Working with Pastels and What I Have Learned Over the Last Five Months

One day I was randomly looking at a book I have on acrylics and there was a reference to an artist called Mark Leach. The little image of his work grabbed me and I immediately went to look him up. Once I did this I saw that he was primarily a pastel artist and I was totally captivated by his beautiful work. The simplicity of his work but high impact, thought and colour is beautiful. That was it! I was inspired to find out more about pastels and I am glad I did. 

Mark Leach Orsay Pastel Artist

Image above: Mark Leach 'Orsay'.

I often work with watercolours because of how they fit into my life. I have two small children and I do not have my own space at the moment so I need to work with materials that (in my mind at least) are not too messy and can be easily put away. Without even buying any I could imagine pastels would fit into this way of working. Now I have a few sets and I can say that this is the case. As long as I do not get too carried away, which can happen! But it is possible to get the materials out, work on a painting and put them away within a relatively short period of time. Okay, so this is what I have learned so far:


'Soft pastels' and 'hard pastels' can be used together. But they are different to oil pastels. Slightly confusingly some 'soft pastels' are harder than others. For example, Rembrandt pastels are harder than Unison. The soft pastel sets I have at the moment are Sennelier (very soft), Rembrandt (medium). The hard pastel set I have is Cretacolor. I wanted to buy a Unison set but could not get hold of them where I am. The softer pastels are great for loose work and covering large areas. The harder are great for more detailed work. I have a wonderful book by Ellen Eagle 'Pastel Painting Atelier'. She says to put down the hard pastel first then the soft. I have mostly done this but the reality is I have sometimes done it the other way out of necessity and it has worked out fine.


Soft pastels are pure pigment mixed with a little water and some binder. Hard pastels are made with the same ingredients but with more binder. The colours are therefore extremely pure and bright. A new box of pastels is a beautiful thing!. There is a huge number of colours available within each brand. Available in boxed sets or individually. The colour 'mixing' all happens on the page and is done by laying one colour over another for optical mixing or by smudging one colour into another on the page. 


I have used pastel paper, experimenting with different canson colours. So far I have only used cool blue and grey colours. I have found that the paper showed through in a way that I did not like with some of my paintings so I have now also been making a surface with pastel ground mixed with acrylic paint. This is great as it gives more control over the base colour. I have so far applied this onto handmade papers since I like the deckle edges. 


Again taken from the book written by Ellen Eagle is the notion that a pastel artwork is called a painting when the whole paper is covered by pastels and a drawing when large areas of the paper are left exposed. This makes sense and seems a good way to define whether an artwork is a drawing or a painting. I suppose at the end of the day it does not really matter what it is called!. 


Even though pastels are practical in many ways and do not require water they can be messy. It is important not to blow on the image or the pastel dust all flies into the air. Instead the painting can be tapped onto a plate or wet cloth to catch the loose particles. I try to open the window when I am working and make sure I clean down all surfaces with a damp cloth after.

I am going to be updating this post as I find out more about this exciting medium. Below are some images of my work. I would love to hear from you if you found this post interesting or have any questions or comments! 

Pastel Original Landscape, Seascape

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