Top 5 Tips for Soft Pastels

I’ve found it hard to list all the things I’ve learned over the last 6 years of using soft pastels. Teaching classes has helped me organize my thoughts beyond “just do this and that” and practice sharing them so I thought I’d share the most often used tips here.

In no particular order, here’s my current top 5 list for using soft pastels.

5 pastel tips

1: Mark Making

Several of my students have complained that they can’t control these big chunks of pigment as they attempt to hold it like a pencil. Well, it is not a pencil so no, you can’t control it like one. (unless of course it is a soft pastel pencil but that’s another subject) Think of that chunk o’ pigment as being more like a brush. Use all sides and corners and you can make more types of marks than you could with that pencil. This Karen Margulis video demonstrates mark making very well.

When making marks, use a light touch! I heard another pastellist say that each pastel can create two colors: a solid, saturated color (firm pressure) and a lighter glaze of color (light pressure). That light pressure allows the lower layers to show through! It is that second “color” I find most useful. I can always apply more pigment later but removing it is more difficult!

Work from dark to light values too. I don’t know why, but it is easier to add lighter pigment on top of dark than the other way around. Perhaps it is the translucent nature of pastels. I’ve heard other pastellists mention it so I know it is not just me.

2: Blending

blendingWhen students ask about blending techniques, my favorite saying is that “blending happens, don’t worry about it”. Of course, this is not a very satisfactory response! But it is one born from my experience.

To expand on that, blending will happen if  a light touch is used. If I lightly layer blue over a red background, I will “see” purple, optical blending. I can go in with my finger and smoosh those pastels around, mechanical blending. Both are useful. I like to use mechanical blending for out-of-focus backgrounds and optical blending for everywhere else. Here is a good video showing a side by side comparison.

Favorite Blending Tool. I prefer to use my fingers if I want to force the blending. Anything else I’ve tried to use removes more pigment than it blends: brushes, rubber tips, toweling of any kind. Useful for removing pigment but not so useful if I want to blend it.

Fixative. I’m going to stuff this in here because I find a little fixative used during the painting development seems to speed up the blending or smoothing of values. My favorite fixative is Spectrafix. It doesn’t smell so I don’t have to go outside to spray. It does darken things a bit, especially the yellows (or yellow-green, yellow-orange, etc).

3: Value Check

value checkAs I work on a painting, I stop and check my values. How? I take a pic with my phone and remove the color. I don’t use a filter because I’m afraid that will remove information I need. I use the de-saturation slider in the basic app that came with my phone. Then, if I need to, I compare that with a black and white version of my reference.

4: Get Perspective

Step back! Most people aren’t going to stand there for hours with their nose to anyone’s painting. So every thirty minutes or so, I step back (several steps) and appraise my progress. I like to call this the painting waltz. 😀

Freeze! Take pics regularly. This is a great way to remember how I got where I am so that I can repeat the results (or not). By the end of the painting I forget how I solved a lot of the issues I solved along the way.

take pics 2

Walk away! Sometimes you just gotta take a break and get some mental distance. Sometimes it takes a while too. Then you can see it with “fresh” eyes later. I often find that things aren’t as bad as I thought or that the solution isn’t as difficult as I expected.

I hope this has been helpful to you! Do you have a favorite tip or technique for painting with soft pastels? I’d love to know! Please leave me a comment below or send me an email.

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