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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Drawing Theory
Design

Introduction to Traditional Media: Chalk Pastels

This post is part of a series called Introduction to Traditional Media.
Introduction to Traditional Media: Pencils, Charcoal, Erasers and More
Introduction to Traditional Media: Oil Paints
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

In this tutorial I will introduce you to chalk pastels, what they are, and how to use them, setting you on the path to bright and colourful work that never fades and can be done at home or out and about.

Why Pastels?

I have to admit that pastels are my absolute favourite medium to work in. The vibrancy of the huge selection of colours is wonderful, while the detail you can achieve often surprises. You only need a piece of paper and a pastel and you are off, no other materials. You can quickly achieve a finished piece either at home or outside, and you don’t have to wait for anything to dry.

For me, painting with pastels is about taking advantage of a series of subtleties, and I consider many aspects of the work in front of me:

  • the different shades of pastel sticks and pencils I am working with
  • the colour of paper or card I have chosen (should I let it shine through my painting or not?)
  • the colours I have already laid down, and what effect I can get with new colours on top
  • how blending with my finger will change what I have already done
  • whether I am brave enough to leave clear strokes unsmudged

What Chalk Pastels Are Not

Chalk

They are not the stuff teachers use on blackboards, or what children use to draw with on the pavement. Chalk is made with calcium carbonate mixed with a bit of colour and is generally very pale and quite hard.

Oil Pastels

Like chalk pastels, oil pastels are made with pure pigment, but oil pastels are mixed with a non-drying oil and a wax binder, and can be used with turpentine to form a paste.

1. Pastels

Pastel Sticks

Pastels are pure powdered pigment, mixed with a small amount of binder. This makes them softer than chalk and much more versatile. They range in colour from soft shades to very bright and are brilliant for creating large or small paintings, inside or outside.

Squared pastels

Some pastels are harder than others, and I find that there is little difference (just their make) between them. I use both to cover large areas and for detail—one is just more crumbly than the other. It tends to be the colours that I go for.

Rounded Pastels

There are also two shapes of pastels, round and squared. Again, I use both, for large areas and detail. However, I like to take advantage of the different stroke shapes they give me. Below is an example of fur from a much larger painting of a howling wolf. You can see a variety of strokes where I used both round and square pastels, but I deliberately used the edge of the square to give the fur a more matted feel.

Hint

When you start your drawing, don't sketch it out in pencil, as chalk doesn't cover it very well. Use a pastel pencil, or if you don't have any, a conte pencil or charcoal or, of course, a pastel stick.

Wolf Fur

What Should You Buy?

You can buy packs of pastels, containing a selection of colours. Inscribe offer a good starter box, but go for the 48 colours as they have a variety of different shades, and the price is very reasonable. However, the pastels are quite hard, a bit gritty and can be difficult to manipulate subtly. Try to avoid sets that have lots of bright colours, because as you work, you will find this limiting.

Sennelier are an absolute joy to work with. They feel so smooth to handle, and the choices of colours in their starter sets are wonderful. You can buy boxes of pastels specifically for landscape, mid tones and dark tones, and they even have fun ones that are metallic and iridescent. However, they are much more expensive than Inscribe.

You can also see in the photograph of the squared pastels that I carry them around in a small tool box. I cut down their foam packing to fit them in. This has allowed me to store them on a small scale and to take them with me with ease when I am working outside. The cardboard boxes they come in fall to pieces after a while, or the pastels simply fall out if you hold the box at the wrong angle.

Pastel Pencils

Pastel Pencils

As I said before, I love pastels, but I love pastel pencils more than anything. I can get amazing details with them, and they sit beautifully on top of pastel sticks. They have exactly the same pigment base, but are just surrounded by wood—it makes them less messy too. However, I find that pastel pencils need to be used with pastel sticks, which I use for background and large areas.

Cheetah Eye and Fur

This is the eye of a cheetah (again from a much larger painting). I have used rounded pastels as a base, and for all the fur and detail, my pastel pencils. Pastel pencils can be used to lay down colour as well as for blending.

The only problem is sharpening them, and the only way to do it is carefully. I use a sharpener, or if I want a squared-off tip, a very sharp, small-bladed knife that I take my time using.

What Should You Buy?

There are a number of good makes: Derwent, Faber Castell Pitt, or Stabilo. Go for a set that has tones and shades of the same colour in their box sets—sets of 24 or larger. Derwent seem to do this best and have the widest variety of colour choices, but I am biased, as they are the ones that I use most of all.

If you are unsure of pastel pencils, you can easily buy them individually to see if you would like to use them.

I also use a carry wrap for my pencils (which you can see above). It keeps them safe, holds them together, and makes it easy to cart large numbers of pencils around.

2. Additional Tools

I know I said before that all you need is some paper and a pastel to start creating, but there are some tools that I use to help me along the way.

Additional Pastel Tools

Hairspray/Fixative

I use hairspray instead of fixative, because fixative is incredibly expensive, and hairspray does just as good a job. Once I've laid down my initial colours, I use this to fix them so I can then draw on top—or if I've made a mistake that I want to go over. 

The grittiness of hairspray (experiment with the different types of holds to find which one you like) allows for a textured base to continue your drawing. However, hairspray or fixative both change the colours of the pastels, making them darker. As a result, I never fix my drawings once I finish them. I'll go into how I get around that in Section 5, Storage and Transportation.

Mahl Stick

This, to me, is indispensable. The suede ball at the end is soft but not squashy, and the stick itself ranges in size, which is adjustable. I place it across my work on the right, the ball resting on my board, holding the other end in my left hand. I then lean my right hand on the stick as I draw. It stops me from smudging my work.

Blending Stubs

I use these as well as my fingers for smudging and drawing into my pastel. The different sizes and their points allow you to be very detailed in your work. They are particularly brilliant for fur, hair and grasses.

Sandpaper

This is for taking away areas that I think are mistakes, almost like an eraser. It can also restore spots that are becoming difficult to draw over—this sometimes happens when you overwork part of your drawing, making the chalk compacted.

Stencil

You place it on your drawing and use whichever of the holes you wish, drawing over it with your pastel to leave a shape on your painting (below). I have to admit it is not something I use often.

Pastel Stencil

What Should You Buy?

If you are unsure of what to get first, I would recommend strong hold hairspray, a mahl stick and blending stubs. Everything else is useful, but you can do without.

3. Work Surfaces: Paper, Card and Alternatives

Whatever surface you choose to work on, you will always need one with texture—anything smooth will not take pastel.

Below is a small choice of papers and cards that you can use.

Pastel papers

Pastel Paper

Around a 160 gms pastel paper can be found in sketchbooks or individually. There are normally about six colours within a sketchbook. They come in a variety of sizes, depending on your preferences, and the colours vary.

Pastelmat

This is a joy to work on. It is by Clairefontaine and feels like a slightly rough cork. You rarely need fixative (hairspray in my case). However, I find the sizes can be limiting as, for me, the pads tend not to be big enough—I do like to work large.

Mountboard

This is what I prefer to work on. It has enough of a texture to take my paintings and at the same time is heavy enough for me to cart around without risking folding or creasing. The sheets can also be A1 (594 x 841 mm, 23.4 x 33.1") in size, which allows me to work on a large scale and then cut down my painting if necessary. The colours vary wonderfully and I can get the dark shades I like—there are plenty of paler and muted ones too.

Notepaper and Craft Paper or Card

As long as they have a texture, use them. As you can see above, I have even got a card that has sparkles through it—just to see what kind of effect it might have.

Sandpaper

Sandpaper can also be used, would you believe. There are a number of grades of grit to it, starting at coarse, but I would recommend super fine or ultra fine, because anything rougher will eat your pastels.

Colour

The colour of paper you choose really does have an effect on your painting. As the paper is textured, the chalk sits on the surface, leaving small patches of the paper to shine through. It can have an effect on the colours of pastel you are using and the overall atmosphere of your work. As you can see below, where I have circled on a very rough sketch of a beach, the pale blue of the paper I used still comes through.

Beach sketch on blue paper

I have to admit, I like drama, so tend to avoid paler colours (unlike above), and veer towards dark greys, blues and, on the odd occasion, black. These shades allow the pastels to jump off the page, I feel, letting you make bold statements out of the palest of colours. You can get bright colours too, and there are a number of well-known artists who prefer to use them. The choice is yours.

What Should You Buy?

You can buy pastel paper in a sketchbook format, and try to find ones that have tissue paper between the sheets which will protect your work. However, if you are buying one on the internet, be careful as they don't always show you which colours are included. Winsor & Newton and Derwent would be a good choice for straightforward paper. But, if you don't mind spending a bit more, I really do recommend Clairefontaine's pastelmat.

Mountboard comes in individual sheets, and a variety of colours and sizes.

Then again, have a look around your house for any textured note paper, or extra-fine sandpaper—they will do the job too.

4. Supporting Your Work

While you are working, you need to find a method of support that suits you.

Table Top

You can easily work on a table top. Just cover it in newspaper, as pastel dust gets everywhere and for some reason turns to a dark grey, no matter what colours you have been using. You will find that you will blow on your work to remove dust, and this pushes it all over the place.

Easel

Support - easel

I prefer to stand when I work, and when I am painting on mountboard, I use an easel. I attach a large piece of MDF (you can use any kind of unbending wood) to the easel, and then use bulldog clips to secure my painting in place. This way, the chalk dust falls into the cradle at the bottom of the easel and is less likely to get everywhere. The board is also large enough for me to lean my mahl stick upon without touching my work.

Wall

Support - wall

As I said above, I prefer to stand when I work, and when I work on paper, or a smaller piece of mountboard, I simply tape (using masking tape) it to a wall. As you can see, though, the wall will get dirty.

5. Storage and Transportation

Because I never fix my finished work, I need to protect it when I am either storing or transporting it. The solution is very simple.

I use high-grade, smooth tracing paper, and wrap the painting like a present. I make sure that all the folds and masking tape are at the back of the painting, allowing me to see through clearly to the work at the front (it makes it easy to find). This way, I can pile it on shelves, in drawers, place it in a portfolio, or safely transport it to a framer.

6. Framing

Framing a pastel painting isn't as straightforward as other media.

Always frame pastel behind glass. That way, no one can put their stick fingers on your work and smudge it, and unwelcome dust is kept off it.

Even if you decide to fix a painting after you have finished it, pastel dust will drop off, and it will gather in the corners of your frame (below), eventually making it look grimy.

Dust in the corner of the frame

The solution is for your framer to create a small gap between your painting and its frame, allowing dust to drop between (below). As you can see, it is hardly noticeable. However, I should mention that not all framers know of this method, so you will need to ask them about it and, if necessary, tell them what you want.

Clean frame corner

Conclusion

Pastels are a joy to work with, and you will see results almost immediately. Experiment with using both pastel sticks and pencils, their accessories and different boards and papers, to find what suits you best. Although they can be a bit messy, they are easily cleaned up with soap and water (including your clothes and the floor).

Pastels are very transportable, are perfect for working with outside, and cover large areas quickly. They are also easy to obtain. Nearly all art shops will stock pastels, and you can get vast choices of colours online.

Have fun!

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