The Soft Pastel Primer: A Guide for Beginners

choosing pastels
Manny with his lovely pastels.

Guide by Alina Bradford

Soft pastel is a fantastic medium. You can draw with it or paint. It offers the ease of portability and the simplicity of few tools. You don’t need water, brushes, or pallets. It’s just you, a stick of pastel, and your canvas.

For the most part, learning how to use pastels is just as simple. This guide will show you how.

Getting Started

To start you will need to chose your pastels. There are basically two types of soft pastels, soft and the harder varieties. You can see the difference of these two types of pastels in this picture.
The softer the pastel the more buttery the feel and easier to blend. You will probably want a mix of the two. The harder soft pastels are great for adding details.

You can also buy pastels in pencil form. These are less messy and great for detail work.

Don’t really worry about buying expensive fifty stick sets. You can get great results from cheaper twelve stick sets.

How Do You Choose a Pastel Brand?

Hard and soft Pastel
Hard and soft pastel.

Choosing a pastel brand is hard. It’s not like you can test drive the set before you buy. Here are some tips that can be helpful when deciding if a pastel set will work for your art.

Look at the Pastels

First, if the package has a clear window, peek in it to look at the quality of the pastels. Do the pastels have small holes or pits on the sides? This usually means that the pastel is of poor quality. The picture of the single, yellow pastel is an example of a poor quality pastel. Notice how it is almost shiny. The holes and pits are from air bubbles in the pastel dough as it was formed. These pastels seem to have too much binding and do not give even strokes of pigment. Some may even scratch your paper.

Pitted pastel.
Pitted pastel.

Pastels that are already broken in the package should be avoided, as well.

Next, notice what the stick looks like. If it is powdery, then the stick is more than likely a softer pastel. If the pastel has sharp, square edges or no powder or dust, than it is likely a harder pastel. Take a look at the picture of the soft and hard pastel, below. The difference is pretty clear. The blue pastel is the softer stick and the yellow pastel is the harder stick.


If the pastel’s packaging has no window so that you can take a peek, then you will need to do some research. Some pastels will proudly have endorsements on the package from prestigious art schools. If not, you may want to go online to artist chat rooms or forums and ask what the artists there prefer.

Try It

No matter how much you research a pastel brand, the best way to know if a pastel will work for you is by trial and error. A good way to make this less costly is by looking for ads from pastel companies offering trial versions of their products. You can often find these on the manufacturer’s website.

Another good place to look for trial sized versions is in art magazines. The Artist Magazine often has many trial size offers per issue. Keep an eye out for trial offers in art catalogs, too, such as Dick Blick, Jerry’s Artarama, and Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff.

If you feel frustrated, just remember, all artists have to go through this to find the perfect brand to fit their needs. It is just part of your journey as an artist.


Blending Soft PastelsBlending is the key to your pastel color versatility. You can make almost any color you need by two types of blending: layering and smudging. As you can see here: When you lay down a color and lay another color on top you get a rich, vivid color blend. When you put two colors next to each other and blend them together by smudging them with your finger or a paper stump you get a softer look.

The feel of your work is also determined by the type of canvas you use. One of the most popular types of canvas is pastel paper. Pastel paper is a lot like watercolor paper (which I use a lot), but with more grit. I also love using canvas board. No matter what you choose, the important factor is how much “tooth” or roughness the canvas has. The rougher the canvas the more pigment it grabs. If you try to use a smooth surface for your pastels the colors will all stick together and become muddy.

When starting your painting, start working with light colors first, working your way to dark. Also, work from harder to lighter to avoid too much pigment build-up.

A word of caution, work in a ventilated area and try your best not to inhale the pastel particles. Many pastelists make the mistake of blowing the pastel flakes off of their canvas. This lets loose the particles into the air, making them easier to inhale. Instead, tap your canvas onto a piece of newspaper and throw the newspaper away when you are done.

 For more on blending techniques see: Pastel Techniques You Should Know.

For more advanced techniques see: Can You Paint with Pastel?

How Do You Protect Pastel Paintings?

It is important to protect pastel paintings from smudges and tears. Artists can protect their work by using fixatives and special storing techniques.

Protecting pastel paintings by using fixatives and storage techniques can be done inexpensively and easily.

Fixative for Pastel Paintings

Fixatives are applied to pastels to keep them from smudging. They contain varnish that holds the pastel particles together. Most varieties come in aerosol cans so that the fixative can be sprayed onto the paper in an even coating.

Guy Roddon, in his book Pastel Painting Techniques, gives this recipe for making your own homemade fixative:

  1. Dissolve ½ of plain gelatin powder in two pints of warm water. 
  2. Let it sit for two hours. 
  3. Spray on fixative while it is still warm. 
  4. Use an atomizer or empty spray bottle to use the homemade fixative.

To apply fixative of any kind, follow these steps:

  1. Hold the can two feet away from your pastel painting. 
  2. Start spraying at a top corner and spray to the opposite corner. 
  3. Lower your can a few inches and repeat. 
  4. Make sure that each row makes a slow sweep across the paper. 
  5. The key here is to avoid over saturating the paper with fixative. This can dull the colors and make the pastel look like muddy paint.

Many pastel artists apply fixative after every layer or two of pastel and then put on an extra layer at the end.

For free, chemical-free fixative alternatives to make pastel paintings more stable, check out this article: Fixative Alternatives for Soft Pastels.

Pastel Storage

Storing pastels can be a dilemma. If the artist chooses not to use fixative, the art work can smudge or smear quite easily. There are several ways to store pastel paintings without much fuss and no damage.
Traditionally, many professional pastel artists will store their pastel artwork flat in a special storage unit that has shallow drawers. This flat storage unit is the best way to store paintings. Unfortunately, these units can take up a lot of space and can cost a lot of money.
Thankfully, flat storage can be simulated very easily. If the artist has a lot of wall space, the pastel paintings can be hung by making this simple “clothesline” storage system:

  1. Cut a length of strong, nylon string. 
  2. Put a cup hook on one side of the wall and another on the other side, horizontal from the first. 
  3. Tie the ends of the string to the cup hooks. 
  4. Hang pastel paintings that have been done on paper from the line with a small alligator clip on each side.

This studio storage system keeps the artworks in view, flat and safe. Make sure that this storage system is not in direct sunlight.

Another way to store pastel paintings is by rolling them. First, lay a sheet of acid-free tissue paper over the painting. Next, roll the painting so that the tissue paper and the pastel are on the inside. Finally, slide the painting into a mailing tube that is made for fine art storage.

Using these tips will keep pastel paintings nice looking for years to come.


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