Making Pastel Palettes More Palatable

Artists are always interested in other artists’ palettes. We are curious as to what materials they employ and how they have them arranged. It is as if their palettes contain the magical secret to better painting. If we could only have what they have, we would be able to paint as well. While it can be helpful to know your pastel hero’s individual brand and color choices, there are certain aspects that must be taken into consideration when setting up your own palette:

  • How many pastel sticks is required for a palette? Depending on your technique of application, the number of individual sticks will vary. The dry nature of pastel doesn’t easily facilitate the intermixing of colors like wet media, such as watercolor and oil paint. Layering of pastels can produce a certain amount of color, value and chromatic variation, but it is limited. Therefore, every pastel palette must provide the ability to represent a full-color spectrum in tints (lighter) and shades (darker), and a degree of neutralized (grayed) weaker variations of said color families. Everything else beyond that is personal choice.
  • Where will you be using it, in studio or en plein air (on location)? Pastels are heavy! Even the most portable of palette boxes can weigh a considerable amount when fully loaded with pastels. In the studio, this is not a concern. If you plan to work in both environments, it is advisable to set up both palettes, even though they may differ in size, with a similar arrangement. This keeps things consistent, making it easier to shift back and forth from studio to location with ease. [In an upcoming post, I will discuss “the curse of the studio pastel palette.”]
  • What is the subject matter you will be painting? The most important function of the pastel palette is the previously addressed color and value requirements. If it meets those standards, you should be able to paint any thing. That being said, if you know you are painting subject matter with a certain bias, having additional choices can prove helpful. For instance, a portrait painter may weight their palette toward warm tones, while a landscape painter may choose a cooler bias.
  • Are you left or right handed? You will want to arrange your palette with this in mind. A right-handed painter is more comfortable selecting from the right side of their palette, depending on where it is positioned, and a left-handed painter from the left. [An upcoming post will address the issue of where your palette is positioned in relationship to you body.]

While no artist’s palette contains magical powers, it can provide a window into individual personality and working style. With observation, experimentation, and a practical application of solid painting theories, your own individual palette will emerge. While we may continue to be curious as to what others are using, the real secret to a successful palette lies in its ability to provide what we need, when we need it. It is like a pair of shoes. One size doesn’t fit all, but when properly fit, they are comfortable. You forget you have them on.


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3 thoughts on “Making Pastel Palettes More Palatable

  1. Robert Sloan

    I love the photo of your Heilman box. Seeing all the colors out in spectrum order, repeated for muted colors, organized light to dark in the other direction is a direct invitation to paint.

    That might be a deep reflex created by childhood pleasures with a full box of crayons or colored pencils. I know it deepens every time I paint. It’s one of the great pleasures in my life to see all the colors together in order. For all I know, that’s something deep in human instinct – a desire to organize tools and make sense of their order, a delight in sorting things by color. Bower birds sort by color too, so it could even be something instinct driven.

    The more pastels I have, the happier I am. I enjoy them all. Yet when my collection reached a certain point, I started using fewer pastels within a given painting. I’ll choose a limited palette for that painting out of everything I have and continue to mix and layer freely. Then put them away with the grand collection to choose different ones next time.

    Once I got a beige cat, I realized there wasn’t a color I didn’t like. My favorite color is "all of them." Thank you for a great post and an inspiring photo!

  2. Mary Ann Pals

    This blog entry reminded me of something my college photography instructor once said, "It’s not how fancy-dancy your camera is, it’s all about who is taking the picture." My instructor showed us some AWESOME pictures he took using an old brownie camera! No bells & whistles there.

    I look back at the work I produced by layering colors because of my very limited palette just ten years ago, and I’m amazed! I now own hundreds of pastels. But ultimately I’ve learned that after meeting some basic color ‘needs’, it doesn’t matter how many pastel sticks one has. It’s the artist doing the work that matters.