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Tips & Tricks

Pastels: The Medium

Pastel. . . the name comes from the French word pasticheâ.  A pure, powdered pigment is ground into a paste with a small amount of gum binder, which is then rolled into sticks. The pastel palette includes an infinite variety of colors from soft and subtle to bold and brilliant.

Pastels: Tips and Tricks

Courtesy of the Pastel Artists Canada

Artist safety issues:

  • When working in soft pastel, never blow at the dust. It is not good for your lungs. Take the work out side or hold over a newspaper and tap the back to get rid of excess pigment.

  • Try to get used to wearing disposable gloves. The pigment can be absorb through the skin. Gloves also help keep the work clean. It is much easier to clean the pigment off the gloves before changing colors than off your hands.

  • If you are using this medium daily, an air filter in your working space is better for your health.

  • When using fixatives, spray in a well-ventilated area, preferably outside.


Working clean to keep colors vibrant:

  • Frantic because you have just reframed your work again and you still see pastel pigment on the matt where you definitely don’t want it? Try using anti-static eyeglass cleaner on the inside of the glass.

  • Be organized. Baby wipes or a damp paper towel kept in a small plastic bag attached by a push pin to the side of your easel makes keeping your pastels a snap. You can easily reach in to clean your working hand or glove and the bag keeps the wipes from drying out quickly. A spray of water will refresh the moisture if needed and you can take this along on your paint outs as well. (Donna Aldridge, PSA)

  • Keep pastels clean while working to avoid unwanted smears of other colors. Place a clean paper towel near your easel to drag a pastel across to clean the tip. Try to clean the stick automatically before putting it back, that way you won’t get a nasty surprise. (Donna Aldridge, PSA)

  • To keep dark colors cleansome artists work from the top down and slant their easels forward. If you need to work all over the surface, (sometimes even working from top to bottom), light particles of dust attach themselves to the dark areas which are situated below. Always do a final cleaning to keep the colors brilliant. Go over every dark area with the same colors and wipe the light dust off the pastel stick before reapplying to the area, vice versa for the light areas.

  • Working from the top of the paper down and having the paper on an easel rather than flat will allow excess pigment to drop down and out of the way.

  • To catch excess dust, always stand on a carpet piece that can be vacuumed or washed and, eventually, thrown out.

  • An old mail tube cut down the middle or a wallpaper tray can be attached to the bottom of your easel, making an excellent dust catcher. It can also be a stand for your pastel board. Make sure the opening is wide enough to catch the pastel dust then just empty.

  • Keeping clean in the studio. To make clean up easier, place a damp cloth on the ledge of the easel to capture the falling particles. You can protect your easel by making a wider ledge of foam core board wrap with aluminum foil or plastic wrap and securing it to the easel ledge. Place folded layers of paper towel to fit. Keep a spray bottle of water handy to keep the toweling moist. Gather up the towel when you are through. To keep your painting board off the damp toweling, make feet with several push pins across the bottom of the board. (Donna Aldridge, PSA)

  • Hold It is excellent for using as a pick up for pastel particles in unwanted places (i.e. on your nice clean mats). Put a little on the end of a pencil or a straw to use for blending instead of a stump. Hold It, is much more workable and flexible, I have found, than a kneaded eraser. (Ursula Reese)

  • When traveling by car, keep a margarine tub filled with small bits of pastel in cornmeal. You can do quick sketches along the way when the moment hits. The cornmeal keeps the pastels clean and safe. (Ann Kelly Walsh)

  • As an alternative to cornmeal in the tip above,try using rice. Rice cleans pastels beautifully and keeps them safe when traveling. Reuse clean meat trays to keep basic colors in use separate when working. (Normand Brail)

  • The best material to photograph your finished workis against is black velveteen. It doesn’t show wrinkles and marks can be covered with black magic marker.

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  • Do you lust for the airy and light appearance of a watercolor, but in pastel? You can achieve this effect very easily. Using white paper only, stroke with the broad side of your pastel stick across your paper (break it in half if the stick is too long). Vary the pressure. Use the darkest values first, lightest values last. Apply some of the light values directly onto the white paper and let the paper come through. Try layering complementary colors for beautiful effects.
    NOTE: A disadvantage to this method is the tooth of the paper fills up very fast and will not take too many layers as a result.

