Use these soft pastel techniques to create a number of different marks, textures and effects. Learn how to layer and mix colours to achieve the best results in your artwork.
Soft pastel is a brilliantly versatile medium. Create a number of different marks by varying pressure, or how you hold the pastel. Pastel can also be thinned to create a wash, allowing you to brush it onto the paper like watercolour.
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How you hold the pastel will impact upon your results. Hold the pastel on its side for wide sweeping marks. Use the pastel on its tip for thinner marks. Using the edges of a rectangular pastel, you can make thin lines. Rectangular shaped pastels are especially useful for creating hard edges, like what you might draw in a mountain or rock formation. This technique is great for beginner pastel artists.
Blending soft pastel
Soft pastel lends itself to the blending technique, as they are so velvety and smooth. When layered on the surface, colours will naturally mix and blend together to create hue and value shifts.
For an even smoother blend, smudge the pastel with your hand or a soft pastel blending tool. To avoid getting pastel on your fingers, wear some gloves. Instead of using your fingers, a tool that really aids with blending is the Pan Pastel Sofft Tools. These are designed for use with pan pastel but can be used with any kind of soft pastel. They are shaped like palette knives with a dense sponge attachment that works to press pastel into the paper and give a subtle blend.
The more layers of pastel that are blended into one another, the duller the colour mixes will appear. When mixing lots of hues together, the resulting shades and tones will be neutral and grey-brown. Mix fewer pigments together to achieve brighter more luminous results. The more pastel that is on the paper, the more difficult it is to control. This is why you should approach blending with a light touch and thin layers of colour.
Blending of pastels with a similar softness will yield good results and so will blending a soft pastel into a harder pastel. However, blending a hard pastel on top of soft pastel will move the soft pastel around the surface and may rub some of the colour off the paper.
This is a soft pastel technique that is used in oil painting, coloured pencil drawing and oil pastel painting. It’s a type of shading technique, whereby small circular marks are layered on top of one another. When you step back from the painting, it gives the impression that the colours have mixed, but up close you will be able to see the texture. Colours are mixed optically instead of physically. The human eye will perceive the colours as somewhat blended, even though they are distinct and next to one another on the paper. This adds variety and interest to a drawing.
Scumbling is most often done to lighten an area of the drawing. Choose a light pigment and draw circles above the area you want to tint. The benefit of layering pastel by scumbling instead of blending, is that you will retain the vibrant appearance of the individual colours. As by over blending, colours begin to reduce in saturation and appear duller.
Use this technique to deepen and darken colour mixes on the paper. Use a transparent pigment, for example an earth colour and lightly draw over the areas you want to enhance the shadows. Look at the information on the supplier’s website to find out which colours have transparent properties.
Create a wash
There are two ways to make a wash with water. The first method involves applying the layer of pastel to the paper first, then dip your brush in a little water and brush over the pastel. The purpose isn’t to completely saturate the brush, but to dampen the pastel so that it starts to blend, creating a thin layer that emulates watercolour.
The second method of creating a wash with water, is by using a craft knife to scrape some of the pastel dust onto a palette. Drop some water onto the palette and mix it until it makes a runny paste. Use a brush to apply the pastel mix onto the paper.
Underpainting is a type of layering technique, where the first layer of the drawing, which usually consists of loose shapes, is blocked in. Establish the composition, the light source and the values in the underpainting.
Create the underpainting by sketching with a feather light touch with a dry pastel. In consecutive layers, you could refine shapes, deepen values, add highlights and details.
You could also create the underpainting with a light wash, with a touch of water. This way, the effect of the first layer of the drawing will look smooth instead of loose and sketchy.
Detail drawing with soft pastel
To draw details with soft pastel, either get a medium soft pastel like Terry Ludwig, or Art Spectrum that is square in shape and use the edges to create sharp lines. You could also approach detail drawing by dissolving the pastel in water to create a wash, then using a small paint brush to brush on the detail. This is perhaps the best way to create the most detailed marks. Do this by scraping some pastel dust into a palette and add a little water before brushing it on.
