Soft pastels normally come in stick form and are made from pure pigment with the addition of a sturdy binder to give them their shape. Unlike oil pastels, they do not require any sort of solvents for clean up or blending purposes. Reeves soft pastels come in a wide array of colours from very bright to incredibly subtle meaning – you’re sure to find the right hue for your next masterpiece. The bendable nature of soft pastels makes them a versatile tool with a multitude of techniques to explore, not to mention plenty of scope to invent your very own techniques.
For beginner artists, soft pastels are the ultimate tool to not only master new techniques but to play around with colour and have fun with a new medium. Don’t be afraid of these magic colour wands, they are a great addition to any novice artist’s craft box.
Not all soft pastels are created alike! They are available in three different strengths, very soft, medium soft and not very soft (yes, that’s the technical term). When you are looking for soft pastels for beginners start out with medium soft pastels, from there, branch out to either end of the soft pastel spectrum.
Soft pastels can emit quite a lot of dust when they are being used so be sure to create your piece in a well-ventilated space when you are using them. If you are lucky enough to have a sunny outdoor spot, that would be ideal, especially when working on larger pieces.
Because soft pastels have somewhat delicate characteristics, having a fixative on hand to finish your work with is recommended. There are a number of different artist fixatives that will stop any smudging, flaking or damage to your finished creation. Adding a layer of fixative to a work in process is also a common technique (which you will learn more about later). If you are not sure about which fixative to buy, consider getting a cheap can of hairspray to act as a budget friendly alternative. Hairspray is not going cut it for professional work and has its downsides but will do the job nicely for your initial experimenting.
Building a Picture
Soft pastels are all about the layering of colours and building your image through those layers. Imagine yourself building a house; you wouldn’t try and add the upstairs bathroom before the foundation was in the ground!
First step: make a basic sketch of the image you want to create. Don’t worry about the lines you make as they will be covered up by the future layers. Once your sketch is in place block out the image with the main colours that will be used in each section, this is the foundation that you will build your masterpiece on. Thinking in shapes rather than the actual image can be very helpful at this point.
Add to the foundation by adding more life to the bigger details – build the sketch out by incorporating layers of detail and colour to your page. As a general rule, when working with soft pastels, start with the general details and then move onto the fine ones. For example, if you are working on portrait, you would begin with the general characterises of a face, eyes, nose etc. The fine details like irises and nostrils will be added later.
The next step is to add fine details. Experiment with using the edge of the pastel to create sharp lines. A strong line over a blend of colours can give an incredible 3D effect.
When you are happy with how your picture looks it is time to achieve your finished result. Beware the dust, and whatever you do don’t wipe the piece as you will smear everything you have just created! Pick the page up and tap it vertically to remove the dust. Once the excess dust is removed spray it with a fixative to hold everything in place and prevent any accidental smudging,
Congratulations! You have just made your very first, one-of-a- kind soft pastel picture.
Soft Pastel Techniques
Read on for a quick summary of common techniques ideal for soft pastels for beginners. If these ideas spark colour in your arts practice find out more here.
Scumble your work by adding another layer of soft pastels over a layer of colour that you have ’fixed’, either with hairspray or a professional art fixative. The application of the fixative will provide a different texture for the new layer of pastel to stick to.
As we mentioned before, building your soft pastel creation with layers will give you unique effects. Add colours on top of others for beautiful blends. Trial and error with light shades on top of dark and vice versa, you will be surprised at how different the end results will be from trying something similar with paint.
Blend Blend Blend
Get your hands dirty and use your fingers, or even your whole hand if you are working with a large area. Be very careful to clean your hands after blending so you don’t accidentally mix the remnants of your blending on another part of the picture! Wearing plastic gloves can be helpful for quick clean up and is a good idea if you have very sensitive or dry skin. There are also purpose designed tools like paper stumps and torchons that will do the job, but don’t just go with purpose built items, get inventive and experiment with everyday items like cotton balls and buds to find your own style.
Experiment with dragging different edges of the pastel over the paper. Draw with the end of the pastel, like a pencil for lines. Lean heavily for a thicker and darker lines, lean gently for narrower detail with less depth. Using the long edge of the pastel will allow you to cover large areas very quickly, perfect for blending!
Using a scalpel gently shave the side of the pastel onto your creation for an interesting textured feel that can be enhanced by other techniques like blending, layering or scumbling. If you are not confident with your aim, you might want to cover up the other areas of your work before you start dusting.
Things to Try
Hopefully by now your mind is a whirr of creative possibilities that are just bursting to be brought to life! Pastels have been used since the Renaissance and many contemporary artists of today also favour them. Look over past works for inspiration, once you see what is possible you will be aching to try it yourself!
Soft pastels for beginners are the perfect tool to experiment with different types of paper for a huge array of effects. The use of toned paper is common and will affect the colours you are putting down for a whole new world of colour possibilities. Because soft pastels are made from pigment, you will get different results on different surfaces. If you want to do lots of blending, a smoother surface will make it easier but an abstract piece on a heavily textured material has the potential to look 3D.
One last note! Soft pastels are made to be broken, some techniques are much easier to achieve when you break your pastel into smaller pieces so don’t be gentle with them and remember that small and leftover fragments are perfectly useful and can be ideal for blending small areas, dusting and much, much more.