Soft pastel offers vibrant colour with an immediacy that allows you to get started with a few sticks of colour and some paper. But making the right choice of materials for how you like to work can help bring greater satisfaction to the process and the results you create. Here we list the essentials and suggest additional extras to help you embark on an exciting new journey with soft pastel.
What is soft pastel?
Sticks of soft pastel are made from pure pigment powder blended in a clay binder. They are essentially lightly compressed sticks of powder with the ability to deposit strokes of intense colour. They are usually applied to textured paper or card by hand, and can be blended with fingers, a paper stump or a colour shaper. A variety of liquids can be applied to soft pastel to aid blending, including water, rubbing alcohol, acetone and oil painting solvents. However problems may arise if the surface you work on is not resistant to your blending liquid, so it is always worth checking before you start work. Because of the lack of need for brushes or tools, they are the most tactile and immediate colour form that artists can use. When using certain purpose made surfaces, pastel can be built up in layers on a surface, allowing you to control blends and textures. You can apply fixative to protect layers while you are working, and also to finished work. Unlike oil, acrylic or watercolour paint, there is no way to pre-mix colours prior to applying it to your work; modifications to colours are made through layering different shades over one another on the work itself.
Are soft pastels toxic?
The majority of pastels are made with pigments that are considered non-toxic, or with low-toxicity. Such matter will only cause harm if ingested, and even then, only significantly large quantities are likely to be a risk in most cases. However, as with all dust, pastel dust can be an irritant if you breathe it in, regardless of its toxicity. If you are applying thick layers of pastel colour we advise against blowing the dust away, as that will cause the dust to become airborne and can easily blow back. If you are particularly allergic or sensitive to dust, wearing a dust mask can help. Where possible remove excess dust from work by going outside, tilting the artwork forward and tapping it on the reverse.
Some pastels will be labelled more thoroughly than others. This is, in most cases, a reflection of heavier legislation in areas where the pastels may be sold, and is not an indication of those particular pastels being more toxic than others. More information on the health and safety labels of artist materials can be read in the article Explaining carcinogen labels on artist materials.
How to choose soft pastel colours
Soft pastels are available in more colour shades than most paint ranges, because of the inability to pre-mix colours. An assorted colour range is a great investment for starters, as it will offer colours across the whole spectrum. As you gain experience it will become apparent which colours you are drawn to most, and where in the colour spectrum you might like to invest in additional shades in order to narrow the gaps between colours and tones in your collection.
If you know what colours you are likely to want to work with – perhaps you’re planning on working on some pastoral landscapes, for example – a number of sets are especially curated to offer an ideal palette for specific subjects. Sets such as the various Portrait or Landscape colour sets available in a number of the leading soft pastel brands, will comprise a selection of colours across the colour spectrum that will be useful for that particular subject matter. Other sets such as the ones offered by Jackson’s, comprise a number of varying shades of the same colour. These sets can be collected over time so that eventually you have the full set in your collection, with the ability to buy individual sticks of colour to replace those you have used up.
The best quality pastels will have the purest and brightest looking colours. They will have more sticks made with single pigments. They have the optimum proportion of pigment to binder in their formulation, and are also assembled with a light touch to guarantee a texture that allows the colour to look its best. This often means the sticks are delicate and can crumble, and so should be handled with care. This is why soft pastel sticks are sent in boxes with foam inserts to protect them, which also offer a good storage solution long term.
Soft pastels that are considered excellent quality may appear more uniform in shape than some of the highest quality, hand rolled soft pastels. They may also contain more binder, making them less crumbly but also less highly pigmented. Some of the shades may have multiple pigments in their formulation – usually quantities of white is added to a colour to make a range of tones of one colour. While this adds convenience to the range of colours, the resulting hues will inevitably be less bright than single pigment soft pastels.
Mid-range soft pastels are good quality soft pastel brands that are ideal for exploring the medium without compromising too much on quality.
Lesser grades of soft pastel, such as those found in a discount craft shop, can feel scratchy to apply and colours will appear significantly less bright than artist soft pastels.
What paper can I use for soft pastel?
Soft pastels are best applied to paper or card with texture as the friction this offers makes it easier to deposit colour and hold it in place. It is possible to use cartridge paper for quick sketches, but special pastel papers and cards allow for a greater number of layers to be applied. Heavier textured surfaces are generally favoured for more finished works.
Pastel papers and cards fall into 2 main groups – those with a light texture formed on the surface of the sheet, and those which are coated with a texture, which could be soft microfibres, known as velour, fine cork particles, or grit.
Coated papers tend to hold more layers than uncoated papers, with the nature of the coating having a direct impact upon the appearance of pastel marks. Velour papers are best for soft blended effects, while gritty papers can hold vibrant dynamic marks in place. Uncoated Ingres and honeycomb texture papers are all you need if you’re looking to make quick, sketches with only a few layers.
In order to make the right choice of surface for your pastel work, consider whether you intend to make labour intensive work or quick sketches, whether you intend to build up a lot of layers and incorporate a lot of detail, or simply apply a few strokes as a means of developing ideas. Also consider what scale you wish to work at. Although there are no hard and fast rules, I would suggest a pad of uncoated paper (Ingres or honeycomb such as Murano) for observational sketches or idea development, larger coated sheets for more finished works, gritty paper for wide tonal range and expressive marks, and velour for softer transitions of colour.
