The trick to using pastels

If you’re a determined pastel artist with some experience, isn’t it time you stepped up and produced a pastel artwork that’s truly great? There’s nothing wrong with ambition! Here are some tips on using pastels to create a masterpiece:

1. It all begins with a thumbnail

Thumbnail sketching is simply one of the best ways to begin a pastel masterpiece. And what is a thumbnail sketch? It’s a tiny sketch, on a separate piece of paper, of the main features of your composition. Thumbnail sketches are usually about one inch square or a little larger (say around the size of a credit card). You should vary the size depending on how big the full-size painting is going to be. You should spend no more than five minutes on your thumbnail sketch.

The big, big benefit of thumbnail sketches is that they force you to simplify something that might seem overwhelmingly complex into just its main components. Without any room for details, your brain won’t get sidetracked. This is invaluable, as it reveals the fundamental nature of what you’re trying to do, and you can carry this through into working on your main surface.

Note that you can (and should) also sketch out your composition on your main surface after you’ve completed your thumbnail sketch.

2. Shadows

Shadows and highlights are two key areas of any artwork, as they are the bookends of the tonal range. Of the two, it’s shadows that are the harder to get right, but as they give the impression of volume (‘3-Dness’), they’re also the more important.

In a pastel painting, you’re likely to have shadowed sides of elements in your composition, and shadows cast by those elements as well. Mark these areas when you’re sketching out your composition, and delineate the two.

Now think about the color and value of those shadows. Shadowed areas will generally be darker in value than cast shadows, but observe then carefully, as this is not always the case. Work out where the darkest shadows in your composition will be, and where the lightest shadows will be. For color, you’re working off the local color of the object that’s in shadow, darkened by the shadow, and colored slightly by reflected light from the light source (i.e. slightly blued by light from the sky, slightly warmed by late afternoon light through a window).

Creating realistic shadows in your pastels masterpieces requires, above all, careful observation of the shadows in your scene.

3. Highlights

As for your shadows, highlights should be marked during your sketching – do this with a white pastel. You should leave the detailed work on them until the very end though (it’s easier to work from dark to light with pastels).

Highlights are all about calculating where the light from the light source will strike the objects in your composition in such a way that the light reflects out at the viewer. Placed correctly, they will greatly add to the verisimilitude of your painting…and incorrectly placed they will ruin it!

Remember when doing your highlights that, like shadows, they usually have at least a touch of color in them. You can buy tints of white specifically for highlights, or just do it yourself with a blending technique.

Using pastels in the ways outlined above will go a long way to helping you create your masterpiece.

Courtesy of Emma Bates