What You Need to Know to Start Pastel Painting


How to Paint with Pastels | Pastel Techniques

What You Need to Know to Start Pastel Painting

Pastels are simple to use, with no drying time, allowing the artist to draw directly on the surface without any intermediate tool or medium to degrade the freshness of the color. The colors created by pastel painting are brilliant, and a variety of pastel painting techniques can create a wide range of effects, from crisp lines and moody shadows to soft edges and feathery textures. Learn more about using color in pastel painting here. The medium of pastel is very forgiving—mistakes can be easily lifted from the surface up to the moment a fixative is applied.

Firm Pastels | Pastel Techniques

Firm pastels such as Prismacolor Nupastels hold a point well and are especially good for preliminary drawings.

Pastels are made from powdered pigments mixed with just enough binder to be formed into sticks. They’re dry and can be applied in a linear manner, so you could say the artist draws with pastels. But because they can also be applied in larger strokes and blended on the surface, it’s also accurate to say an artist paints with pastels. The fine, powdery surface of a pastel painting refracts the light to give it a sparkling quality.

Powdered pigments have been used since prehistoric times, but pastels as we know them date from the late 17th century. Pastels became very popular in the late 1800s as Manet, Degas, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec used them. Degas in particular explored the potentials of pastels by combining them with other media and pioneering the use of fixatives.

Pastels can be purchased in sets, some in handsome wooden boxes, or individually in “open stock.” There are dozens of different manufacturers of pastels, including boutique brands that make pastels by hand from the finest pigments.



  1. Drawing with the tip of the pastel:  Holding the pastel stick like a pencil produces lines of varying width and character depending on the hardness of the pastel and the pressure and speed of the hand.
    Drawing with the Tip of the Pastel | Pastel Techniques

    Drawing with the tip of the pastel


  2. Drawing with the side of the pastel:  Using the side of the pastel stick produces broad strokes or blocks of color. The character of the stroke depends on the softness of the pastel, the shape of the stick, the texture of the drawing surface, and the pressure and speed of your hand. Breaking a stick in half may be necessary for a more manageable stroke. This pastel painting techniqueworks best with softer pastels.
    Drawing with the Side of the Pastel | Pastel Techniques

    Drawing with the side of the pastel


  3. Blending with pastels:  Unlike paint, pastel colors can’t be mixed before being applied to the drawing surface—you must select a stick of the appropriate color or blend pastel colors directly on the surface. You can create different effects and textures by how much or how little you mix the colors. You can blend the pastel pigment with your fingertips, but the risk of ingesting the pigments warrants using protection. Also, a pastel surface can be rough enough that using your fingers can lead to bleeding. Other tools include paper stumps, kneaded erasers and cotton swabs for precise work; facial tissues, paper towels, cotton balls and small, soft natural sponges for larger, less precise work. Soft brushes are good, if they don’t stir up dust.
    Blending with Pastels | Pastel Techniques

    Blending with pastels


  4. Hatching and cross-hatching:  Hatching is drawing fine, closely spaced parallel lines to create an area of color and value; cross-hatching is drawing similar lines perpendicular to the first. This technique works best with harder pastels or pastel pencils and is useful to create texture or to allow the eye to create an “optical blend” when different colors are used. You can create a sense of form and shape by varying the direction of the cross-hatching.
    Hatching and Cross-Hatching | Pastel Techniques

    Hatching and cross-hatching


  5. Scumbling:  Scumbling with pastels is very similar to scumbling with paint. You apply a broken layer of color on top of another layer of color, allowing the bottom color to remain visible. This pastel painting technique works best on a textured surfaceand with soft pastel applied over hard. Try fixing the bottom layer before applying the top layer.
    Scumbling | Pastel Techniques



  6. Working on a colored ground:  Apply pastels to a colored surface such as toned paper or a board, panel or canvas painted with a colored ground or pastel primer. Allowing the colored ground to peek through creates vibrant color. Many pastel artists use an underpainting of watercolor or pastel to tone a piece of white pastel paper.
    Working on a Colored Ground | Pastel Techniques

    Working on a colored ground



These pastel painting tips for painting on different surfaces with pastels are important to remember when first learning how to paint with pastels.

The most important consideration when selecting a surface for painting with pastels is the surface’s “tooth”—the ability of its texture to grab and hold the pastel particles. A slick or smooth surface has little to no tooth and won’t hold the pastel. On the other hand, a very rough surface may not allow the pastel to cover completely. Much depends on your personal preferences.

Most papers suitable for charcoal work well for painting with pastels because they have a sufficient tooth. Popular papers include Canson Mi-Teintes, Canson Ingres, Strathmore 500 Series and Fabriano Tiziano.

There are several papers made especially for painting with pastels, such as Hahnemühle Velour and Bugra, Amalfi handmade and Sennelier Papier Carré.

Some papers have coatings containing very fine particles to hold the pastel, such as Wallis sanded pastel paper, Art Spectrum Colourfix coated pastel paper and Supertooth board, Sennelier La Carte pastel card and Ampersand Pastelbord.

Finally, you can apply primers and grounds to paper, board or canvas panels to make them receptive to pastel. Try Art Spectrum pastel and multimedia primer, Golden pastel ground or Lascaux pastel ground.

Effects of Soft Pastel | Pastel Techniques

From left to right, you can see the effects of using soft pastels on Colourfix coated pastel paper, Mi-Teintes pastel paper, Strathmore charcoal paper and Strathmore watercolor paper.