  • When looking at the model while rendering a sketch or full portrait, the part you are looking at comes forward, Squinting helps trick our eye so we get the proportions better. Similarly, try looking just off to the side of what you are working on. That would mean working on an ear while looking at the nose.

  • Ever wonder what to do with all those small pieces of pastel? How about make your own pastels! Begin by collecting them as you work. Inexpensive boxes with small compartments (like a fishing tackle box) work very well. Put all the small pieces of pastel in these compartments, sorting them by color and value (i.e. yellows, browns, reds, etc.). When a section fills up, use a coffee grinder bought specifically for grinding pastels to grind together each section (make sure you wear a mask). In a small plastic cup, mix the pastel dust with a few drops of rubbing alcohol to make a paste and roll it into a cigar shape (wearing latex gloves). Lay the stick on a paper towel until the alcohol evaporates. You’ll probably have to wait a couple days but afterwards, you will have a new pastel stick! The manufacturer of the pastels has already added the gum to make the pigment stick together. Grinding all the pastel bits together with a mortar and pestle is possible, but requires a lot of elbow grease and strength, whereas the grinder does it in a minute to a fine consistency. This method can also be used to achieve a dark as well (i.e. a dark green can be obtained by using a green and mixing it in the coffee grinder with a bit of black). (Barbara Elmslie)

  • Every pastelist’s nightmare looking down to see the last stick of your favorite pastel on the floor in a thousand pieces! To overcome this shattering experience, get down on your knees and carefully collect every little piece of pastel, including the dust, on a piece of waxed paper. Add a drop of alcohol and roll it into a stick. After a few days, you should be able to use the new stick. It may be somewhat smaller in size but it should be enough to finish the painting!

  • Scumbling or spreading the pigment. The most frequently used tool to do this is the stump; however, it can take more pigment off than it pushes in. Use a pointed object (it can be a pencil or the tip of a brush handle) wrap a little kneaded eraser around it (actually Hold-It it works better), shape it to a point and work one color at a time. When you want to change color, just knead it to a new clean point



It’s happened to us all at least once. You sent in your application to an event and you were turned down. It’s one thing to be turned down for a show because your work was not what the selection committee or juror was looking for, but if you’re on the outside looking in due to the oversight of a small yet important detail (e.g. the form was not filled in correctly, the deadline was missed, your slides were fuzzy, no check was included, etc.), then it’s time to get yourself organized! Follow these tips next time and improve your chances for success:

Step 1: Be proactive
Always have the following items at your fingertips:

1) High resolution .jpgs or multiple, quality slides of your work are a must (Always take more than one slide as you may wish to enter the piece in a number of venues and you will also need one for your records).

The photography has to be the best possible. The image should be centered, in perfect focus, and represent the true colors. There should be nothing in the jpg or slide but the image. If the image does not fit slide dimensions, mount the work on a black background. Any black background areas showing are acceptable. The jurors do not want to see your sofa or the mattes and frames. Label the slides with a permanent marker (not tape) according to instructions. Tape can cause jams in the projector and you don’t want to be the cause of that! The offending slide, when retrieved, is often thrown out.

Note: Many events now require jpeg entrys. Instructions for sizing etc. will be listed in their prospectus and/or through the websites used such as Show Submit and On-Line Juried Shows.

2) Current biographical material, Curriculum Vitae.

Step 2: Read carefully and follow instructions
Be a professional. Read the registration form carefully and completely. Any of the terms not met can be grounds for rejection.

  • Note the conditions of entry. Highlight each one.

  • Note the conditions of acceptance.

  • Put all the required materials in the package.

  • Meet the deadline.

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Step 3: You’re in or are you?
You are on cloud nine as your work has been selected. Congratulations but you’re not done yet!

Make sure you follow the terms of acceptance. For the most part, volunteers run all of these events. Their time is precious so making changes and dealing with participants requests for favors, outside of normal set-up procedures such as title changes, prices, in-take and pick-up, is often irritating and usually impossible. Remember, everything has been organized well in advance. One little change can lead to hours of work for a volunteer. For example, galleries often need the information for their catalogues and changes for them can mean lots of money. Work that arrives with information other than what was requested on the official registration form may not be accepted.

The bottom line “ take charge of those mind numbing, boring details and let your work speak eloquently for you. Bon Chance!

