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How to use Pastel Sticks to Create Artwork

One of the oldest artist’s mediums, pastels produce vivid colored drawings with a minimum of equipment. They are perfect for taking along on a trip or just for stepping out of the studio for the day. You can get started drawing with pastels with just a handful of items that are available at low cost.  In this post we will cover some of the common questions asked when artists are learning how to use pastel sticks, ranging from the types of pastel sticks to how do you draw with pastel sticks. Read on to learn more.

how to use pastel sticks
How to use pastel sticks

What Are Pastels?

Pastels consist of colored, powdered pigment in stick form mixed with a binder. They are considered a dry medium, and you can use them to make artworks that are brilliantly colored and lively.

Often, people consider pastels to be a kind of chalk, since they are used similarly, but they are not chalk.

The pigments in pastels are exactly the same as what are used in other paints and colored media.

The binder has a neutral color so as to not interfere with the pigment color. Pastels are softer than colored pencils, and therefore, you need to work with a light, gentle touch. 

Things Needed to Create Pastel Artwork

Pastels are a great starter medium. You do not have to invest in massive quantities of equipment to get started drawing in pastels. Additionally, drawing with pastels is a relatively inexpensive medium to try.

If you have been drawing in pencil, and you want to take your art to the next level, pastels might be the next medium to try. 

Pastels

At the art supply store, it’s likely that there is an entire shelf of pastels and the selection may be overwhelming. To get started, you may just want to buy a basic multi-pack of pastels.

These multi-packs will supply one or two dozen basic pastel colors. Buy the best brand that you can afford. However, you don’t have to buy the most expensive and highest quality type of pastels if you’re just getting started.

Wait until you are sure you will love the medium before you invest a ton of money in your pastels. You can always upgrade later if you love it

Pastel Paper

While you can use pastels on many kinds of surfaces, they work best on a surface that has a bit of texture that will “grab” the pastel. Artists often say that a textured surface has “tooth.”

When you use pastels on a smooth surface, the pastels will not stick very well, and you will find it difficult to lay down much color.

Most commonly, pastels are used on special pastel paper that you can buy in a pad at the art supply store. This paper has a rough surface that sort of pulls the color off of the pastel stick.

Often, pastels are used on colored paper that provides a great contrast to the vibrant colors of the pastels. Additionally, you can use boards or canvas. Some people even draw on sandpaper. 

Fixative

When using pastels, you’ll probably need two kinds of fixative: a workable fixative and a final fixative.

Pastels are often layered to create shades and colors. If you want to layer colors, you will need a workable fixative. This is sprayed onto the pastel drawing, creating a matte surface over which you can layer more pastels.

The surface of a workable fixative has its own tooth that will allow you to add more layers of color. 

The final fixative is sprayed over the final artwork to ensure that the pastel painting itself isn’t able to be smudged or smeared. It will keep the colors bright and firmly attached to the surface of the paper. 

Types of Pastels

There are four main types of pastels: soft pastels, hard pastels, pastel pencils, and oil pastels.

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Soft Pastels

Soft pastels are the pastels that have been around for centuries. Soft pastels have the highest amount of pigment mixed with the least amount of binder.

They give you brilliant, intense colors. Because they have a lower percentage of binder, they are definitely the softest form of this medium, crumbling and breaking easily. 

Hard Pastels

Hard pastels are similar to soft pastels except they have more binder and less pigment. Hard pastels are less fragile than soft pastels, but the colors of hard pastels are a bit less vibrant. It is quite common for artists to use both hard and soft pastels in the same pastel drawing.

Often, artists use the soft pastels to lay down large swaths of bright colors and then use the hard pastels to provide fine details in the drawing.

Pastel Pencils

Pastel pencils are pastels molded into a pencil form. They can be sharpened like a pencil, but they are held and used like a pencil. The hardness of pastel pencils is between a soft pastel and a hard pastel. Again, artists may use pastel pencils in conjunction with soft pastels and hard pastels.  

Oil Pastels

Oil pastels are a great way to play with the texture and versatility of oil paints without the mess. Oil pastels are pigment mixed with oil and gum rather than a binder. This gives them an unusual texture and distinctive consistency. Oil pastels provide radiant colors without the dust and mess of traditional pastels. 

While oil pastels have a lot going for them, there are a few drawbacks. They aren’t as easily blended as traditional pastels, and you can’t use them along with the other forms of pastels. It’s harder to do detailed work with oil pastels, so they’re best suited for larger pieces of artwork. 

You can also buy water-soluble oil pastels. These specialized kinds of pastels go on the surface like a regular oil pastel. Then you can use a paintbrush to blend the artwork, or you can use a fine tipped, wet paintbrush to add detail to your oil pastel painting.

If you’ve wondered do you use water with pastels, the answer is “sometimes.” 

I have a buyer guide where I reviewed the Best 5 Oil Pastels if you would like to learn more. It opens to a new tab so you won’t lose your page here.

How Do You Draw With Pastels?

If you are used to drawing with a pen, pencil, or another medium that allows for fine detail, you may struggle at first to adapt to using pastels. Pastels can allow for fine detail in your artwork, but it takes a bit of time to adjust your technique to this beautiful medium. 

Traditional pastels are rectangular for a reason. You can use one of the sharp edges to draw with it, and you can use the flat edges of the pastel to lay down wide swaths of color. 

Pastels are not blended until they are on the paper. You can use a paper towel, a blending stump, or even your finger to blend the pastels on the sheet of paper. You may want to have a damp towel handy to wipe your hands between blendings to keep your colors pure. 

If you are happy with the blending on your paper, and you don’t want to risk over blending, you may want to add a layer of workable fixative before you add additional details to your drawing. 

To create art with pastels, you will first draw the basic outline of your drawing on the paper. You can use a traditional lead pencil or a colored pencil to make the basic drawing. The pastel itself can be smudged or smeared, so you want to use something more permanent for creating your basic outline drawing.  

Next, you will fill in the basic colors of the painting, blending the colors to create shades and depth. Usually the flat edges of the pastels are used to add lots of color at one time. Once the blending happens, you may spray fixative on the drawing to keep the colors true. Then, you can use the sharper edge of the pastel to add details to the drawing. 

Just as with any other art medium, it takes time to develop the knack to draw with pastels. Take your time and enjoy the process of learning this delightful medium. 

If you wish to learn a little more on how to use pastel sticks, I have included a very good video on the subject.

Wrap up

I hope you found this short post on How to use Pastel Sticks and the included video useful. I just love using pastels to quickly create works of art, if I am limited for time and I need instant gratification it is my go-to medium and I hope that with some practice it will become yours as well.

If you need some inspiration, click here to have a look at these well known artists who also loved creating artworks using pastels.

degas pastels
Degas was a master with pastel sticks

I have other pastel related content so if you follow these links below you can read those as well.

Feel free to share this post with your artist friends or on social media. Thank you!

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