If you would love to try and compare a wide variety of pastel papers and cards, these sample packs are available, so you can give each a try before investing in a pad or larger quantity of sheets.
Pastel Paper Comparison Table
Our table compares the content, texture, formats available, weight and colours of artist pastel papers. Click the image below to enlarge, or download our PDF version here to print.
If you want to invest in the bare minimum to give soft pastel a try, some pastels and a surface is literally all you need. However read on for some very useful additional extras.
Erasing soft pastel
A putty eraser can help to lift away colour, while harder erasers can on occasion push soft pastel particles deeper into the texture of your surface. The key when removing soft pastel is delicacy. A soft piece of crustless bread is a surprisingly useful soft pastel eraser. Blow on the area or use a soft brush to brush away any excess colour that may be sitting on the surface of your work prior to erasing for a more successful lifting of colour from your surface.
Fingers can become very messy very quickly, and rough surfaces can make your fingers sore after a while, so in time you may want to get some additional blending tools. Colour shapers are made from silicone and are easy to wipe between blends. There are extra firm, firm and soft varieties – the soft ones are recommended for delicate blends while the firm ones can be used for applying more pressure and drawing out fine details.
Sofft tools are made for use with PanPastel – cakes of soft pastel colour, but they can also be used to blend regular soft pastel. The Sofft Tools range includes sponges of varying shapes and sizes. The smaller sponges fit on to a plastic handle to make controlled blending easier.
Chamois leather is another useful blending tool, and can also be used to lift colour when more pressure is applied.
If you really prefer to blend with fingers but want to protect your fingers, latex or nitrile gloves can help.
All of these tools can also be dipped in water to help aid blending, or alternatively Tim Fisher’s Soft Pastel Liquefier is an alcohol based, fast evaporating medium that allows you to create watercolour effects with your soft pastel when lightly sprayed over marks.
There are 3 main ways to protect soft pastel works.
Glassine – for protecting work in storage
Glassine is a glossy greaseproof paper that is designed to protect artworks from smudging. It is used to interleave sheets in some pastel paper pads, such as those made by Sennelier. Loose sheets of glassine can be purchased in packs or singularly and are useful to keep in supply, for interleaving between stored works, or for wrapping pastel works prior to posting them. Glassine is also great for protecting hard pastel, oil pastel works in all drawing media.
Fixative – for protecting work while in progress
Fixative is sprayed on to pastel works to stabilise the media, hold it in place and protect it from dust. A variety of fast drying liquids are used as a base for fixative, including alcohol, casein and resin. For a comprehensive comparison of a variety of fixatives read Fixatives are not all the same.
Fixatives can darken the appearance of colours but are useful in securing pastel marks throughout the picture making process, as well as a final protective coat.
Glass – for protecting and presenting finished works
Arguably the most secure way to protect soft pastel work is by framing it behind glass, although of course this is also likely to be the most space consuming solution as well. As with all work on paper, it is best to have a gap between the work and the glass, to allow any humidity to circulate away from the work, and prevent any shifts in the position of the glass smudging the work. A window mount offers a good solution to this, or alternatively the use of spacers in your frame.
Surface preparations for soft pastel
Pastel ground is primer that dries with a gritty finish, well suited as a surface for soft pastel work. They are acrylic based. Schmincke and Golden offer transparent primers while Art Spectrum offers a range of colour pastels primers to match the colour cards that are in their range.
Keeping your pastels safe in a box
Soft pastels can break easily. A sturdy wooden box with foam inserts is the perfect long term storage for them as your colours will stay separate and clean, protected from harsh knocks that are likely to cause breakages, and with a little discipline, organised to help you locate the colour you need quickly! Click here to browse pastel storage boxes.
Easels for pastellists
A feature of easels that will benefit pastel work is the ability to tilt work forwards so that pastel dust can fall away from work without smudging it. H-frame and radial easels will tilt forward while only some A-frame easels will, such as the Jackson’s A-Frame easel and the Mabef Lyre easel. Smaller easels such as sketching or field easels will tilt forward as will the majority of H-frame table box easels.
Combining soft pastel with other media
So long as the surface can accommodate it, soft pastel can be combined with a wide variety of media. Because pastel primers are acrylic based, it is quite possible to prime a surface with pastel ground and then combine soft pastel with acrylic paint in a single work.
The texture of rough and cold pressed watercolour papers will hold soft pastel marks in place to a degree, and combining this quality with their water solubility makes soft pastel an ideal companion to watercolour, making it possible to combine powdery textures with dilute washes and vibrant watercolour brushstrokes. It is best to protect soft pastel and watercolour works behind glass or with a few thin layers of spray varnish (testing the varnish elsewhere before use, as it is likely to have an impact on the appearance of colours).
Additionally, soft pastel can be combined with hard pastel, which can offer crisper lines and a different quality to soft pastel. Pastel pencils could also be used for adding fine detail or outlines to a soft pastel work. Adding oil pastel to a soft pastel work can add a contrasting waxy textural quality.
It is often true that the simplest tools are the most versatile, and soft pastel is certainly a good example of this. From hyperreal pet portraits to vibrant colour field installations, soft pastel is capable of a wide range of textures and effects, with the potential to offer a lifetime’s fascination.
Soft Pastel Supplies at Jackson’s
Further reading on the Jackson’s Art Blog