Three Great Pastel Painting Techniques

Soft pastels are popular because they combine bright colors with being an easy medium to work with. You could be walking past the studio area in your home, decide on a whim that you can afford to devote five minutes to a work-in-progress, and be adding to it literally seconds later. However, this ease doesn’t mean that working with pastels is free of technique – far from it. Here are three of the best.

1) Start with a drawing phase.

The ease with which you can add pastel pigment to your art paper actually means that more time should be devoted to planning and sketching than for other mediums. Otherwise you might find that you inadvertently wreck your artwork due to over-enthusiasm.

Artist Willow Charcoal is one of the best sketching tools for pastel artists, as it blends well with pastels and you can easily manipulate it on the surface or wipe it off using just your hand. Use it to sketch out your design, using a reference photo if you have one.

Once you’ve sketched out your design and you have the composition you want, you want to mark where the accents are – i.e. the brightest highlights and the deepest shadows. Use a white soft pastel for the highlights, and you can use either a dark soft pastel or just go on using the charcoal for the shadows. This step forces you to consider the number and position of your light sources, which is essential.

When you finish this sketching phase you should have a really good idea of where the artwork is going, even though there’s barely any color on the paper yet. With that done, you can work more freely on adding color.

2) Vary your pressure to create different effects.

How hard you press your pastel sticks against the paper is one of the big variables when working with pastels. Press harder and you’ll get a deeper, richer color. Back off the pressure and you can make delicate lines and shading effects.

Scumbling is the technique of using the side of a pastel stick and dragging it with light pressure across an area of a different color that you’ve already put down on your paper. This creates a sort of ‘broken color’ effect that works really well to represent clouds, fog, or distant elements of a landscape.

Light pressure is also used for hatching, which is laying down a series of lines close together. It’s great for shading.

Heavier pressure is used for laying down bold areas of color or shadow on your surface. You can put down layers on top of one another and then use a graffito technique (i.e. scratching or scraping through the top layer of pigment) to reveal the bottom layer through the top one.

3) Rubbing is your friend.

Rubbing is probably the most-used technique in pastels. Rubbing the pigment with a tool (like a paper stump) or with a finger or hand after it has been put down on the surface can have many effects. It can soften and blur the pigment (which otherwise can look quite ‘defined’ due to the tooth of the surface), or to blend adjacent areas of color, or to create gradations, or all of those at the same time! Because pastel colors can’t be mixed on a palette, they can only be mixed on the surface, and so rubbing and blending them together is also a way of creating new colors. Experiment with rubbing, and you’ll quickly find how useful it is.

Trying out different methods of pastel techniques can make all the difference in the world to your paintings.

Emma Ralph is an experienced pastel artist. To discover other pastel painting techniques visit