The Ultimate Guide to Pastels for Beginners

If you are a creative person drawn to bright, vibrant colors and want to create memorable art, it is time to consider pastels!

The versatile medium is ideal for beginners as it allows for total, tactile control with the ability to correct easily.

The best part? There is little time wasted waiting for your designs to dry – perfect when learning something new!

Keep reading our guide to pastels for beginners to learn about the different types and how to get started! 

What are Pastels?

Pastels come in the shape of sticks, similar to crayons, and are comprised of pure powdered pigments blended with a type of thickening agent such as animal glue to bind them together.

In the present day, pastels are enjoyed in over 1,500 exciting shades. However, artists had only red, black, and white to work with in the past.

Pastels are available in several types and are an exciting medium for beginners as they can be used with little preparation.

They dry almost immediately, meaning there is a short wait for your final creation. Mostly, pastels are applied by hand – a functional and favored feature, allowing real control for creativity.

Of course, some artists do enjoy using them with tissue paper, sponges, and other applicators for a more textured look. A real bonus for those starting is that pastels are easily erased and adjusted using a rubber putter eraser!

The History of Pastels

When working with pastels, you’ll be joining the ranks of some notable artists, including Monet and Michelangelo.

These artists have been utilizing the medium since the 16th century when they originated in the North of Italy.

Pastel art grew in popularity throughout Europe in the 18th century, with England taking a strong like to them.

In fact, the British socialites fell so in love with the medium’s unique look that they would pay a steep premium for artists to draw their portraits in pastel!

pastels for beginners

What are the Different Types of Pastels?

Soft Pastels

The most popular type is by and large soft pastels! They’re loved for their rich, intense color.

These types of pastels are designed with more pigment than the binder, meaning they are a bit crumbly and a terrific choice for blending and layering various colors.

The result of soft pastels is matte. Furthermore, this type doesn’t stick much to the surface, allowing for a chalk-esque effect with a soft, watercolor finish resembling a true painting.

While you can purchase soft pastels individually, it’s recommended to work with a set for improved variety and choice.

Amazon has a ton of highly regarded options, including this 64 set of soft pastels which is a great set for beginners to learn the medium. 

Hard Pastels

Next up are hard pastels! Opposite to soft type, they are made with more binder and less pigment, resulting in less intense colors, but more control and are stronger and less likely to crumble.

They can even be sharpened to a fine point, making them perfect for bold markings as well as fine lines, including creating the general layout of your artwork. You can get started with this 48-piece set here.

Oil Pastels

Regarded as the “refined crayon,” oil pastels are an interesting option that offers a lovely buttery, soft appeal! Interestingly, their use is not strictly reserved for paper canvases.

Furthermore, these pastels look amazing on wood, metal, and even glass. They work well for layering and mixing, adding a beautifully unique texture.

They are sensitive to smudge, so art done by oil pastels should be framed if you want to keep your designs safe for years to come.

You can get started with oil pastels with this super easy-to-use 54-color set. 

Pencil Pastels

Pencil Pastels are a cool combination of pencil and the softness of pastel. The pencil form removes any loose powder challenges in traditional pastels.

It allows for increased control, layering, blending, and sharpening for dramatic strokes or blunt tips for hazy lines.

Most sets come with a wide selection of colors but can also be blended together to create unique shades – this artist set comes with 24 pencils.

Pan Pastels

The latest addition to the pastel party is pan pastels! These unique pastels are a type of soft pastel.

However, they are set into pans to resemble a paint palette rather than being molded into sticks.

They’re enjoyed similar to paints as they have to be used by brushes, sponges, or other tools to format onto the canvas to blend and mix similarly.

Due to their format, pan pastels are the highest pigment concentrations allowing for remarkably bright shades of color!

While they need a bit more equipment, they are not dusty and can be erased with a putty eraser. This six-pack set is a great place to get started.

Pros and Cons of Pastels

Pros: Pastels create a beautiful, velvety, creamy composition, offering vivid colors for your artwork.

A major perk for creatives is that it doesn’t require a ton of tools and is quite tactile.

These features allow for creative freedom and endless experimenting – you can blend and build textures until you reach your ultimate desired look.

The dust from this medium doesn’t have to be a drag; you can use this excess to create new looks, colors, or textures. 

Cons: The number one downside is their lack of permanency, meaning they will need a lot of careful attention to avoid getting smudged.

It’s recommended to have the right storage place for unfinished projects and frame the pieces you love.

Lastly, the dusty nature of certain types of pastels can cause a little bit of a mess. The dust can be a bit uncomfortable for those with breathing issues. 

What tools do I need to get started?

Paper

Once you’ve decided which type is best for you, you’ll want to assemble the rest of the basics to get you started! First, you’ll need paper with a ‘toothy’ surface for most types of pastels.

The paper will need to be thinner than sandpaper but with a similar consistency. A popular and well-loved option is this Strathmore 9×12 Pastel Pad which is great for beginners. 

Rubber Erasers

Another item you should have is kneaded rubber erasers – a bendable rubber that moves around and can remove bits and pieces. This 4-pack of Faber Castell erasers are a great option to get started.  

Other Tools

Although you only really need pastels and paper to get started, there are some other tools you can use to help you in your journey as a beginner. You may want to use bulldog clips, a trick to keep your paper keep tight and unmoving to help when working. 

When using pastels, you can certainly use your fingers and hand to blend your artwork. However, you may want the help of finger coverings to prevent mess, known as a finger cot.

There are also tools designed for blending like pastel shapers! These tools come in a variety of shapes, including flat, circular, long or short tip, made of rubber.

They’re brilliant for helping with blending and fine details! Fun tip – Q-tips are a cheap blending alternative! 

How to Use Pastels

  • Hold your pastel-like you would a pen/pencil. The thickness will be dependent on the pressure you apply.
  • Use dark colors first, followed by lighter colors. 
  • Start with the background of your design, developing the foreground as you go.
  • It’s okay to break your pastels! Shorter, half-size sticks allow for greater control when focusing on detailing.
  • Use a neutral shade when using a stencil!
  • Tap off excess dust over a bin, rather than blow it off as blowing it will make a mess and could be hazardous to breathe in. Better yet, keep your artwork as upright as possible, so the dust falls naturally. 
  • Stick to one type of pastel rather than blending multiple types. 
  • “Layering” is a technique when you apply various colors over one another.
  • “Blending” is a technique done by working one stick into the other, gently going back and forth. 
  • “Scrambling” is a texture effect, where you can drag a lighter shade atop a vibrant one. 
  • It’s okay if one color migrates along with the pastel paper as it often results in a funky, unplanned result. 
  • Choose your pastel paper color wisely! It can affect the tone and mood of your art. Pastel shades will also change slightly depending on their backdrop. 
  • Frame your work behind glass for its safety and store your pastel set in a dry and safe space, too!

Pastel Tutorials

Conclusion

Pastels breathe a sense of vibrancy and timelessness into artwork with their intense, beautiful colors.

Plus – their tactile nature makes pastels super fun!

They are very simple to get started with, only requiring the pastels themselves, a surface, your imagination, and a bit of time to dedicate to them.

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