Here is a fantastic list of things I do when getting ready to exhibit. I call this my manager model. In manager mode I go into autopilot, working through every mundane activity on this list. Of course, they are only mundane to me as I know there are people who love doing this sort of work and I admire them enormously for it. (Courtesy of Patse Hemsley)

  1. Get photographs done of each new piece of work.

  2. Send every piece off for 35mm slides.

  3. Sometimes sending items for larger transparencies (depending on what you see that piece being used for).

  4. When the slides come back, label, number and file them.

  5. Photos label and file.

  6. Pack and ship unframed/framed paintings.

  7. Make sure your address book is updated.

  8. Attend to Web matters new content, responding to e-mails, etc.

  9. Send out brochures and postcards.

  10. New work sent off to interested parties or shown to clients who want to see new stuff every month. These don’t necessarily make sales but they need to view them. The Web has helped with this enormously.

  11. Invite interested parties to view work from the studio.

  12. Host/attend art lunches and coffee mornings where original pastels can be seen and appreciated.

  13. Make presentations and live with mounted work.

  14. Make books and folios with photographs or laser prints usually presenting a coherent story.

  15. Fine tune books and folios to cater to viewer (this is not a mass production business).

  16. Write up news for the newsletters.

  17. Make on the spot decisions about which competitions to enter.

  18. Enter competitions.

  19. Make on the spot decisions about which arenas to go for and where to exhibit.

  20. Organize exhibitions.

  21. Decide on framing.

  22. Hang exhibitions.

  23. Have the courage to say, No to offers that do not make the heart sing.

  24. Have the courage to walk away from friends who ask if your stuff sells.

  25. Embrace those friends who support what you do.

  26. Book keeping and sorting out the accounts.

  27. Update your biography.

  28. Planning, planning and more planning all the while keeping a keen eye on goals and dreams.

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General Pointers:

1.Fulfillment, the process of shipping and delivering goods, has always been an issue for artists.

First, you must decide on whether to ship the work framed or unframed. This will help determine what type of packaging to use. The best way to reduce the cost of shipping is to select wrapping material which reduces the total weight.

If you ship a pastel framed under glass, it often costs more than the painting itself, especially when you ship internationally. Instead of wooden crates, try using mirror boxes which are lined with Styrofoam. They offer more protection and less total weight. You can get them from your local furniture store. Don’t forget to put strips of tape onto the glass just in case!

If you decide to ship your pastels unframed, Canadian company Specialty Arts Distributing offers a non-static, Crystal Clear Artwork Bag.

The final step is picking a delivery method. Apparently, UPS offers an excellent service. The only problem is they don’t insure artwork like most other couriers will. Insurance is another cost to consider, however, if you’re willing to risk going without it, we know at least one gallery who has used UPS to ship over 100 paintings, breaking only one piece of glass so far with no damage to the portrait.

Sally Mickele -mailed us the following enlightening story regarding the UPS service:

Two of my pastel portraits were recently accepted at an art show. After carefully packaging them up, my husband and I went to UPS to have them shipped. When we got there, the lady behind the counter uttered the one question that artists choke on, Is the work replaceable? Of course, we answered No. The lady then informed us that UPS would not ship anything irreplaceable and when something was lost or damaged in shipment, UPS replaced the item they did not give you the insurance money.

She explained that if the artwork was lost, all we would get back was the cost of the insurance, such as $5.00 for $500.00 worth of insurance! As far as artwork goes, if the artist is still alive and the paintings can be reproduced in case of damage or loss, UPS would ship it but the paintings have to have been appraised by a gallery within the last year. Feeling uneasy, we went to the U.S. Post Office and, much to our surprise, they insured the artwork and delivered by Priority Mail within 3 days. It was cheaper than UPS as well!

Sally’s story has an even better ending: both paintings won awards! Thanks Sally.


2.Paper pointers Every pastelist has their favorite paper. Of course, an acid-free paper is a must to preserve the image and the stability of the pigment on the surface. As artists we owe that to our customers.

Once that issue is taken care of though, it’s a matter of tooth, or the actual surface of the paper, we are most concerned with.

If you tend to employ a more painterly approach to the use of pastel, the lightly sanded paper varieties are excellent. Kitty Wallis and Art Spectrum, to name a few, hold more pigment and can take different treatments, such as liquids and sprays.

La Carte, with its beautiful velvet-like surface, holds the pigment well too, but will not suffer any liquids or sprays.

