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how to use pastels

How to Use Pastels

Learn how to use pastels by creating a fun pastel portrait!

In this pastel painting workshop, I'll demonstrate some basic pastel painting techniques that you can use when you draw and paint with pastels.

The purpose of this pastel portrait tutorial is to experiment with the medium of pastels and above all, to have fun!

In this pastel painting lesson, we won't worry about getting things "perfect". We'll just focus on learning how to draw with pastels and enjoy ourselves in the process!

Materials used:

I painted this pastel portrait using Prismacolor NuPastels, which are hard pastels that come in thin, rectangular stick form. Because these pastels are hard (as opposed to soft ones, like Rembrandt, Schmincke, or Sennelier), they are less messy and it is easier to achieve tighter control and greater detail - making them a fun choice for learning how to use pastels.

The pastel paper that I used was Sennelier La Carte Pastel Card, which has a slightly abrasive surface. This is an excellent pastel paper because the pastel adheres easily to the surface, yet it is still easy to blend. The pastel pigment shows up extremely well on Sennelier La Carte, making the colors rich and strong. This is a great paper for learning how to use pastels.

I also used a Prismacolor colored pencil, acid-free tape, and a piece of masonite, which I'll explain in the pastel portrait tutorial.

For cleanliness, you'll want to either keep some moist cleaning wipes nearby or use latex finger cots.

How to Use Pastels

For this pastel painting workshop on how to use pastels, I used a photo of my friend Kevin dressed as a cowboy as the reference photo. I chose this photo because I felt it had a lot of personality and would make a fun pastel portrait.

Kevin dressed as a cowboy

Sennelier La Carte Pastel Card comes in individual sheets of 19" x 25", so I cut the paper down to the size that I wanted. I measured out an 8" x 10" area for the drawing using a Prismacolor colored pencil. When I cut the paper, I left a 1/4 inch margin around all 4 sides of the paper. This allows room for a mat, if I decide to get this pastel portrait painting framed.

How to Use Pastels: This is an example of how to set up your pastel paper.

Using acid-free art tape, I adhered the pastel paper to a sturdy piece of 9" x 12" masonite. This will keep the pastel drawing in place as I work on it, and gives me a flat, smooth work surface.

Acid-free art tape is an ideal tape to use, because it peels off easily, without lifting off any of the paper underneath. Because it is acid-free, I don't have to worry about any potential long-term damage caused by the acidity that is in normal tape, such as masking tape.

I cropped the photo of Kevin to match the size of the paper:

Kevin dressed as a cowboy

Using a light Prismacolor colored pencil, I sketched in the outline of the portrait. The reason I used colored pencil for this, and not pastel, is because pastel smudges easily. I need the outline to remain clear (and not smudge away) while I fill in the colors with pastel. Drawing your outlines in colored pencil is a good tip when learning how to use pastels.

How to Use Pastels

Using a mulberry colored pastel, I drew in the darks. I didn't want to use black for two reasons:

1. Because black would be too dark for this stage. My main goal at this stage is to create a build-up of color.

2. Because black pastels tend to lack depth and look lifeless. Black should only be used sparingly!

How to Use Pastels

I added two more colors. The face is starting to take shape.

Note that I am not using "normal" colors. For the purposes of this pastel painting tutorial on how to use pastels, my goal is not to create a "normal" portrait, but instead to create a fun, funky one that is full of life and color! I want to create a portrait that is whimsical and lighthearted. I'm not at all concerned about getting the proportions exactly correct or creating an exact likeness of Kevin. I just want to have fun and explore the medium of pastels.

How to Use Pastels

At this point, I have not blended the pastel at all. That's for later. Here is an extreme close-up of how the pastel looks on the paper:

Pastel Drawing Close-up

Next I add more colors. I still haven't blended yet. Take note of how pastel looks when it hasn't been blended. There's a really nice sense of immediacy and energy to pastel that isn't blended.

If I wanted to, I could create the whole pastel portrait without blending at all. But for the purposes of this pastel painting tutorial on how to use pastels, I want to show you a few different pastel painting techniques, so I'll blend the pastel in a minute.

At this point, I'm laying color side-by-side, rather than doing any overlapping.

How to Use Pastels

Now I've blended the pastels using my finger. See what a difference it makes? Compare the image below with the version above.

Pastel painting tip:

After you blend pastel with your finger, you will need to either wash your hands or use moist cleaning wipes for easy clean up. If you don't clean off your fingers, the pastel that is on your fingers will smudge into whatever color you use next.

While blending helps to smooth out the pastel painting, it also loses a sense of raw immediacy and energy. It's my goal now to bring some of that energy back.

How to Use Pastels

Compare the two close-ups below to see how the blended pastel looks different from the non-blended pastel:

Close-up of Pastel That is Not Blended

Close-up of Pastel After it is Blended

Now it's time to start filling in his hat, his shirt, and the background. For his, I use a different pastel technique. I want to fill in a lot of space as quickly as possible, so I use the side of the pastel, like so:

How to Use Pastels

If you need to, it's totally okay to break off a piece of pastel so that it's the right size. This piece of pastel needed to be small enough to fit into the tight spaces on the paper.

In the picture below, you can see how I use a different color to add some shading to the hat. I do this by adding new color directly over top of the previous color. I used the side of the pastel just like I did when laying down the yellow.

How to Use Pastels

Here is how it looks with nearly all the base color laid down:

How to Use Pastels

It's coming along! His face is a bit too orange-y, so it's time to start lightening it up. I applied a light pink color:

How to Use Pastels

Then I blended the colors:

How to Use Pastels

Now it's time to darken the darks, still without using black!

How to Use Pastels

And now it's time to brighten it up again! You see how at this stage, it becomes a balancing act of light and dark? With the mid-tones already down, the main goal now is to keep adding lights and darks until the face really starts to take form.

How to Use Pastels

Here is a close-up so you can see the variety of strokes and the different pastel painting techniques used so far in this pastel portrait tutorial:

Pastel Painting Techniques

Now it's time to add detail to his cowboy hat, his bandana and his shirt. I did this by simply drawing single line strokes to form the patterns in his clothing and the lines in his hat. I'm not going to blend these in, because I want them to be sharp details.

How to Use Pastels

Lookin' good, but not quite done yet. I could consider it finished, but I want to try something else. Although I really like it, his face still feels too "warm" for my taste. So I lighten it up by adding some strategic blues:

How to Use Pastels

Voila, a finished pastel portrait!

What do you think, did it look better before or after I added the light blue highlights to his face? I'm still not sure myself. But you never know how something will look unless you try it, and that's part of the fun of learning how to use pastels!

This pastel painting workshop showed you how to use pastels using several pastel painting techniques. This is the first of what will be many more pastel painting tutorials in the near future!


Pastel drawings and paintings are stunningly beautiful, with rich textures and deep colors. However, working with pastels requires some caution. Read an overview of pastel art, along with pros and cons for using pastel.

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