Pastel is a fantastic medium. Pastels are perfect for the vibrant hues of fall because it is easier to get opposing hues on the color wheel (like red vs. green) to lay down on the surface and not combine into mud!
I’ll never forget my first experience with this pure, intense pigment driven medium. I purchased a small set of Pastels and enrolled in private lessons with a local artist. She explained that we were going to lay down the first layer of pastel on a colored ground and I selected my first stick.
As I laid down a stroke the impact of the color and the vibrancy was so intense and tactile that I started screaming: “ Holy Smokes! Holy Smokes! This is INCREDIBLE!!” Well, I didn’t use those exact words, ahem.
She looked up quizzically and must have thought that she had a student verging on going crackers right in front of her.
By the end of the first lesson she said that she had gotten a little jaded in creating art and my astonishment and joy had reinvigorated her. Ha!
Sometimes it is just so astonishing to use pastels!
If you are at all influenced by color, the very act of laying down a pastel stroke can be very satisfying to say the least.
I am still a newbie to pastel and by no means an expert, but I have learned a bit along the way that I hope to share with you.
Jump Ahead To:
Dry Pastel requires a textured surface to paint on. There are all kinds of papers and boards that you can purchase or you can get yourself a jar of textured ground and create your own surface. It has pumice or marble texture in the ground to give it a texture.
The more granulated the texture of the support, the more layers of pastel the surface will hold. A super-fine paper texture won’t hold much pastel at all, but you can blend and blend to get a painterly satin finish.
For the demonstration below I used Colorfix pastel paper in Storm Blue and my goal is to have the paper show through the color strokes and have rougher textured finish.
Orange Flower Demo
I changed up the color palette because it’s fun to see the different looks you can achieve with different sets of colors. I kept the theme of opposites on the color wheel though, and decided on an orange top flower.
Step One: Grid
Create a grid over your reference photo or sketch so you can accurately see how to transfer the images onto the paper. This is a bad photo, because after I was done the paper started to warp in the humidity here, but truly, my photo and my grid lines were exactly square and equidistant.
To make a grid, measure the photo and find the center point lines horizontally and vertically then draw them in like a crosshair on a target. Then subdivide each quadrant in half once again and you end up with four boxes by four boxes.
I like to draw on the black and white print the edges of the petals etc because when you print a color photo in black and white, the color values are not in their hues (pink, yellow, green etc.) any more, they are in a black and white value range. Here, the distant pink petals were the SAME VALUE range as the green background and in black and white the same values merge into one shape, almost indecipherable from one another. I plan on changing the values of the petals and the background and pump up the chroma of the hues so that the petals really pop!
Pro Hint Number One:
Draw the grid onto your paper using a different color than you plan on using for the flowers because it helps to not get confused as you add more and more lines to the sketch.
I used a medium blue pastel pencil for the grid lines and a light grey pastel pencil by Derwent for the shape outlines. You could use a NuPastel by Prismacolor or vine charcoal as well.
Transfer the drawing to the pastel surface going box by box and copy exactly what you see in each box. Don’t worry about tiny details, just get the basic shapes positioned.
Pro Hint Number Two:
Keep a good area of the paper to the right blank so that you can audition colors as you paint.
I began laying in the background first, as I wanted to establish the lightest lights of the background so I could key off that for the lightest lights of the petals.
Step Three: Initial Lay In
Pro Hint Number Three:
I exaggerated the value contrast between the petals and shifted the hue on nearly every petal to a warmer or cooler yellow, orange or brown red for the ones in shadow. I love that look. Beginners often color ALL the petals of a flower the same color, the same value because our brains tell us “Use yellow. It’s a yellow flower. End of story.” But we want some petals to come forward and pop, some to recede and some to become relatively unimportant to the eye.
I concentrated on the orange flower first and began to lay down the midtones of the petals. I used soft pastels right off the bat, because I knew I wanted the toned paper to show through in many places and I wanted a rough textured look with no blending. These shapes were pretty tiny, so I didn’t try to do strokework shapes, I just tried to get the right color with the right value (the relative light or dark of that color family).
I used NuPastels for some of the darkest petal areas.
Step Four: Blue Flower Layin
Pro Hint Four:
Reduce the intensity of the lower flower by making the colors more grey. This will help the upper flower jump off the page. If you are painting from life, you may be tempted to make the lower flowers exactly the same color and value, but you really need to push to see (or imagine, if necessary) the value changes between the upper and lower flower.
I was going for a more interpretive ending result rather than a photo realistic rendering. I want to play with color and push the envelope without going off the map of relative color. (I wanted the flower to read orange and lower flower to read blue grey).
I used a very dark blue black for the center of the flower on its darkest side and that gave me my darkest dark value of the piece. I know I want the lower flower to be quite a bit similar value as the upper flower center because it is in deep shadow from the orange flower, but I don’t want to compete with the center of the orange flower for attention, so I lighten the dark blue up just a tad, so that it reads dark blue, but not as dark as the orange center dark. I want the viewer’s eye to REST on the lower flower, not bounce back and forth between the two flowers like polka dots.
Step Five: Brightest Hues Of Colors And Adjusting Overall
Now I laid down some of the darkest darks to begin the 3D modeling in the lower flower. I want to keep that blue grey flower subdued so that the attention is on the orange flower.
I’m still letting lots of paper show through so that I don’t build up layers too quickly and saturate the paper.
The challenge is to use blues and greys without getting monotonous, so I added a touch of mauve grey on the lightest petals for color interest. Note that it is still the correct value, however.
Step Six: Change Hue Of Background To More Vibrant Aqua
I decided I wanted to really play the aqua blue against the orange, so I darkened the value of the background to create the vibration between those two colors (opposite on the color wheel).
You can see the color of the paper in the center part of each flower and peeking through the background.
Finished Pastel Painting 14 x 11 Inches On Colorfix Paper
Pro Hint Five:
Take a quick black and white photo of your work and check the values. Are they correct?
Here I show the Pink Flower version because I had already framed the orange version for a gallery, and the glass produces too much glare for a good photo. You can see right away the contrast between the pink petal flowers, the background and the lower flower. The right background blends into the flower petals as I intended so that the focal point is on the pink petals closest to the viewer.
Pink Flower version 14 x 11 on Storm Blue Colorfix paper
Have fun replicating this demo!
It took me about 2 hours start to finish. That’s the beauty of pastel painting. It is soooo fast compared to oil or acrylic.
This is the beginning set I purchased ‘way back when, for my first lesson:
Sennelier Artist Pastel Set – Extra Soft Half Stick Pastels with High Vibrancy & Brightness
I used this paper in the darker blue for the two paintings in this demonstration:
Art Spectrum Colourfix Paper Rainbow Packs cool tones pack of 10
If you want to create your own surface to paint pastels on, use a surface preparation like this one:
Golden Acrylic Ground for Pastel, 8 oz
Or this one: