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How To Start Painting With Pastel- Tips For Beginners

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

Wave painting done in pastel. Closeup view of cresting wave with a teal blue palette.

Sweep 6x8", Pastel

Learning a new skill can sometimes feel like you're riding a wave of information, other times it can feel like that wave is sweeping over you. If you're new to painting with pastel here are six tips that will hopefully help you feel more like you're surfing instead of sinking.

1. Have enough pastels to make a painting.

You can't mix pastels to create a new color the way you can with other mediums, so it's really hard to create a painting with just 6 or 12 sticks of pastel. Even 20 sticks can be a challenge if you don't have the right color selection. Not having enough pastels is the biggest mistake I see new painters make, and it can absolutely hold you back and even discourage you from painting all together. For that reason, I recommend having 50-100 sticks in your palette. With 50-60 pastels you may still have moments of "I don't have the right color" but you'll likely have something in your palette that will do just fine after taking a second look.

If you want to tips for buying pastels check out these posts:

2. Build your palette with specialized sets.

I'm not a big fan of "basic" sets. In my opinion they tend to have lots of bright, middle of the road colors. When you're first starting out, my advice is to think about the type of thing you're interested in painting and get a set designed specifically for that subject. For example, if you your interested in landscapes, get a landscape or plein air set. It will give you colors that landscape painters commonly use like a larger variety of greens, and toned down hues that are more natural and therefor better suited to landscapes.

If you want more information about building a pastel palette check out my post- Tips For Building A Palette

3. Remove the wrappers.

Take the wrappers off your sticks. If you leave the wrappers on you only have the end of the stick to make marks with. When you remove the wrappers you get access to the entire width of the stick, letting you lay down larger swaths of color.

If you want to keep track of your colors once the labels are off, read my post about Making A Swatch Chart.

4. Organize your pastels into one box.

Having pastel sets in different boxes makes it hard to see what you have. Organizing all your sticks into one box (by color and value) not only makes it more convenient to see what you have, it saves time because you aren't hunting through different sets for a color, which makes painting easier! If you want to to paint plein air or take your pastels on trips, invest in a pastel case or pochade box. If travel isn't a concern, trays (with covers) or drawers are good storage solutions.

Two pastel boxes shown, the pastels inside are organized by color family, value, and temperature.

5. Try lots of materials.

There are so many ways to use use pastels. No underpainting, dry underpainting, wet underpainting, sanded or smooth papers, homemade surfaces, just to name a few. It's easy to keep going with the one way you've learned to paint, but taking time to experiment and try different materials is worth it. You may even find you like other materials better than the ones you've been using!

6. Keep Learning Pastel Techniques

If you're a new artist you're not only learning how to use pastels, you're also learning artistic principles like color theory, perspective, ratios, focal point, composition, and the list goes on. It's a lot so sometimes technique takes a backseat. Just like with materials, it's easy to learn just one way of using of pastels and stick with that, but there's a huge variety of approaches out there. Trying new techniques is how a new artist begins to build a process that's individual to them and eventually finds their own artistic voice. Learning new techniques is just as critical to artistic development as understanding color and composition. There's lots of information that can be found online with a little research. Classes and workshops are also a great way to learn!

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