Soft pastel is a wonderful medium, it’s ultra soft, blendable, vibrant and it almost feels like painting with pure pigment. For these reasons, it lends itself to expressive applications. Drawing with soft pastels feels very immediate and spontaneous and the results you can get are stunning! It’s also versatile, as it can be used in mixed media applications.
Learn soft pastel for beginners, in this tutorial find everything you need to know to start creating masterpieces with the medium. From the best supplies to get and how to use them, to some of the essential techniques and how to create a soft pastel drawing from scratch. Some artists may not like the dust and mess that soft pastel can create, but follow the tips in this guide to prevent some common problems and mistakes when pastel painting to get the best results from your artwork.
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How to draw with soft pastels
Draw with pastels in layers. Start by blocking in shapes and leave the details until last. Colours will naturally blend and mix into one another unless a fixative is applied between layers. To create sharper details and hard edges, apply a small amount of fixative and use a pastel suited for detail work like Terry Ludwigs.
If you’re using different brands of soft pastel in one piece, layer the harder pastels first and use the softest pastels for the final layers. Layering a hard pastel on top of a soft pastel may rub some of the pastel from previous layers off the drawing.
The tooth of the paper can quickly fill up when pastel painting. Once the paper’s tooth is chocked full of pastel, it will be difficult to apply more without the painting appearing muddy or overworked. To avoid this, use a paper like Pastelmat with the lightest touch you can manage. A light touch will give you more room to refine form, increase values, make adjustments and mix colours.
Soft pastel techniques
There are a multitude of different techniques that artists use with soft pastels. In this section, I’ll outline a few basic techniques that will give you a feel for how to create different effects with the medium. If you want to learn 12 soft pastel techniques in more detail, check out our guide!
Side stroke technique
Hold the pastel on its side. Then, with a light touch, sweep the pastel across the paper. This technique works brilliantly for covering large areas of the surface quickly. Use the technique with square or round shaped pastel, however this technique works beautifully with square pastels like Art Spectrum or Terry Ludwig.
Blending soft pastel
Soft pastels are a blendable medium. As soon as you draw with one colour over another, the hues will start mixing and blending onto one another. It’s possible to achieve soft smoky effects and smooth gradients if you use the right tool. Blend with fingers or a brush. These pastel blending brushes have been made for the purpose of using with the blending technique. The bristles are ultra soft and compact, giving artists the ability to create subtle, smooth blends.
Another great tool you can use for blending is these Sofft tools. The dense sponges are attached to a palette knife style application. Use it to blend pastel into the paper. Or use it to apply the pastel to the paper, by picking up colour from the pastel first by running the sponge over the top. Contrary to using brushes which can brush a lot of pastel dust off of the surface, Sofft sponge tools press the pastel into the paper, fixing it in place.
Dusting soft pastel technique
Scrape the pastel with your nail or a knife onto the paper to create small dust specks. This technique is perfect for when you need to create texture on the surface. It can be used to create the impression of ocean spray, snow or stars in a galaxy. In addition to scraping the pastel, you will need to press the dust into the paper to make it adhere to the surface. To do this, get some tracing paper or glassine paper, cover the area where you have created the dust and press. To see this technique in action, check out our wave pastel painting tutorial.
What supplies do you need for soft pastel drawing?
A set of soft pastels will not cost as much as a set of oil paints, but they are a little more expensive than oil pastels. However, you don’t need many supplies to get started! All you really need is a few different pastel colours, some paper and you’re ready to go.
The best soft pastels are pigment rich and are made from a quality binder. Often the pastels that use the finest materials are on the more expensive end of the spectrum and are more difficult to learn to use. This is because they are made to be extra soft. For a comprehensive review of different brands, see our soft pastel review.
Sennelier soft pastels
See the Sennelier Pastel Sets
These pastels are professional quality and feel luxurious to use. These soft pastels are on the soft side, so may feel challenging to use at first for a complete beginner due to their delicate nature. Sennelier makes 525 highly pigmented colours that start at $38.32 for a set of 20 half sticks at the time of writing. This is a brilliant option for the serious beginner that wants to invest a bit more in using an archival quality product, to improve their skills and start making professional quality work quickly.
Unison is a brand also aimed at professional artists, but anyone interested in pastel art should know about this brand! The beautifully smooth, buttery soft pastels are on the expensive side, but are well worth it for the intense and vivid results that can be achieved. Each pastel is hand rolled and the sets they make are fabulously curated based on colours and subject. For example, they have a wonderful landscape set, a portrait set, a starter and many more.
