Pastel Pointers | The Pastel Keyboard

plein air pastel palette

A basic pastel palette for plein air painting

The most frequently asked questions during painting demonstrations concern the make-up of an artist’s palette. It may be artistic inquisitiveness or subconscious insecurity that prompts the inquiry but most of us are curious nevertheless. Possibly it holds the key to a more successful outcome for us, and who wouldn’t want that?
When I find myself in the position of responding to this inquiry, I make sure to respond with an answer that describes more than the mechanical palette layout and specific pastel stick I am painting with at that moment. I want to communicate the logic behind these choices. By associating the “why” to the specifics of “what,” we can better apply the information to our own work. Magic is then replaced with reason.
There are certain things every artist’s palette must be capable of doing. It must represent the full range of color relationships: yellow, orange, red, violet, blue, and green. It must allow for the lightening and darkening of said hues as well as providing a means to affect intensity. Without these basic color, value, and chroma abilities, artists will be impeded in their attempts to portray the various situations they may find themselves painting in.
Pastel and oil painting are often compared to each other. They share a lot of similar characteristics. Both are opaque by nature, capable of being applied thin or thick, and able to represent extremely rich darks as well as vivid bright lights. These similarities allow a lot of artists to work in both with equal aptitude. Of course, they are quite different as well. One of the most obvious being that oil is wet and pastel is dry. If we compare the individual hues, tints, shades, and tones of color to music notes, a pastel palette could be thought of as a piano keyboard and an oil palette as the four strings of the violin. The pianist strikes a combination of keys in unison while the violinist pulls the bow across the stings, both producing the desired sound. This analogy explains why the pastelist needs more than four sticks of pastel while the oil painter can easily paint with four tubes of paint.
pastel palette setup for studio painting

A larger palette setup for studio painting.

When it comes to my working pastel palette, no matter how large or small it may be, I lay it out as if it were a keyboard. Starting on the left with yellow and working through the color wheel to green. On the far right side, nearest to my dominant hand when the palette is positioned in front of me at the easel (my position of choice), is where I place a section of neutrals. These are grayer tones of the other color families. The top of the palette represents the lightest values through the color and chroma range and the bottom the darkest. By consistently laying out the palette in this manner, no matter which pastel palette I am using (some are brand specific), I am capable of painting any subject. It is as if I am seated at the piano and able to strike all the keys in any permutation. This provides the means to perform any piece of music or any work of art. Of course a Steinway will still sound better than a Lindner piano!

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3 thoughts on “Pastel Pointers | The Pastel Keyboard

  1. Saskia

    Oh, I do love your palette! It’s so neat and beautiful. I can’t figure out what kind of pastels those are, though. The majority seem to be the same brand, which is something long and thinnish. Are they Art Spectrums? Rembrandts? Senneliers? I didn’t think the first two had that complete of a color range. But they don’t quite seem like Senneliers to me, either . . . it’s just a mystery!

    Thank you so much for all your superb teachings on this blog and elsewhere. I love your work and your demonstrations. You have taught me many valuable lessons. My four year old son is a big fan as well, and always wants to watch your videos. You are teaching him to be a great pastelist someday!

  2. robertsloan2

    Thanks for another great article on pastel palettes! After reading your first article, I bought a Dakota Traveller and consolidated half a dozen sets and partial sets that I had with various open stock pastels. I put all the loose artist grade pastels together in it regardless of brand. Using your arrangement, I filled the first four rows with yellow/orange, red/violet, blue/turquoise and cool/warm greens. I repeated the spectrum arrangement with muted colors and neutrals in the last two rows.

    To my pleased surprise, once I finished packing away all the loose pastels, I found that I had a good balance between all the hues and values. Light farthest to the top, darks at the bottom, I used yellow ochres and other earth yellows as the “dark” of yellow along with oranges. Now that it’s organized I find it a lot easier to use.

    Also the sight of it is much more inspiring. Once my sticks are organized by hue and value, a glance at the box gives me the itch to start painting. Your “keyboard” is physically beautiful in itself. It is the most encouraging display of sticks that I could imagine, the order makes me think of using all of them in gradations and contrasts.

    Thanks for another view of your travel palette and big palette. Eventually I know I’ll grow into a full size Heilman box for the studio, for now I’m just glad I can pack 275 pieces into the small Dakota Traveller.

  3. carolsvu

    Richard I always love to read about your pallet. Right now as I am in Hawaii, I find my pallet choices have changed somewhat to include more value intense colors. It has a lot to do with the light. Even so, I still use the
    grey values, just one or two values higher if I want to make a statement about light.
    Thank you for your continuing blog, it keeps one centered.

    Carol Preston