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What you need to know about...

Updated: Feb 26, 2023

Hello and welcome to our monthly theme for January, Winter in Pastel, and in general drawing in pastel.

Before our monthly online workshop on this theme this coming Sunday at 10:30am PST, we thought you'd like to know more about the materials we will be using, not just in this workshop but throughout the month in our different workshops, classes etc.

'If you cannot attend the workshop on Sunday, we do recommend you register for it as it is going to be really informative and you can follow it on the recording. Here is the link to register:

This blog covers the different types of materials needed to draw in pastel, and where to find them. If you have an aversion to dust or the fixatives we use, no worries we will show you alternatives. So read on...

What are pastels?

The basic constituents of pastel are a pigment, a filler (a white mineral which serves to give opacity and body), and a binder (a weak adhesive) that loosely holds the two powdery substances together so that they may be formed into a crayon for use. In the eighteenth century, the ideal crayon was to be sufficiently firm so it could be grasped between the fingers without breaking, yet powdery and soft enough to crumble when stroked across a support.

To understand pastels better the first point to grasp is that there are several categories of pastels. I will describe each here and give some of the different choices you can make in purchasing them.

Hard vs Soft Pastels

Hard pastels are made from the same ingredients as soft pastels, except they contain more binder and less pigment. This means that their colors are not as intense but they don't crumble or break as easily.

Soft pastel brands

The two leading makers of soft pastels are Royal Talens Rembrandt and Sennelier, both of which can be found at Blick art store and online through Amazon. But there are many other highly effective brands at different prices.

You can do your own research by entering "best soft pastels" and read through different bloggers giving information on different brands and make your decision.

In my case I opted for the Blick in house brand as I wanted a medium good pastel, and know I can upgrade to the more pricey brands once I find my way around. I purchased the 40 colors box but you can purchase a smaller box and it will be find.

If you are looking to purchase fast I recommend you visit a quality art store such as Blick or University Art. Michaels do have their own brand of soft pastels which are inexpensive and likely will be fine for beginning work.

Hard pastel brands

I like these pastels because they are easy to use. I have been using them for a while.


NuPastel Prismacolor hard pastels are suitable for fine illustrations and other creative art projects because the vibrant colors are tougher and less messy than traditional powdery pastels. They do not break easily like soft pastels, yet remain creamy enough for you to do shading and blending.

If you order from Amazon right away you will get them quickly as they are readily available and a much used brand. Most art stores will stock them including Michaels (who also have their own brand).

Again, you can check the reviews but you will find this brand is routinely the best.

Of the two types, which should I get?

IN MY OPINION: If you want to invest in one type of pastel, choose hard pastels, specifically NuPastel by Prismacolor for the above reasons. Also, if you want to avoid dust, this is your best choice.

Oil Pastels

An oil pastel is a painting and drawing medium formed into a stick which consists of pigment mixed with a binder mixture of non-drying oil and wax.

For those of you who want to avoid any dust, this is your answer. But there are other reasons artists love these types of pastels.

Artwork created using oil pastels is very popular as it is a medium that allows an artist to express themselves freely. Many painters and illustrators explore the versatility of this tool in both abstract and realist works of art.

It is a material that offers endless possibilities to transmit personal thoughts and emotions through shapes and color.

Water soluble pastels

Water soluble pastels, also know as water soluble pencils or crayons are an interesting blend of drawing and painting. Draw as you would with any 'normal' pencil or crayon but then run water over your work and have a color was that you can manipulate further.

By far the most well known brand is Caran d'Ache which is a Swiss company dating back over 100 years. I personally use this brand, but there are others, most notably Mungyo who also have soft pastels with good reviews.

Again, if you are looking for a pastel that has no dust and does not require fixitive, this is your best choice.

Mixing pastels with other media

You can use oil pastels with great surface stability over gouache, watercolor paint, acrylics, and whatnot. Oil pastels over any of these mediums usually look lustrous. And you will not have to sweat over the surface cracking. Nevertheless, advisably, you do not apply other mediums on top of oil pastels.

Soft pastels can work over pencil, watercolor, and stuff. You may accentuate colors in your dry watercolor piece with soft pastel. While watercolor likely achieves muted outcomes, the pastel looks vibrant on the surface. Or lighten highlights by leveraging soft pastels.

Chalk Pastels

Factually, more often than not "chalk" pastels are just soft pastels in disguise. Professional soft pastels are NOT chalky in any way and there are few chalk pastels which are made of chalk. The term "chalk pastel" is mostly used as a marketing term to attract those finding a chalky artistic experience. So in my opinion stay clear.

Conte Crayons

Conte can easily be confused with pastel because of their shared characteristics. The main difference between the two mediums is that conte is made with clay constituents, while most pastels lack clay materials. Because of their similarities, conte can be used in conjunction with pastels and charcoal.