This brand would suit a beginner interested in more luxury art materials. Starting with a set of archival quality pastels will allow you to develop your skills much faster, with a higher pigment content, they are more blendable. You can buy these pastels individually too, if you want to test them out before committing to a full set.
These pastels are fantastically vibrant, but they are also the budget option. Less expensive than other varieties of soft pastel, Rembrandt pastels are harder than all other soft pastels available. This actually makes them easier to use for total beginners who aren’t used to the delicate nature of soft pastels. With higher quality soft pastels, a lighter touch is required to make marks, however with Rembrandt soft pastels, you can apply slightly more pressure until you get used to using a light touch.
The best surfaces for soft pastel drawing will have ‘tooth’, or surface texture. The tooth of the paper allows pastel to adhere properly and to be layered. Pastelmat is thick like card (360gsm) and has a velvet-like surface made from cellulose fibres that provide the tooth that soft pastel needs to stick. Create multiple layers on Pastelmat paper, without the need for fixative. It has some unique properties and is acid-free. It being archival quality, means that you can frame it and keep it for years to come, or sell it.
Ampersand Pastelbord has a thick sanded surface with tooth that soft pastels adhere to wonderfully. Create multiple layered drawings on the museum quality clay and gesso coated surface.
Pastel has a tendency to move and if you brush against it, it could rub off some surfaces. The way to prevent this from happening is by using a soft pastel fixative.
Spray the surface with fixative when you have finished your soft pastel painting to protect it from moisture and smudging. Some fixatives will also protect artworks from UV, but check the product description first to find out the properties of the fixative you are using. It’s advisable to spray fixative on a piece if you’re thinking of packing and shipping your pastel painting, as it may move around a lot during the journey.
It’s possible to spray fixative between layers, if you want to create separate layers and prevent colours from mixing into one another. Again make sure that the fixative you’re using allows you to fix colours in place throughout the drawing process. Winsor & Newton’s professional fixative is workable, so you can apply pastel on top of it. When using the fixative in between layers, make sure to only use the tiniest amount. If you spray too much fixative onto the surface it can become slick, not allowing any more pastel to adhere.
By using a purpose-made surface for pastel drawing like Pastelmat, you can reduce the need for fixative. Fixative alters the colours of pastel drawings slightly, so when using it, don’t use too much. By using Pastelmat, you can retain the brightness and vibrancy of the pastel.
What are the properties of soft pastels?
The binding ingredients of soft pastel can include chalk and gum arabic. Some brands will make their soft pastels with marble dust and clay. The dry nature of the pastels can make them crumbly and dusty. This is something you won’t experience as much with oil pastels which feel more sturdy.
Soft pastels are often round in shape and a few brands are made in a square format. With extra soft, circular pastels it can be difficult for beginners to get used to drawing fine details. If you prefer to draw details, try the Art Spectrum or Terry Ludwig pastels. Both have square shaped ends so you can draw details with the corners. Plus both are medium soft, so they won’t wear down as quickly.
Soft pastel never fully dries; they remain open and workable unless a fixative is applied. So you could leave a soft pastel drawing for months, come back to it, and colours will continue to blend into one another.
If you have a large set of pastels, you won’t need to do as much colour mixing as if you had a smaller set. Tint colours by mixing white over the top, or deepen colours by mixing burnt umber, or a tone of the same hue. To neutralise a colour, lightly layer either burnt umber or the complementary colour over the top.
Learn about colour theory to understand more deeply how to combine colours elegantly to make new shades and tones. To create a full chromatic range of colours in an artwork, you only really need the primaries. They will mix and combine to make secondary and tertiary colours. However, especially with the pastel medium, it’s useful to have extra sticks of colour, especially the tones you use most often to speed up the drawing process.
You don’t need to over blend when mixing colours. Layer colours on top of one another by lightly dragging the pastel (scumble) where you want colours to be altered. This will create a textural effect, where both colours sit alongside each other, not physically blended. However, when you step back from the artwork, the colours will appear optically blended. This is a technique used by impressionist artists to create vibrant contrasts. Over mixing colours can dull pigments down and start to appear ‘muddy’ more quickly.
Layering soft pastels
Mix colours by layering pastels on top of one another.
Different artists will approach layering differently. One method is to start by lightly blocking in mid tone colours, then gradually altering the layers to increase contrast and saturation. The reason to start with a light touch is so that the tooth of the paper doesn’t fill up too quickly. The final stage of the drawing will be the highlights and the details.