Get a craft knife or use your fingernail and lightly scrape the pastel colours you want to dust the surface. This is a great technique to create a scattered dotted effect, which could be used for stars in a nocturne or galaxy scene, or wildflowers in a field. Make sure to press the pastel into the paper with some tracing paper or glassine paper. This will fix the dust in place and prevent it from being brushed off the surface.
Use a soft, or medium soft pastel to create short linear marks in various directions. Layer colours on top of one another as you would with scumbling. Colours may start to blend into one another, but for the most part they will remain separate. This leaves the onlooker to perceive colours as being mixed optically, creating texture, the appearance of luminescence and iridescence. This is similar to the principle behind the mark making techniques that impressionists like Monet would have used.
Hatching is the technique of creating hard lines that run parallel to one another. It’s a type of shading technique, where lines are drawn closer together to represent dark shadows. Lighter lines are drawn further apart for highlighted areas.
This is similar to the hatching technique—create linear marks across the paper. But draw perpendicular lines so that the marks cross over one another. Draw the lines in different directions to create an almost fabric-like effect. As with hatching, lines should be closer together and darker in appearance to represent shaded areas. This technique works best with medium soft pastels, rather than extra soft.
Layering soft pastel
Soft pastel is a buildable and opaque medium. This means that you can start by establishing the composition and blocking in mid tones, then gradually increase the contrast and leave the highlights and details until last.
It’s best to either use pastel brands with similar softness throughout the painting, or layer softer pastel on top of harder pastel. The softest brands of pastels available to buy are Sennelier and Schmincke. These should always be layered last and over harder soft pastels like Rembrandt. The benefit of starting a pastel piece with a slightly harder pastel, especially if you anticipate that you will be creating lots of layers, is that it will fill up the tooth of the paper less quickly. This will leave more room for you to build and alter colours with consecutive layers.
Another tip when starting with your first layer of soft pastel is to start with the lightest touch. You don’t need to apply much pressure to release pigment onto the surface. If you apply a lot of pressure from the offset, the paper will become chocked full of pastel, making it difficult to apply more layers on top.
Soft pastel techniques in action
In this soft pastel seascape demonstration, learn how to paint an easy ocean wave and how to combine techniques like blending, feathering and dusting to create the impression of water.
Beginner soft pastel artists: learn more about the medium
The properties of soft pastel
The best brands of pastel make their pastel sticks with minimal binder, which makes them extra pigmented. A lot of artists like this because the colours are ultra vibrant. The sticks can feel soft and velvety smooth to use and pigment is released onto the paper with the lightest touch.
Soft pastels differ from oil pastels in the binder that is used to hold the pigments together. Oil pastels are made from a mix of wax and oil, which makes them feel more buttery and slick to use. They are more sturdy, as soft pastels can break more easily. Soft pastels and oil pastels shouldn’t really be used together, as soft pastel won’t adhere to oil pastel layers and oil pastel will stick to soft pastel layers, causing it to rub off of the surface.
Soft pastel supplies
Top quality soft pastels include Sennelier, Schmincke and Unison. Each of these brands is highly pigmented and extra soft. Terry Ludwig and Art Spectrum pastels are high quality, but slightly harder in texture, they are also square in shape. Rembrandt pastels are the most affordable artist grade soft pastel, they are also the hardest on the list. Check out our soft pastel brand review for more insights into the different options available to pastel artists.
The best paper for soft pastel painting should be thick, like card and have ‘tooth’. Paper tooth is a fine, sanded texture that allows mediums like pastel and pastel pencil to adhere to the surface, maintaining the vibrancy of the pigment and reducing need for fixative. Pastelmat is a brilliant option, Pastelbord is a great option for artists who want to work on a board or at an easel.
As soft pastel drawing creates a lot of dust, it can be beneficial to work with the pastel piece propped upright. Choose to work at an easel, like a table easel, studio easel or drawing table. This way, pastel dust will pool beneath the artwork, instead of smudging across it. Make sure to put some kind of dust cover beneath the easel to protect your furniture. Use masking tape to fix pastel paper to a wooden board for stability when working at an easel, or use Pastelbord.
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