastel painting

A handful of pastels readied for a harmonic pastel experience.


There are many advantages to the pastel color palette keyboard, the least of which is its ability to provide spontaneity, but it also has its disadvantages. One of the pitfalls is the temptation to place too many notes in a pastel painting’s composition. A beautiful pastel palette, with all of its color, value and chromatic temptations within an arm’s reach, can be a hard thing to deny. When I catch myself striking too many keys on the pastel palette keyboard, I implement a couple of simple pastel techniques to make sure color harmony will be the outcome:


  • Pre-select pastel sticks to represent the major base color, value and chroma masses of the painting’s composition. Remove these from the working pastel palette, then put it away. Work exclusively with these sticks until it’s time for final accents. The adage “Out of sight, out of mind” really can help.
  • Limit the pastel selections to no more than can be held in the palm of your hand. Without this limitation, it’s too easy to over-select and start chasing nuance. Don’t cheat here by selecting very tiny pastel shards. Use pastel sticks approximately three-quarters of an inch in length. You can adjust upward or downward depending on your pastel sticks and hand size.
  • To make sure the pastel stick selections will work well together and create visual harmony, test them on a scrap pastel surface in advance of applying them to the painting’s surface. Just make abstract non-objective swatches. The purpose is to see how they appear when visually combined. It’s easy to believe an individual pastel selection will work, only to find it’s the wrong color temperature, too intense or weak in chroma, or out of value range when placed in proximity to one another. If you’re working on a toned surface, make sure to test the selections on a similar tone.


By familiarizing oneself with the mechanics of the pastel palette keyboard, and implementing a few harmonic disciplines, the pitfalls that led to painting sour notes can better be avoided. This, coupled with practice, may produce the next pastel Van Cliburn or Horowitz.



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