10 Pastel Painting Techniques for Beginners

By Milan Art Institute on June 3, 2024
10 Pastel Painting Techniques for Beginners

Most of us remember making an oil pastel piece for Mother’s Day in elementary school or struggling to avoid smudging a still-life chalk pastel in middle school art. But what does it look like to integrate this medium into your art practice as an adult?

Pastels are an incredibly versatile and affordable medium that can add vibrant color and rich texture to your artwork. Whether you’re a seasoned artist or just starting out, pastels can be seamlessly integrated into your mixed-media pieces, offering endless possibilities for creativity and expression. From soft, dreamy blends to bold, dynamic strokes, pastels can enhance your artistic journey in numerous ways.

Pastels were essential in the Impressionist movement for capturing light and color. Their vibrant pigments allowed artists to layer and blend colors, creating a shimmering effect. The direct application of pastels encouraged quick, expressive strokes, perfect for capturing fleeting moments. Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt are notable for their pastel works, depicting movement and tender portraits. The portability of pastels made them ideal for outdoor painting (plein air painting), enabling artists to capture natural light directly. Their texture added depth and allowed for experimentation, making pastels a key medium for the innovative and expressive style of Impressionism.


Types of Pastels

Before diving into pastel painting techniques, it’s essential to understand the different types of pastels available. Soft pastels, known for their rich pigment and easy blendability, are perfect for creating smooth transitions and vibrant hues. Hard pastels offer more precision and are ideal for detailed work and fine lines. Oil pastels, which have an oily binder, provide a creamy texture that can be layered and blended smoothly. Each type brings its unique qualities to your art, allowing you to experiment and find what works best for your style. Our current favorite pastel product is Caran d'Ache.


Painting with Pastels

Although pastels are mostly manipulated by using your hands and fingers, using them this way is still called “painting.” A unique way to use pastels is to actually paint with them by using a paintbrush. This involves creating your own pastel paint by adding a binding agent to crushed pastel powder. This method allows you to utilize pastels in a more painterly fashion, similar to traditional painting techniques. Simply crush the pastel sticks into a fine powder, then mix with a binding agent such as water, gum arabic, or acrylic medium to create a paste. This pastel paint can be applied with brushes, giving you the flexibility to create washes, detailed lines, or bold strokes, all with vibrant colors and textures unique to pastels.


10 Techniques to Get You Started

  • 1– Blending

Use your fingers, a blending stump, or tissue to blend colors smoothly. For a different effect, try blending with a brush dipped in mineral spirits, turpentine, linseed oil, or walnut oil. You can also mix colors by placing them next to each other or layering them. Start by working light to dark. If you work from dark to light, the color will get muddy.

  • 2 – Layering

Build up color intensity and depth by applying multiple layers of pastel. Start with lighter colors and gradually add darker shades to create a rich, dimensional effect.

  • 3 – Scumbling

Lightly drag a pastel stick over a layer of another color to create a textured, broken color effect. This technique adds texture to surfaces like rocks, foliage, or clouds.

  • 4 – Feathering

Use short, light strokes to create a feathery texture, perfect for depicting hair, fur, or grassy fields.

  • 5 – Cross-Hatching

Apply strokes in a crisscross pattern to build up tone and texture, adding depth and detail to your work.

  • 6 – Sgraffito

Once you have laid down a layer of pastels, scratch it into a layer with a pointed tool or a palette knife to reveal the color underneath. This technique is great for adding fine details and texture.

  • 7– Pointillism

Apply small dots of pastel in various colors close together. When viewed from a distance, the dots blend to form new colors and intricate textures.

  • 8 – Stippling

Create a series of small, deliberate dots to build up areas of tone and texture, ideal for detailed work and creating a sense of volume.

  • 9 – Underpainting

Start by creating an underpainting with a wash of watercolor, transparent acrylics, or diluted pastel. Once dry, layer pastel on top to add depth and complexity to your artwork.

  • 10 – Using an Eraser

Use a kneaded eraser to lift off pastels in specific areas, creating highlights and adding texture. This can also be used to correct mistakes and refine details.

steve-johnson-B2_zWEdpLlo-unsplashPhoto by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Oil Sticks and Their Similarity to Pastels

Oil sticks, also known as oil bars, are an exciting medium that shares several similarities with pastels, making them a fantastic option for artists looking to expand their techniques. Essentially oil paint in solid form, oil sticks allow you to draw directly onto your surface with the rich, creamy texture of oil paints (similar to oil pastels). They can be blended with a brush dipped in mineral spirits, turpentine, linseed oil, or walnut oil, offering blending possibilities beyond those of pastels.

Using Oil Sticks - Peel back the protective skin to reveal fresh paint before using oil sticks. Apply them directly to your surface, experiment with different pressures and angles, and blend with a brush, palette knife, or your fingers. Keep in mind that oil sticks, like traditional oil paints, require a drying time, which can range from a few days to weeks, depending on the thickness of the application.

pierre-bamin-w6qzIKMzqcA-unsplashPhoto by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

Experimenting with pastels opens up a world of vibrant color and expressive possibilities in your art. Whether you’re blending smooth gradients, layering rich hues, or adding intricate details, pastels offer endless opportunities for creativity. By exploring these techniques and incorporating pastels into your mixed media projects, you can elevate your artistic journey and discover new dimensions in your work. Embrace the process, enjoy the tactile experience, and let your creativity flow.

For those eager to deepen their skills and learn more, we highly recommend checking out our Masterclass taught by Dimitra Milan, “Oil Pastels Reimagined”. In just a few hours, this class will help you master techniques to create brilliant fine art with oil pastels. Happy painting and keep creating!


Milan Art Institute
Milan Art Institute

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