And the Canson and Strathmore series are good papers to work with as well and can tolerate small whispers of sprays. They work really well for vignettes and drawing in pastel.

Another paper is watercolor paper, 300 lb arches cold press. This sturdy paper can really take a beating and still comes up looking great. You can start off with watercolor media for the underground painting and finish off with dry pastel on the surface. You can even make big changes right up to the final layer and take advantage of the undercolor when applying the final layer of pastel. A word of warning. The tooth of the paper is wide and shallow and can support only a few layers of pastel.


3.If you are planning to use denatured alcohol or water on your paper with dry pigment, make sure the paper is well stapled down on a wood substrate or thick gator board before beginning. The paper will ripple but once dried, the ripples will disappear and the surface will be smooth for the application of dry pigment.


4.Good magazine is always useful when things slow down or when looking for new ideas, concepts or techniques. When it comes to dry pastel, you may be surprised to learn just how much press your favorite medium is receiving. Here are three rags to add to your must-read list:

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5.There is no hard and soft rule when it comes to pastels. So why do we misleadingly refer to them all as soft pastels when it’s so obvious that some are harder than others?

The one real difference is softer brands use less binder and therefore contain more pigment.

It all dusts down to a matter of preference. While some artists start with a harder brand and finish with extra soft, others may draw with hard, then apply soft, and finish blending with a harder brand.

Then again, maybe the word soft relates to the light feathery touch you’ll need when using a pastel press too hard and you will watch with dismay as soft pastel stick crumbles into dust! To help you out, here are some;brands of varying softness available in Canada today:

  • Nupastel – very hard

  • Holbein – hard

  • Gallery – hard

  • Winsor Newton – semi-hard

  • Terry Ludwig

  • Rembrandt – semi-soft

  • Rowney – soft

  • Sennelier – soft

  • Schmincke – extremely soft


6.With a little care, pastels can be very portable. If you’re taking off to enjoy painting on the trails and want to carry a pack, think small and compact.

A cigar box makes a good sized container to hold your essential pastel colors. Begin by placing a layer of foam in the bottom to make a soft bed for the sticks. Next, cut a smaller piece of foam to glue on the inside of the lid. This allows the lid to shut tight. Finally, bind the box with a strong elastic.

What about paper you say? Well, cut the number of pieces you’ll need, making sure they’re all the right size to fit in your pack. Then, cut two pieces of foam core the same size as the pastel paper. Place the paper in between the foam core covers and bind it with elastic. Include 4 small bulldog clips as well.

When you stop to work, place a piece of paper on top of the foam core and secure it with the clips. When you want to start a new work, place the finished one at the bottom of your paper pile inside the foam core covers and secure. The secret is not to let the papers shift and smudge the pastel! You can use only one piece of foam core as long as the stack of pastel paper is wrong side up until you need a piece.

Finally, don’t forget a small air cushion to keep your other assets protected from the damp while working, and wet naps for cleaning up. Have fun!


7.framing your work, it’s best to keep the KISS formula in mind. Even though you may always feel at the mercy of your framer pushing their fancy mats and frames, it’s important to remember you are in control!

Artists have to be concerned with the presentation and quality of framing and, of course, the cost. Simple is always best. Heavy, ornate frames may make a decorator statement but they can drown your work. Indeed, the worst thing you can ever hear at an art show is Nice frame!

When considering matting, clean white mats with the all-important spacer to let a work in pastel breathe, is key.

You can learn these pointers the hard way through rejection. Jurors, even though the work may be fantastic, will often reject anything with a coloured mat. Galleries can find it difficult to hang such works and may also reject over-framed work. Finally, prospective buyers have to be able to imagine the work in their home before committing to purchase it and if the framer’s decorator touches are not what they enjoy, it may nix the sale.

Best of all, the cost is often less when quality framing is kept simple but well done. Frames can even be reused for works of similar size, a plus for thrifty artists.

So when framing next time, follow the KISS Formula: Keep it Simply Simple!

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8.People often ask about the type of paper to use when working with soft pastel. There is a large range available and it is all a matter of preference. A paper that is smooth has little tooth and is very good for drawing in pastel. Painting on this type of paper usually results in a very smooth finish. It only holds a few layers of pastel without using fixatives.

