Pastel Techniques and Tips
Pastel art is a skill unto it self. It requires some very specific techniques which are unique in their own way. Unlike other mediums, the biggest difference is that they smudge easily which is great when you want it to, but not so great when you don’t.
The following are some examples of my work using soft pastel pencils for detailed areas, soft pastel chalks for large areas, hard pastel chalks for highlighting, and soft pastels dissolved in a small amount of water for soft backgrounds.
Some of these paintings are available in canvas and regular prints which can also be purchased with matting and a frame. Go to pastel canvas prints and scroll down to the third line.
Drawing with Pastels
To prevent smudging, there
are several things you can do. You can:
- Use a Mahl Stick or Bridge
- Use clear tracing paper
- Work from the middle out
- Balance on you pinky in clear areas
What is a Mahl stick?
It is a stick which is
about 3 feet long and has a ball on the end of it. It is most frequently used by oil painters to keep out of wet areas, but also works great for preventing smudging of pastels. It also helps steady your hand when you are doing fine
To use the mahl, you rest the ball on a dry surface of you
work and hold it at the other end with the hand you do not paint with. You
can then just rest your painting hand on it and work without touching the
If you don’t want to buy one, you can make one easy
enough using a sturdy dowel and small pouch of soft material wrapping one
end of the dowel. You can hold the material on with a heavy rubber
I don’t like putting the end of the mahl on any part of my painting or drawing.
I have made a very simple mahl that works very well, is inexpensive, and only touches the edge of the surface.
I just got a 3 foot long dowel which was about 3/4 inch thick. I rest the side of one end on the rigid edge of my work, and cradle the other end in my non-drawing hand. Then I rest my working hand any place along the dowel that I need to, in order to work easily where I want without disturbing the pastel.
What is a Mahl Bridge?
It works the
same as the stick, but it clamps onto you canvas or drawing board in the
case of pastels and watercolors when you are working on paper. If you are
creative and a wood worker, you could make one yourself, but it is a
little more complicated that the mahl stick.
Clear Tracing Paper
I specify clear so that you distinguish it
from carbon or graphite tracing paper which will leave a residue on your
artwork. The clear tracing paper will slightly pick up some of the pastel,
but generally this is minimal and it is great for storing the work so it
does not smudge.
Care of the
There are two problems you run into
with pastel storage.
- Contamination of colors
Pastels, especially soft pastels love to pick up
moisture in the air making them softer and tending to crumble. If you
don’t have them in an air tight container, there is one simple
Put rice in the box with them and it will absorb the
moisture instead of the chalk. A quarter inch layer on the bottom is
generally sufficient. (The rice also works well for keeping your salt
from picking up moisture…an old trick I learned from my Mom many years ago.)
Contamination of Colors
If you do not store your
pastels in a container that keeps individual colors from touching each
other, then you will have cross contamination of colors when you go to use them. The solution; always wipe your pastels off with a slightly
dampened cloth before you go to use them. It will get off any residue that
may have accumulated.
Mixing Pastel Chalks with Water
I mentioned above that I combined soft pastel chalk with water to make backgrounds using water color techniques. I used this for the background of the garden painting with the cat and wheel barrel full of flowers in it. I didn’t have watercolors at the time, so this was the perfect solution for keeping color continuity through the painting, plus a really nice effect.
The following is a video demonstrating how I used the soft pastels as watercolors
I also used the mixed-media technique for doing the background of the roses. I wasn’t sure what I wanted for the background, so I did the roses first. Then came the challenge of getting a background which would fit around the all the leaves and flowers without looking like it was added later. Since watercolors will only bleed into wet areas, I wet only the background as I went along and got the results I wanted.