On a recent trip to the mountains, I took my pastels with me.  First time on the road.  They’re messy and bulky.  And visceral.  I get my hands dirty.  It turned out to be the right thing.
Using good pastels feels like drawing with butter on sandpaper.

“Early Spring Late Afternoon, Stanislaus River”, pastel on toned, coated paper, 20×16 framed

What is pastel?

Pastel is an art medium, usually in the form of a stick, consisting of pure powdered pigment and a binder.  The pigments are the same as those used to make all colored art media, including oil paints.  The amount and type of binder varies, and gives the pastels different qualities.

Dry pastels, oil pastels and water-soluble pastels are the different types available.  I use dry pastels of different hardness in my work:  soft pastel, hard pastel, and pastel pencil.

Although pastels come in lots of pretty colors, I choose only a few for any given piece. Just like a painting, I want to keep a consistency of pigments through the piece. I use blending or juxtaposition to get a variety of color effects.

The color effect of pastels is closer to the natural dry pigments than that of any other process.  When properly protected, pastel is the most permanent of all media because it never cracks, darkens or yellows.

Working in Pastel

You’ll find experts who say that works in pastel are “drawings” and others arguing just as strongly that they’re “paintings”.  I enjoy the ambiguity.

My tools are humble: rubber fingers, old towels (wet & dry), blu-tak for lifting, Q-tips, palette knife for scraping and pushing, various old rags of different textures, and whatever else is at hand and makes it work.

Like drawing, pressure changes the quality of the line.  Turn it on its side and a little pastel can be laid down on the texture of the paper.  Then like painting, blending and mixing of color is possible.  Sometimes my fingers become my “brushes”.

Choosing Pastel

I work in oil, watercolor and dry media (primarily pencil, charcoal, and pastel).  Maintaining a fluency with these choices, I can select the medium (or media) with the properties most appropriate to the unique piece that I am making.  Here are some of the examples of why I chose pastel:

Texture & Luminosity:

For “Dirty Devil River, Utah” I used just a touch of pastel over the watercolor painting. In the foreground, I let the textures of the paper pick up a bit of luminous pastel, and then wet a few darker strokes with a brush to melt down into the rock cracks.

Quick Color:

A volunteer flower appeared in the planter out in front of the studio. It was captured quickly in pastel before wilting. “Red Flower”, pastel on Wallis paper.


For “Ocean Study II” I played with scraping pastel into the drawing to make the ‘foam’. I let the light blue of the paper show through. The drawing had to be efficient because this paper doesn’t hold much pastel and can’t be reworked.

Edges & Papers:

“River & Rock”, pastel on toned, coated paper is on the left. Pastel papers on the right: Sienna Pastelcard, black Colorfix coated paper, Wallis pastel paper.
Pastels lend a soft quality to the painting. Hard pastel pencils are less vibrant because there’s more binder, so I use soft ones when I can, resulting in a subtle softness to objects’ edges.
The papers are archival coated papers in neutral tones with a sandpaper-like texture. Letting the paper show through a little is nice. You could draw on sandpaper, but I don’t know that it’s archival.


One of the questions I’m most often asked is why I work in different media.  I do believe they feed each other, and I hope I’ve illuminated a little about why I keep pastel in the repertory.

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