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Pastel Drawing and Painting: An Intro for Beginners

If you’re new to pastel, I hope you won’t be intimidated by the term technique. A reassuring definition, according to Webster, tells us that technique is simply “an artist’s special method of execution used to obtain a certain result.” shows methods that work for me, and I’ll be right alongside you to lend encouragement. You’ll find that the process of actually painting–the learning that comes from applying what you have discovered–is all there is to mastering a technique. You can watch someone else do it, you can read about it to enhance your understanding, but you’ll always learn best by doing it–even if poorly at first.

Before attending a class or even attempting a painting, spend some time making friends with your pastels. Examine and handle the tools of your new medium, and try using them on a few different surfaces. Get a feel for holding pastels. Variations in applied pressure make a difference in the resulting marks on your surface. Practice a light touch, and don’t be afraid to break pastels into pieces to get the stroke shapes you want.

You don’t need a formula for everything you try in pastel. There are many formulas, to be sure, but early dependence on set methods will stifle your creativity. To begin, I suggest that you get your idea down on the painting surface in any way you can with whatever materials you have. As you progress, work at getting your idea down more cleanly (less buildup), more directly (less fussing) and more quickly (decide beforehand what you’re after). This approach will help your work become more expressive as you grow more comfortable with pastels. Your work will gradually exhibit the sparkle inherent to pastel paintings that aren’t overworked.

Pastels can be used for drawing. The end result is a sketch that involves very little layering and a minimal background, in other words, a vignette. A pastel sketch does not cover the entire surface or go to the edges of the paper. The artist doesn’t have to make decisions as to whether to put the background in first or tuck it around the center of interest later.

While sketching, you become accustomed to your pastels gradually. You’ll need a good quality paper and some blending stumps or tortillions. Because this book is primarily about painting–particularly landscape painting–I don’t overly encourage the use of fingers to blend color because other methods of blending usually give better results for landscapes. However, when sketching with pastels, you may need to use your fingers as an extra tool for obtaining a few softened effects.

Many pastelists use a combination of drawing and painting techniques in their work. When used as a painting medium, pastel is stroked across an abrasive surface in layers, and it completely covers the painting ground. Put a layer of colors on a painting surface and cover it with a layer of another color, allowing some of the first colors to show through. See how layering can cause your colors to vibrate. Keep adding more color layers. Observe how each different surface looks when you have filled its tooth (roughness of the paper surface) to capacity. What happens after that? Additional pastel falls off most surfaces, and they may even begin to feel slippery.

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