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Wednesday, February 03, 2016

So You Want to Try Pastels....Three Suggestions

'Limitless'           9x12        pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $150
 I have three simple suggestions for success with pastels. You want to give soft pastels a try or  maybe you have but didn't like them or you weren't as successful as you would have liked....It is important to have a good start. These suggestions are for anyone who wishes to have success with pastels. There is so much to share but I will simplify and give just three tips.

1.  Make sure you invest in a few GOOD ARTIST QUALITY PASTELS. Buy the best you can afford
     even just to 'try them out' and I'll explain why.         

2. Use good pastel paper. Sanded papers are good but there are unsanded papers that work well with 
    GOOD pastels. Avoid using regular smooth sketchbook paper.

3. Practice your touch and apply the pastel with a LIGHT TOUCH. You can always press harder
    when needed but work at developing the sensitivity of a light touch....it is the key to successful 
    pastel painting.

These three tips are just the tip of the iceberg that is the wonderful world of pastels but it is a start. Read on as I explain the reasons for suggestion #1.


You need good pastels but you don't need thousands of them! You will want them once you get hooked but to get started you can do just fine with a set of 60-100 pastels. I painted today's wildflower landscape with a set of  60 Terry Ludwig pastels (Richard McKinley collection) All you need is a good range of values from a few rich darks to a beautiful colorful lights along with a variety of intense colors and muted grayed colors. This set has all of those things. There are several artist quality soft pastel sets that come in half-sticks. These sets are a good value and will give you a good start. I like Sennelier, Unison and Great American half sticks. Visit Dakota Pastels for a closer look.

Terry Ludwig set of 60 soft pastels....Ricjard McKinley collection

The most important thing is that you start with an artist quality set of soft pastels. If you have ever tried to drive an old car on it's last legs with manual everything then you know it will get you to your destination....but it will not be fun and it may be a struggle. Compare that to driving any luxury car with brand new everything.....it is a much better ride and you get to your destination faster and in comfort.
Pastels are the same.  Cheap ones  on cheap paper will allow you to paint but it may not be as easy or you may not like the results. The good pastels and paper are like a luxury car....you have a much better chance of enjoying the ride and getting good results!

I know. Nobody wants to spend money on supplies until they know they will use them and like them. So it is only natural to want to go to the local hobby store and buy a cheap box of pastels....just to try them out. The problem is these cheap pastels are like old cars....hard to make them work well.

  • An issue with the cheap pastels is that they tend to be on the hard side with more binder than pigment. It is hard to get wonderful fresh and juicy marks with them. 
  • The cheap sets have another drawback. They tend to consist of challenging colors....often they are mostly bright intense colors with no rich darks or lights only a black and white. Think crayon box colors. Paintings done with these colors and no neutrals will often look artificial...the greens are especially troublesome in the cheap sets. 
Often artists will get a cheap set and struggle and decide they don't like pastels or they aren't a good fit for them. (I hear this a lot!)  It usually isn't the artist but instead it is the pastels and papers they are using.

So the most important bit of advice I can offer to to treat yourself to the best quality pastels you can afford. If for some reason you don't like them you can always sell them on eBay!

My recommendation: 
You cannot go wrong with any set of pastels from Terry Ludwig. His pastels are handmade and come in the most wonderful range of colors and values. They are soft without being crumbly. The square shape allows for a wide variety of marks. Visit the website and have a look at the sets. They are all good. Choose the set that fits the subject matter you like to paint. www.terryludwig.com

Tomorrow I will talk about suggestion #2....Paper!

Beginning a painting with a quick drawing

The block-in....putting in the darks, lights and most intense colors

Close-up....Terry Ludwig pastels allow for a variety of marks

 You have come to the right place for pastel and general painting tips. My blog is filled with several years of daily posts about painting and pastels. Just use the search box or browse the archives. located on the sidebar.
I also have pastel demos in PDF format available in my Etsy shop here.


tammy said...

Great post, as usual, Karen! One suggestion I might offer if someone is really budget-limited would be to try Terry's "Best Loved Basics" set of 14. It's very affordable and I've been able to paint complete landscapes using only that set, often taking it on location when I want to travel really light!

Sue Corcoran said...

Beautiful painting Karen (as they are every day!).
Also some great tips here. I got a friend to try pastels by going monochrome! I told him to just buy black through some greys to white. He really enjoyed it, added to which he didn't need to worry about colours or underpainting colours. He soon went back to buy some colours! I think the main thing with newbies to pastels is finding whether they like the 'feel' of pastels.

Karen said...

Great idea Sue! Monochrome is a great way to get the feel of pastels without worrying about color. I still would advice choosing GOOD quality pastels even in monochrome. You want to make sure you are test driving the luxury car even without color. Thanks for sharing. I really like your tip of monochrome!

robertsloan2art said...

Great post! I'll second Tammy on the "14 Best Loved Basics" set, it is a great little palette for landscapes with all the essential colors. I'd recommend for a 60 color set the Maggie Price Values set, which goes around the spectrum with matching value ranges in every hue evenly and includes muted colors. That set is truly balanced for any subject with its value ranges and brights-muted colors. It lacks a strong green but that's something Terry does, there aren't many full saturation greens - might not be any from the online images, if I saw them in person I might be able to pick out one.

Great American's 60 color half sticks set is a little less expensive and also includes a full spectrum more or less organized by value. The box on both of these makes them easy to use, easy to see where a color goes or to find the exact tint I need when I want a pale blue the same value as the pale pink I just used.

I keep meaning to get the Maggie Price set of Ludwigs but now I'm not sure if I'd have too many duplicates in it. To me the Richard McKinley set has a number of near duplicates, close colors in both hue and value, leans heavy toward lights, not enough darks. But each their own, I can see your palette may fit Richard's better.

It's wicked though, Terry Ludwig puts together so many interesting sets. That 30 color Grays set is a lot of fun too but it's not as essential as the Values set.

Unisons half sticks either 63 or 120 colors are organized the same way as the Maggie Price set and much easier to see what I have, reach for what I need than some other assortments. It helps having the color wheel visible by hues in one direction, values in another.

I've tried one of the Blick Artists' sticks, got a sample bright orange-red that was soft and good quality. Blick's artist grade house brand stuff is usually good quality, they're comparable to Daler Rowney and may actually be made by Daler Rowney under Blick's name. Half sticks sets are a good bargain, the only brand you mentioned that doesn't have one is Terry Ludwig - half of a Ludwig stick would be a cube.

Sennelier half sticks sets are quite reasonable and a good starter if you have or want to cultivate a light hand. They really need it though!

Anonymous said...

Make sure you are not allergic to pastel dust before you invest a lot of money.
Take a beginners' class. That is a good test with so much pastel dust in the air.
I have asthma and my eyes get red and my lungs suffer when I am painting in a classroom setting. I paint at home in a room with two air cleaners on and I wear gloves and a mask. I love pastels too much to give them up. Health comes first!!!

Nancy L. Vance said...

Here's another suggestion for tips for beginners. Remind them to work with the surface vertical so that any dust falls down where you can collect it and dispose of it. Don't BLOW on the surface, just tap so dust falls. Blowing pastel DOES put it in the air, but if you let it fall down naturally, you won't need air cleaners/masks, etc.