No matter how neat you are, or how tidy you keep your painting equipment, pastel dust will eventually contaminate the outer surface of individual sticks in your pastel palette, making them hard to identify. If you frequently work with extremely soft pastel brands or tend to apply heavy applications of pastel above an open pastel palette, you have seen how quickly the dust accumulates, making all your sticks appear grayish. We expect a stick to make a mark that represents our intentions. If the outer surface of the stick is contaminated, this can prove difficult.
One of the best methods of cleaning pastels is to place them in a lidded container containing course grain (see mine, above), and then gently agitate. A simple household plastic container will work well. For the grain choice, a common rice or cornmeal will suffice. Since this quickly becomes contaminated with pigment, there’s no need to purchase the pricier organic or name brand variations. Depending on how many pastels are to be cleaned, the container can be small or fairly large.
Some artists even travel with their pastels in these grain containers. Before painting, they remove the sticks and arrange their pastel palette. When done, all the sticks go back in the container for safe, clean transportation. No vigorous agitation is required to accomplish the goal of cleaning the outer surface of the pastel stick. If you frequently clean a large volume of pastels or plan to use the containers for transporting pastels, a makeshift strainer can be fabricated out of mesh, making it easier to fish the sticks out of the grain.
Another consideration is to purchase a strong pastel palette box that prevents the individual pastel sticks from moving around in transport. As they bump together, dust is produced, leaving varied pigment deposits that hinder identification. Frequent hand washing will also help. As we change sticks, we carry pigment on our hands from one stick to another. Over the years I have acquired the habit of holding a soft paper towel in my non-painting hand. When I set a stick down, I automatically wipe my hand on the towel before picking up a new one. Placing a catch trap under a painting is also helpful. The dust from the pastel will migrate down into the trough instead of into your palette.
Note also that there are some artists who enjoy the spontaneity of the “surprise color.” It’s become a part of their technique. They become motivated by the challenge it provides. If you’re not one of those adventurous souls, it will serve you well to occasionally clean your pastels to allow the true pigment of the stick to re-appear. Surprise is not for us all.
MORE RESOURCES FOR ARTISTS