Papers come in a range of colors, although again, it’s a matter of preference and intent. A lightly sanded paper holds more pigment. It is very suitable for a more painterly approach. Watercolor papers are also very good, as long as the sizing has been removed. The texture of this paper gives interesting results but it will not hold many layers of pigment. Before you start, know your paper as well as the type of soft pastel you’re using.


9.For most people, including artists, it’s only natural to feel bad after making a mistake. Indeed, we learn early in life mistakes are something to be avoided at all costs. For an artist, the fear of making a mistake can be our worst enemy. Accommodate even the smallest insecurity and the familiar white reflection of a fresh piece of paper can become threatening, often with the thought that you don’t want to start it as you might ruin it! Well relax. Remember, it is just a piece of paper. Go ahead and enjoy. Painting in any medium is a creative puzzle. It is something to lose yourself in. And if it doesn’t turn out, it doesn’t matter. You must;learn to embrace and own your mistakes. Ask yourself:

What have I learned from this?
How do I fix this?
How can I use this information?

Only an inanimate object can be free of making mistakes. Artists are creative and naturally curious beings. The more mistakes you make in exploration, the more you learn and grow. The only thing to watch out for is not to make the same mistake twice or over and over again. Happy learning!


10.Site visitors often ask for information regarding selection of pastels suitable for beginnersin soft pastel, either for themselves or for gifts. Pre-set selections on the market rarely fit a beginner’s needs. Starting your own kit is cheaper and more convenient as you’ll get the colours you want! The following is a very basic starter list of 20 colors. You may add or substitute some colors with those of preference as long as they have the same value. To cut the initial outlay even further, buy half sticks or share with a friend. But be warned. Once you start working with soft pastels your collection will grow and grow!

  • Dark Colors:
    Deep Ultramarine blue, Dark Cobalt blue, two very dark greens (one cold and one warm), dark reddish brown, a dark gold ochre, deep yellow.

  • Mid Tones:
    Ultramarine, Cobalt blue, warm yellow, lemon yellow, a warm and a cool red, a warm yellow green and a grass green.

  • Light Colors:
    2 yellows (a warm and a cool), 2 reds (one warm and one cool), ultramarine light.

NOTE: The set can also be used for still life and florals but would need the addition of purples and a larger variety of reds for florals.

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11.Safely storing pastel paintings layered on a shelf or in a large drawer can be a problem, especially when you need to go back through the stack to find a certain piece. A tab with the name, size and other pertinent information can help locate a work without having to sort through every piece. The tab can be either a pH-balanced piece of paper laid over the glassine and allowed to protrude or it can be attached to one edge of the glassine for each painting, much like you would do with a school notebook. Using the thinnest version of pH-balanced foam core board or other non-acid or archival board in the layering process, along with glassine, helps keep the weight of unevenly stacked or slightly different sized paper more evenly distributed. Use interleaving boards that are all the same size and slightly larger than the largest painting paper you are storing. Interleave each piece with glassine and board or use the board every 2, 3 or 4 pieces. (Donna Aldridge)


12.An alternate method for storing pastel works in progress is to use glassine or tracing paper to cover the pastel. The artwork must be laying flat with the pastel side facing up. Cover the piece with either paper. Use drafting tape (3M, no. 230C) to keep the glassine or tracing paper attached to the pastel work. (Normand Baril)


13.Try using super-fine, grade 0000 steel wool pads when glass cleaning before framing a pastel. A PAC member tried this tip and it worked beautifully! The glass came out sparkling with very little effor only the fingerprints needed to be removed with a light glass cleaner. This method works especially well on the icky, filmy residue often found on your glass!


14.Tired of dry skin, breaking nails or sweaty hands in gloves? A member found Artguard Barrier Cream by Winsor & Newton. It’s perfect! Just put it on before you touch a pastel stick.


15.Value painting is very important for pastel painters because pastels can easily get muddy and gray. If you have trouble understanding values, simply Xerox your painting, or scan/photograph your work in black and white. The result will show if you have lost your dark colors (and your punch). It will also indicate if you have distributed your dark and light colors properly to make an interesting painting.

Coming from watercolor? In watercolor you work from light to dark, but in pastel, you are building from dark to light. If you have trouble reversing your thinking, try applying your light color areas first and save empty spaces for your dark colors. However, you must make all your decisions from the start because once you have applied light colors, you cannot go over it with a darker value without risking the clarity of your colors.

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