Starting out with soft pastels

Where to begin?

With so many art materials available to us out there, it can be difficult to know where to start. My “safe” zone for many years was graphite and coloured pencil but even with those, now that I know more, I realise I was only using them to a tiny fraction of their potential.

I remember trying pastel when I was doing my Foundation Art & Design course at Wolverhampton Polytechnic many moons ago. I did a still life in soft pastel of some toys I had at the time, I was really pleased with the result and I think I still have the painting lurking in the garage somewhere.  I also used them in a life drawing class where, as a cool student with a casual attitude, I was always late. This one particular week I was late of course and there was only one seat left. We had, what you might call, a vibrant model who was lain in a very uncompromising position. This very apparent seat had clearly been avoided for that reason and so this was my comeuppance for being late. 

Once seated I decided I wanted to spend as little time as possible looking at the vision before me. How to achieve this? Throw lots of colour at my painting to distract attention! I learned some very valuable lessons that day:

  • Don’t be late
  • Look at form in shapes and tones
  • Fudge areas you don’t want to or can’t draw
  • Use colour – if you see a colour, put it in there

The result was a vibrant painting and I loved it and earned forgiveness from my tutor for my tardiness. Another painting that I kept and currently lurks in the garage.

I wanted to be an illustrator but opportunities back then were limited and I ended up going into Graphic Design which shaped my future as an artist. My style is tight and detailed and, of course, we all want what we don’t have so I yearn to be loose. Later in life I returned to pastels thinking they may help, oblivious to how much things had moved on. The vast choices with regard to pastels, colours, textures, papers, liquid mediums were mind blowing. I dabbled for a while whilst watching other artists creating fabulous pieces of work. These artists were also extremely generous with their advice and I learned such a lot from their kindness.

I try to pass this kindness on when people ask me about methods and how I achieve certain things. In my pastel workshops I often hear people say they feel frustrated as they have tried every medium out there but can’t seem to settle. Pastels are a great starting point for this – they are loose, forgiving, versatile and you don’t have to spend a fortune starting out. I get a huge amount of pleasure, seeing a student coming in for the first time looking apprehensive, being apologetic as they’re, “not very good”, assuming that all the students are way better than they are. They take one look at the lesson plan for that day and assume they will never be able to create it. Fast forward to home time and they leave with a lovely picture accompanied by a cheesy grin.

Techniques and work-arounds are a huge part of art, just being shown the way can make all the difference. Not all of us specialise in a medium, some of us are born to dabble. Soft pastels can be a huge confidence giver, especially on a textured paper. Make a mistake? Rub it away or just go over it and the problem is gone. Put off by the dust? Try velour, it hangs onto the pastel resulting in far less dust. Don’t like the feel of the chalk? Use pastel pencils. Prefer to paint? Give Pan Pastels a go or add a liquid medium. Prefer tight detail? Great, pastel pencils are the way forward. Want a textured finish? Lots of papers out there to help with that. Mixed media? Add whatever you like! Heavier papers will take paints and washes.

Pastels will take you from an abstract, to a loose seascape to a hyper realistic portrait, they can be whatever you need them to be. The big question I often hear as a tutor, “What brand should I buy?”

Well this depends on what it is you want and where you are as a pastel artist. It is easy to think a cheap set will get you going and you can buy more after that if you take to it, especially when there is a budget to consider. There is some truth to this but, the cheaper the set, the less pigment you have and more binder. You will use so much more pastel trying to get the effect you want with limited success. If you prefer sets, then go for mid range as a minimum. A better option is to choose your starting colours carefully and purchase sticks in an excellent brand such as Unison. Not only will they be a dream to use but you will get the vibrancy you dream of with overall value. Less binder so you need less pastel to get the result you want.

Another thing to bear in mind is that, whilst your new pastels may look like a thing to behold in their pristine labels, sat in their immaculate box, they are there to be used, primed and ready for action! Break them into manageable sizes and get busy, your new purchase will be your best friend. Don’t worry about the mistakes as, who knows, they may lead to a happy accident. If, at the end of it all, you haven’t got any on your face then you haven’t been using them properly. Us artists are supposed to be grubby, it’s a way of life.

Not sure what paper to go for? The SAA offer mixed pastel paper trial packs at a great price with a variety of papers, ideal for when you are starting out. Need a hand to get going? You Tube is an endless resource of How To videos and tutorials, there are 1000’s of artists across Social Media but if you prefer a more hands on approach then look for a local workshop. These are also great for interacting with other artists, they can be a great source of inspiration and offer a sense of community.

When I took my first steps with pastels, never did I imagine where they would take me both as an artist and a tutor. Moving to Unison pastels enabled me to turn a corner with the quality of my work which, in turn lead to enquiries for demonstrations and workshops. I now demo and tutor regularly both for art societies and hold my own workshops. I never planned to teach but I get as much out of it as my students. It has opened my eyes to see art used as therapy in my own community, it is an escape for so many people and there is a joy in seeing artists flourish. Beginners who make their first sale, I’m sure we all remember how fabulous that felt. Nervous artists who come to groups quiet and reserved, soon to be chatty and bubbly and making new friends. Art offers a certain freedom and confidence, embrace it, tis’ a wonderful thing and who knows where it will take you.

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