The brand pictured is the best by far, Conte a Paris. You can also get this brand in a pencil which is my choice.

Pastel applicators

Truthfully once you lay down the pastel the best way to mix it in is with your fingers. You can get different tools to do this, but fingers are best. If you would like to put on some think surgical gloves, you can do so, or at least try it out. But frankly be prepared to get your fingers dirty if you are using soft or hard pastels.

Pastel substrates

Surfaces for pastels can mean a whole range of materials because pastels are incredibly versatile. They can be used on almost any surface as long as there is enough tooth for the pastels to grip. Textured paper is the most popular surface for pastels, but you can also use boards, canvas, and even sandpaper.

Pastel Paper

Pastel paper, also called ingres paper, is textured paper that comes in a wide range of colors and tones. .

If you are using soft or hard pastels you must invest in purchasing a good pastel paper. It has a specific tooth or surface texture that is necessary for the pastel to adhere to the paper. If the paper is too smooth the pastel will not adhere, and if it is too bumpy it will fall into the cracks.

Water color paper can be used so long as it is not have too much tooth.

The preferred brands are Canson and Strathmore, but again you can go online and see reviews of different brands. These two brands are widely available at local art stores or online through Blick, Jerry's Artarama or Amazon.

You can purchase the plain cream color or a variety of colors and this is your choice.

In the workshop we are giving we require natural white/cream color as we will be adding a thin film of acrylic gesso to seal the paper as part of the process, preventing the pastel from sinking into the paper and thus maintaining high chromatic saturation.

Pastel Board, sandpaper and canvas

This is board that will easily hold pastel and is specially created for it. The most well known brand is Ampersand as shown here.

You can also purchase sandpaper to draw on which has a great surface for pastel.

Another surface to try is a fine toothed canvas board - NOT stretched canvas as this will easily dislodge the pastel when it moves around!

Invest in a drawing board

Once you start using these papers you will need to secure them on a drawing bosrd using masking tape so you can get good contact with the paper. This also allows you to use an easel if you prefer it. Do not spend a lot on this but is is advisable.

Acrylic Gesso

We will be sealing off our paper with acrylic gesso mixed with a little water. Adding a little black acrylic paint will create an off white color which shows the color at its best and is advised. You can also simply use black gesso to give a black under-painted surface.

The two least expensive brands are Blicks own brand which I use, and Liquitex. Both quite adequate for our purpose. You will also need a two inch cheap wall paint brush to apply the gesso, or one of the wide sponge brushes.


There is no easy way around the use of fixatives - they are smelly and not something you want to use in an enclosed space.

I have tried the Krylon fixative brand but it is so smelly It is really hard to use. So our member Karen Kotoskly recommended Sennelier Fixative for Pastel and it is terrific. Slight smell but nothing compared to Krylon and usable indoors although I would still use a mask.

The following are all tips that are tried and true and come from member Connie Fotatis who is an expert in protecting artwork having worked for decades in art studios where fixative is used a great deal.

  1. Wear gloves and a mask and work outdoors or in a large open area. However, not in any kind of draft or wind as it can blow the spray away from the artwork or blow dust onto it.

  2. Once you have read the instructions, do a test first to learn how it works.

  3. Before starting to spray, turn the can upside down and spray it briefly to clear out the nozzle, then turn it upright again.

  4. Apply spray is in a very thin layer which requires you hold the can at least 3 or 4 feet away from the surface. It is best to place the artwork on the ground and spray downwards. (place the artwork on a larger piece of paper or plastic sheeting to protect the area around it.

  5. Spray lightly, do not make the surface moist.

  6. Move your ARM back and forth across the artwork so the spray stays at an even distance - do NOT make an arc which will happen if you just move your wrist as it will apply the spray unevenly.

  7. Step away for at least a few minutes and then repeat the last step for a second light layer.

  8. To test how well the artwork is fixed, gently touch a non-critical area to see if the pastel comes off. Depending on how fixed you want it, either apply more layers or now return to the studio to keep going or to store the artwork.

  9. Wash your hands and remove your mask. Let the artwork air out before taking it back inside-about 30 minutes.

  10. After you finish spraying clean out the nozzle by turning the can upside down and spraying briefly to clean the nozzle.

  11. If your nozzle gets clogged up or spritzing, remove the nozzle from the can and soak overnight in a cup of solvent such as acetone, then reattach and test it out upside down and then right way up before using,

If you do not want to risk using fixative then we recommend using a visine envelope or using an oil pastel or water soluble pastel which do not require fixatives.


While the above gives you lots of information, there is more you can find by searching on google.

Come to our monthly workshop or register and watch the recording as you will learn more and have guided exercises to walk you through using hard and or soft pastels as well as sealing your paper with gesso.

If you have any questions about this or recommendations, contact us at our email:

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Excellent references about pastel supplies and explanation about how to apply fixative.

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