Pastel Pointers | Choosing Your Pastel Palette

One of the most frequently asked questions of any pastel painter involves the pastel palette and palette box. Somehow, we all assume there is some method that holds the secret to painting success. While this is far from the truth, a well-appointed palette certainly can make the task of painting what we see, and wish, much easier.

pastel palette

Shown here are three Heilman pastel palette boxes stacked one on top of the other. Filled with pastels, the Backpack Box weighs in at 8 lbs.; the Original Box 13 lbs.; and the Large Box 18 lbs.

The literal definition of an artist’s palette refers to the surface upon which pigments are arranged for the purpose of painting. By extension, in a figurative sense, it also refers to the selection of colors arranged upon the palette. In wet media painting, this selection can be limited to a few basic pigments that represent the primary colors of the color wheel, plus white. In the case of wet media, variations of color, value and chroma (intensity) will be created through mixing. For a dry media, like pastel, an expanded selection is required to produce similar results. The total number of sticks required is ultimately dependent upon an artist’s preferred technique of application, the subject matter they most frequently portray, and their personal temperament. While these aspects must be taken into consideration, there is another that simply can’t be overlooked if the palette is to serve the pastel artist well: Where will it be used?

What Size of Palette Box? Before rushing out and purchasing the largest pastel palette box available, ask yourself: “Will the palette be stationary in the studio, transported to classes, or utilized for plein air painting?” Pastel sticks are inherently heavy due to the composition of their pigment, many of which contain metals. Add this fact to the base weight of a sturdy wooden palette box and you can easily end up with a palette that is too cumbersome to transport.

Add It Up. Before purchasing a palette and filling it with all the pastels you’d like to have available— which takes considerable time and effort, let alone expense—take a lightweight cardboard box and fill it with the pastels you hope to use and weigh it on an accurate scale. Then check the empty weight specifications from the palette box manufacturer, usually available on their websites. Commercial manufacturers generally offer an assortment of sizes to accommodate various scenarios. Add the weights together and take this into serious consideration before committing to a box. If the box will reside in your studio, a larger palette filled with an expanded range of pastel selections may be appropriate. If you plan to regularly transport it to a class, a medium-sized palette may suit your needs better. If, on the other hand, you wish to venture forth and paint en plein air, the smallest palette that will hold a minimum assortment of pastels may be best. It’s amazing how much a pastel palette can weigh you down after a day of lugging it through an airport or down a country road. After experiencing this a few times, it becomes much easier to downsize the palette and embrace the old adage “less is more.” Of course, if finances allow, a pastelist may want to have all three palettes. Wait; is that want or need?

Click here for a peek at the pastel palettes that Richard McKinley uses for studio vs. plein air painting.



Get more expert advice from Richard McKinley in his instructional videos. Watch a free preview here!


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