What’s In a Number? Selecting Your Pastel Palette


A limited pastel palette of 78 sticks for landscape painting that I put together for Great American pastels.

How many pastel sticks does one need to do a painting? This question frequently comes up among pastel artists and is a popular topic of discussion on community websites like Wet Canvas.

Pastel is unique among media in that it is applied dry. Wet media, like watercolor and oil, are easily intermixed, creating a variety of hues, values and chromas. Because of their abilities to mix pigments, allowing them to achieve a full color spectrum, wet-media painters can get by with as little as three tubes of color plus white. Because of pastel’s dry nature, however, mixing individual pastel sticks doesn’t produce the same results.

Layering one color on top of another and crosshatching techniques can expand pastels’ range, but more than three sticks of color will be needed to produce satisfactory results. This leads us back to the question: How many pastels are enough? What a working palette has to provide is the ability to represent the three elements of color: hue, value and chroma. In other words, we need to be able to create the full spectrum of the color wheel, a range of lighter and darker values within that spectrum, and grayer versions of those colors. (For more on this, check out my blog posts from August 6, 2007 and August 11, 2008, or the Pastel Pointers column in the February 2009 issue of The Pastel Journal).

Many pastel painters amass huge collections of pastels over a lifetime. They attempt to expand their palettes, feeling that there is always something missing—that certain subtle color or value. With the availability of more pastel brands, there are more choices than ever before. Manufacturers have started mixing pigments together, instead of relying on just the addition of black and white to one pigment to create value variations. These mixed pigment sticks have greatly helped in matching the quality of perceived color versus a total reliance on one pigment. This is most evident in the family of green.

As comforting as it might be to have every pastel available on the market, it can also prove to be overwhelming and confusing. This often leads to unharmonious pastel marks and a fragmented painting. As the old saying goes; less is more. To set up a limited palette of pastels, start by selecting a value range of the basic color wheel colors. It can be limited to the three primary and three secondary colors or expanded to take in the tertiary colors. Have at least five values of each color family. This would be approximately 30 to 60 pastel sticks (Maggie Price Basic Values Set, available from Terry Ludwig Pastels is an example of this concept). Next, add grayed versions of the color families in a few values. Good gray sets are available from a variety of manufacturers, including Girault, Unison, Great American and Mount Vision. This limited palette would be somewhere between 48 and 78 sticks. While many successful paintings can be done with far fewer pastels, this palette, with some overlapping and at times a little compromising, will allow you to represent the basic quality of light in all its varied settings.

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3 thoughts on “What’s In a Number? Selecting Your Pastel Palette

  1. thecapps

    I have a fairly modest number of pastels in my pallet and find that I only use 8-10 colors for each painting anyway. Some colors I have never used. However I can understand why some people would like to have every color of every pastel ever made. But having every color does not guarantee a great painting. I great start would be relaying on a professional to choose the colors in your first pastel set. There seems to be many pre-selected sets out there to buy were the colors were chosen by experienced pastelist.