Pastel is tactile by its very nature. It’s the closest thing to dipping our fingers in paint and directly applying marks to a surface. When we hold the pastel stick in our hands we make direct contact with our chosen surface, bypassing the brush. This action creates heightened sensitivity. The texture of the surface and the smoothness or firmness of the pastel stick is felt. Pressure is then adjusted to deposit more or less of the pigment, creating a variety of affects. These gestures and pressures are as individual as the artists making them.
When first approaching the medium of pastel and the variety of ways of applying it to a surface, it’s often best to copy the techniques of a successful pastel painter you admire. By emulating his or her technique, you learn the artist’s methods and, with practice, become comfortable with the medium. After conquering one style, try another. Just as you try out a variety of surfaces and brands of pastels to find what fits your painting personality best, so to should you explore the various ways of applying pastel.
Analyze the strokes of the pastel artists you admire and you will see the individuality each has. There isn’t one “right” way but many: some hatch; others dab; many swipe; and some drift. When hatching, crosshatching, and dabbing, hold the pastel stick like a crayon and make marks with the tip. Make all the marks one direction, varying the colors and values as needed. This creates a hatched appearance and imparts a sense of fragmented broken color and value as well as rhythm and texture.
When adding or altering a color, change the direction of the stroke, creating a crosshatched broken application. This is a good method for blending two colors together without smearing and losing the freshness of the application.
Next try dabbing the pastel stick to create a variety of sizes of marks from small to large. For a painterly appearance, break your pastel sticks into smaller pieces and utilize the side of the sticks to simulate the action of a paintbrush.
Experiment with a variety of pressures, sometimes making definite marks by lifting and setting the stick back down in a various directions and then allow the stick to stay in contact with the surface while dragging.
Play and have fun. Don’t make the experiment about a finished painting. Instead, focus on gaining tactile experience. Just as no two person’s signatures are the same, so too are the ways in which we apply pastel to surface. With time, your personal calligraphy will become evident, making your work uniquely your own.