In high school I was introduced to charcoal and soft pastels - this was in about 1989 - I was about 13. Since then, I haven't really stopped using them - not for long anyway. Over this past 30 or so years I have discovered a lot about using soft pastels, things to do, and things NOT to do, and I've got together my six top tips for starting out with them...
In no particular order....
TIP 1 - PRACTICE, PLAY and HAVE FUN
Like anything, practice makes perfect. It can be discouraging to look at experienced artists and compare ourselves... but in most cases it took many years of successes and failures for that artist to reach that point. I suggest, looking and learning from experienced artists, but try not to compare against your own.
Play with soft pastels and make the experience fun. If it is stressful... it may not be worth continuing, because it's not for everyone.
TIP 2 - UNDERSTAND COLOURS
Unlike paint - where you can mix colours on a palette and then insert into a painting - with soft pastels we have the set colour stick, and can then 'mix' on the paper we are using - through layering (more on layers below).
However, some colours do not go well together, whereas others do.
Practice will help you understand your colour palette more... so perhaps play and see what works best for you and your taste.
As a general guide, I have found these colours to work well together:
Red / Yellow / Orange - think fiery colours!
Blue / Yellow / Green - think watery and earthy colours!
Purple / Blue / Red - think deep purple colours.
Pink / Orange - one of my favourite combinations.
Green / Blue - think turquoise or aqua.
Purple / Blue - think indigo.
There are many more great combinations than these, however this may be a good starting point to begin with.
Adding white to any of the above, will lighten the colours (or pink-en red).
Adding black to any of the above will help deepen, darken and grey the colours.
Maybe get to know and understand the basic colour wheel too - with primary, secondary and tertiary colours. You should be able to search the internet for good basic information.
Here is a live stream I did recently, where I talked a bit further about those two tips:
TIP 3 - LAYER
Especially when smudging, layering with soft pastels can be the difference between an okay piece of art and a fuller and deeper really good piece of art.
When I use soft pastels to draw skin tones (faces), animal skin or fur, hair or other more solid objects I use many layers of colour. This is where I mix the colours together on the paper... I create a base tone (maybe like an orange on the tiger in the video below), and then I add brown, whites, skin tones and dark tones to help build up the colour. After I smudge, I can continue to add more and more colour - until I get the one I want - remembering to use the complimenting colours.
TIP 4 - FINGER PLACEMENT
Obviously, soft pastels smudge! The best smudging tool we have are our fingers. If we rub our hands all over the paper - we will get messy smudging. So always make sure your hands and arms are well clear of the paper. Only use your finger tips for smudging.
When shading an object, ensure you keep your fingers (when smudging) inside the line. If you blur over the line - suddenly your object becomes bloated.
Controlling your finger placement for smudging takes a bit of practice.
I recently did a live video stream and shared further on these two tips:
TIP 5 - KEEP YOUR FINGERS CLEAN
Our fingers can get very messy when we are drawing with soft pastels. So I recommend that you have an old dry cloth / rag which is just for your soft pastel drawing.
In between shading tones or colours or areas, give your finger tips a wipe.
I don't suggest using a wet cloth - only dry. I don't wash my hands with water until I have finished. A dry wipe does the job well.
TIP 6 - SOFT PASTELS ARE MESSY
If you are particularly fussy with cleaning or mess - then soft pastels may not be the best material for you. Maybe try pencils.
When working with soft pastels you will get them everywhere. Wear an apron, have a dry cloth / rag nearby, protect the floor or table with an old sheet (floor) or newspaper or sheet (table). You will have times when you get pastels all over your face, on your clothes (they do stain), over your water bottle or onto your phone.
If you enjoy a tactile and messy way of drawing - then you will likely really enjoy working with soft pastels. They create a beautiful soft tone, and for anyone interested in spiritual or energetic type art - soft pastels represent the subtle energy very well in my opinion.
Here is a video I streamed recently covering these last two tips:
WHAT YOU WILL NEED TO START
My suggestion for a starter checklist are:
- a tray of soft pastels - basic, cheap ones to begin with work well. You can usually find them at kmart, local art stores or some supermarkets
- paper - an art diary may be good, but it will get very smudgy. So I prefer loose sheets of paper. I use cardboard about 200gsm
- dry cloth / rag - to wipe your fingers
- old cloth / newspaper - to protect floor or table
- have fun!
More advanced checklist:
- all of the above, plus....
- a piece of charcoal - for creating shadow work
- a stick of hard white pastel - for sketching in designs, composition and highlighting
- a few professional pastel sticks - any vibrant colours you like, plus - white and black
- black and brown pastel pencil - for fine detailed work
I DON'T RECOMMEND:
- compressed paper smudge sticks - useless!
- fixative sprays - don't work and they soak up the colour!
- pastel eraser - mistakes?!? - just layer over it, or adjust drawing a bit.
- following the general art school recommendation - no fingers! Poey, get your fingers into it!
Well I think that's about it... I've likely missed a lot (so will add if more comes to mind), but there is also a lot covered. Just think of this as a guide.
There are no excuses left now... grab yourself some pastels and have fun. What will you draw first?