Pastel Pointers With Richard McKinley | That Elusive Pastel Stick

Wisconsin artist John Mix, comparing individual pastels from the Dakota Art Pastels warehouse to his working palette in hopes of filling in the holes.

For all the advantages pastel has as a medium, there is one drawback that can’t be overlooked: there never seems to be the right color, value, or chroma of pastel stick for that certain mark in the painting when you want it. No matter how many pastels I have in front of me, there is that moment when I pause and hesitate over the palette in search of that perfect tone. If you work in wet media, you learn how to mix different tubes of paint together to create subtle variation. Since pastel is dry, and not easily mixed, most pastelists rely on various pigment and manufacturing characteristics to expand the palette’s potential (see my recent “pastel stick personality” post for more information on pastel sticks).

Knowing what is missing from a pastel palette in advance of that hesitant moment is almost impossible. One way I try to combat this is to methodically arrange my pastel palette to reflect a color wheel, in degrees of lightness and darkness, being sure to not ignore grayed neutral tones. By arranging individual sticks in relationship to the elements of color, value, and chroma (intensity), it is easier to find what might be missing from the palette. Even following this system has its limitations: How do we know what is missing until we know what is available? One method of combating this is to find an art supply store that is well stocked in pastel. Ask for permission to bring your working pastel palette into the store to compare to the individual selections they offer. By hovering a possible stick over your palette, you can easily tell if it is missing or if it is already represented. Whenever I don’t employ this method, I tend to select the same color/value/chroma pastel sticks that I already have because I am drawn to them. In fact, I end up with dozens of them (I can see the other heads nodding in agreement). If a well-stocked pastel store is not an option, I recommend purchasing the handmade individual pastel color charts available from Dakota Art Pastels. These are made to represent the full offering of all of the pastel brands they sell and are made from the real stick of pastel pigment instead of commercially printed.

No matter how many individual pastel sticks we may end up with over time, it is imperative to remember that as painters we are replicating what we see. It is impossible to fully capture the complete spectrum, quality, and phenomenon of that light. All we can do is learn to work within the ever-expanding confines of the physics of pigment. But the one with the most pastels when they die wins!



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