Pastel paintings can be completed in multiple layers, so if you anticipate that you will be using lots of colour layers in your drawing, you can start with a harder pastel, such as Rembrandt. Softer pastel should be layered on top of harder pastels. By layering hard pastel first, it will leave more room in the tooth of the paper for colours to be altered with soft pastel.
Make sure you’re working with a pastel paper that will accommodate multiple colour layers, like Pastelmat.
How to set up your workspace for pastel painting
It’s possible to paint upright, or flat with soft pastel. However, when artists paint flat, they may find that pastel dust pools on the paper, collecting and smudging across the artwork. To prevent this from happening, prop the artwork upright. For example you could draw vertically on an easel, like a table easel, drawing table or studio easel. This way, pastel dust will collect beneath the drawing instead of on the artwork. Put a dust cover beneath the easel to prevent your floor or table from getting dusty.
Stabilise the paper with a backing board
To paint on an easel, with pastel paper, stabilise the paper with a backing board. Get a piece of MDF, wood or board that is larger than your paper. Then using masking tape, fix the four edges of the paper to the board. This way, you can use more gestural drawing techniques without worrying about the paper being damaged.
By using Pastelbord, you can avoid having to tape the surface to a separate board, as it has enough surface stability to be propped up at an easel by itself.
Mask the edges
Another benefit to setting a pastel painting up by masking edges, is that you get a clean edge around the drawing. Having a clean border can make a pastel piece look more presentable and attractive.
What effects can you achieve with soft pastel?
Because soft pastel is so soft and pigmented, it is conducive to creating vibrant, expressive, loose, painterly works. However, the edges of soft pastel can be used to create detail. So if realism is your style, you will be able to blend realistic gradations, soft edges, using life like tones and shades.
Soft pastel is versatile, so depending on the techniques and approaches you choose and the time invested in the painting, you will be able to achieve a great variety of different effects.
How to erase soft pastel
Erasing soft pastel isn’t the easiest of tasks. It’s much easier to lift light and faint lines, so make sure to start a drawing with the lightest pressure. Test colours and colour mixes on a scrap piece of paper if you’re not sure of colour combinations before committing to applying them to your final piece. Prevent mistakes from happening by avoiding going in with dark heavy marks too soon.
The first step in erasing pastel is to brush excess pastel dust off the paper. Use a relatively springy brush, like a synthetic brush for this action. If the pastel is particularly thick on the paper, get a stiffer brush, such as an old bristle brush to remove excess. This works to remove the particles of pastel that are resting on the top of the paper.
Dense sponges, like cosmetic sponges also work to remove excess pastel without damaging the paper. Kneadable erasers are a great option too, because they lift pastel without being too harsh on the paper. You can use a combination of these erasing techniques together or on their own. If you use a hard eraser, you may inadvertently remove the tooth from the pastel paper, which would make future layering difficult.
Another option is to use a workable fixative, like Winsor & Newton’s fixative to spray over the mistake. Then work over it by creating a separate colour layer. This works to cover mistakes, not erase them from the paper. But there should be no trace of the mistake beneath.
What’s the difference between soft pastels and oil pastels?
Soft pastels are a little more expensive than oil pastels and they have different properties. Oil pastels are made from pigments mixed with oil and wax binders. Soft pastels are made from a mix of chalk, gum arabic and sometimes other binders such as marble dust.
In their performance, soft pastels are generally more soft, more pigmented in appearance, drier, dustier and more crumbly. Soft pastels feel luxurious to use and can lend themselves to expressive mark making techniques and vibrant colour combinations. To read a more in depth review, check out our soft pastel vs oil pastel guide.
Soft pastel mixed media
In mixed media applications, soft pastel really shines! Use pastel over watercolour, gouache or matte acrylic. If applying pastel on watercolour paper instead of pastel paper, you may be more limited with the amount of layers you can add.
Using soft pastel with oil paints, oil pastels and wax medium will not create artworks with longevity. This is because when applied on top of oil or wax, the soft pastels will not adhere properly. If you try to paint or draw with oil or wax over soft pastel, you may scratch the soft pastel from the paper.
Soft pastel inspiration
Zaria Lyn Foreman creates soft pastel paintings of glaciers, icebergs and glassy antarctic waterscapes to portray the urgency of climate change by showing people the “beauty of what we stand to lose”. Zaria paints with Unison soft pastels; Unison developed a set of ocean blue pastels in collaboration with her.
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