Must-Have Pastel Tools | Pastel Techniques

When learning how to paint with pastels, these tools are important to keep in mind:

  • Drawing board and clips: A rigid surface is a must when working on paper.
  • Boxes for the pastels: Working with loose, disorganized pastels is inefficient and frustrating. Get into the habit of limiting the number of loose sticks in your work area. Storage boxes will keep your pastels organized while you work and assist in inventory control.
  • Kneaded erasers: Use these for blending as well as for removing pastel from the surface.
  • Blending tools: Try various tools, such as paper stumps (also called torchons or tortillons), cotton swabs, facial tissue and paper towels.
  • Razor blade and craft knife: Use these to sharpen hard pastels to a point and to scrape off unwanted deposits of pastel from your work surface.
  • Tracing paper: This is useful to protect your work from smudging as you paint.
  • Protective gear: Dust masks, gloves or protective hand cream are advisable.
  • Wet wipes: These are handy to clean up the pastel dust that didn’t make it to the work surface.
  • Fixative: Workable fixative protects your work from smearing but leaves it open for reworking; permanent fixative protects it from damage and seals it from further alteration.


Pastels are made from finely ground pigment mixed with chalk or clay and a binder, such as gum arabic or gum tragacanth, and formed into a stick. Their colors can’t be mixed on a palette like paint, but must be mixed on the drawing surface by blending, layering or using other techniques such as scumbling.

Pastels vary in hardness by manufacturer. Hard pastels have more binder than the softer pastels, and their colors may not be as vivid. Hard pastels are good for preliminary drawing in particular because they can hold a point and create crisp lines and details. Softer pastels contain less binder and more pigment, a ratio that gives them a rich color and velvety texture. They’re easier to blend and smudge than hard pastels, but soft pastels are more delicate, are easily broken and create more dust. The hardness of the pastel will affect the results of the techniques you use.

Soft Pastels | Pastel Techniques

Soft pastels, such as these by Terry Ludwig, are easy to blend and have a rich color and velvety texture.

Some of the most popular brands of pastel include Girault (soft), Great American (soft), PanPastels (soft), Prismacolor Nupastel (hard), Rembrandt soft pastels (medium), Schmincke soft artists’ pastels (soft), Sennelier (soft), Terry Ludwig (soft), Unison handmade pastels (soft), and Winsor & Newton soft pastels (medium).



The downside to the soft consistency of pastels is the increased possibility of accidentally ingesting the pigments. Although most pastels have an AP non-toxic label, some have the CL (“Caution Label”) seal indicating they’re toxic or hazardous if not used with appropriate caution.

Colorfin PanPastels | Pastel Techniques

Colorfin PanPastels are soft pastels, which come in small trays, and are applied with soft foam tools in a process similar to painting.

Because pastels have so little binder, they easily generate dust that’s hard to contain, and you should take care not to breathe it in. Don’t blow loose powder off the surface as you work—you risk inhaling it. Instead, tap the work over a waste bin to remove dust, and after each painting session, wipe down your work area with a wet paper towel; use a wet mop or a vacuum with a HEPA filter to pick up any residue that has fallen to the floor. If you work close to the paper, consider wearing a dust mask.

Blending pastels with the fingers is also a natural impulse. It’s highly recommended to use gloves or a protective hand cream—such as Winsor & Newton Artguard barrier cream, EZ Air Invisible Care, Invisible Glove or Marvelous Marianne’s SkinSafer barrier cream.

The usual precautions should be observed scrupulously with pastels: Keep food and drink away from your work area and never smoke while you work. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after using pastels.

FAQs: How to Paint with Pastels

Are pastels a permanent medium?
Pastel is a fragile medium. Once properly fixed and appropriately framed, pastels will remain as applied. As long as you use high-quality cotton or linen rag paper, pastels won’t crack, crumble or disintegrate. The lightfastness of pastels is almost completely determined by the pigments used; as with most artwork, prolonged exposure to direct sunlight should be avoided.

Girault Soft Pastels | Pastel Techniques

Soft pastels, such as these by Girault, are easier to smudge, but matting your work behind glass will help protect it.

How do you properly fix a pastel painting?
Unless sprayed with a protective artists’ fixative, pastel artwork is subject to smudging and smearing, particularly if you use softer pastels. Using workable fixative protects your work from smearing but leaves it open for reworking; a permanent fixative protects it from damage and seals it from further alteration.

Some pastel artists find that fixatives darken their paintings; some new fixatives are addressing this problem with good results.

Matting and framing your work behind glass is the best way to keep it pristine. To store your pastel works, keep them flat in boxes or a flat file with sheets of glassine between the drawings to minimize smearing.

How many pastel colors do I need?
A common mistake beginners make is buying too many colors. Limit your selection to a range of warm and cool colors from each of the primary and secondary hues, plus a few earth colors, neutrals or grays, black and several sticks of white. You can augment your collection with extra colors as needed. About 30 sticks is a suitable number for a beginner’s pastel box. As you develop a style, you’ll determine quickly which colors you use most.

Can I clean my pastel sticks?
The fastest way to clean a pastel stick is to wipe it with a paper towel. Or you can shake pastels gently in a lidded container of cornmeal or uncooked rice to remove unwanted color.

With these top pastel painting tips for beginners you now have a solid base of pastel painting knowledge. Get everything you need to start painting, sketching & drawing with pastels with our pastel painting value packs. The only limitation is your imagination!

This Mediapedia article, by Greg Albert, first appear in the October 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Click here to order a subscription.


Watch art workshops on demand at ArtistsNetwork.TV.
Get unlimited access to over 100 art instruction ebooks.
Online seminars for fine artists
Instantly download fine art magazines, books, videos & more.
Sign up for your Artist’s Network email newsletter & receive a FREE ebook.

You may also like these articles: