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  • Writer's pictureJason Morgan

Getting Started with Pastels (Pastel pencils, soft pastel and PanPastels)

Getting Started with Pastels (Pastel pencils, soft pastel and PanPastels) can be confusing, I know it was for me. So much choice and all the artists seemed to be recommending different things, I didn’t know where to start. This article will hopefully clear things up a little for you. The main problems are that there is more than one method / way to create art with pastels, some like to use just soft pastels, some like just pencils, others like me, like to use all the different types together – so you will ALWAYS have artists suggesting their preferred method, and of course this is just mine.

But I have learnt a LOT through trial and error and also testing different pastels and surfaces, so you don’t have to waste money doing that yourself. Let’s take a brief look at supplies to start with, so you are aware of the different types available.

Pastel Supplies – Basic overview

Pastel Pencils

pastel pencil supplies
pastel pencils

As you would expect these are pastels inside a wooden casing. The pastels are mostly, but not always, a bit harder than soft pastels (ie pastel sticks), and generally not as vibrant either. But they are great for details, and you can do whole drawings using just them – my favourite brands are Stabilo Carbothello and PITT as they are a little harder than most of the other brands.

Being harder means they are MUCH easier to sharpen and hold their point better, so they need less sharpening. These two brands are still soft enough to do backgrounds and under layers with though. Another decent brand is Derwent, but they are a little more prone to breaking, so they are not my favourite. There are some softer pencils I also like, Gioconda have some lovely colours and are a great addition if you like to draw a lot of vibrant coloured subjects like flowers etc Caran D’Ache are some artists favourites, they have excellent light fastness and a wide range of colours, but they are soft and very difficult to sharpen (you really need to use a blade to avoid a lot of breakages). I don’t use them often at all.

Hard Pastel sticks

pastel pencil and hard sticks
pastel sticks

Hard pastels are what I call hard pastel sticks, the ones I sometimes use are called Conte sticks (crayons – be sure not to buy oil pastels or oil crayons though). These are harder than the pencils and are small square sticks – you can sharpen them on sandpaper to a point for details or use them for under layers – they are cheaper than pencils and last longer – so they save your pencils from wearing out fast.

You can see them in the photo below, they are on the right-hand side. Once again you can buy them individually and also in sets, once again reasonably priced. Their main use is really for details – they can be used for underlayers and backgrounds, but their slightly gritty nature means it can be difficult to get a smooth blend.

Now I have been drawing with pastels for 6 or so years (as of 2023) I find I hardly use them at all.

Soft Pastel sticks

soft pastel sticks
soft pastels

Pastel sticks are very useful for laying in underlayers and also for putting in soft backgrounds. They are MUCH opaquer than Panpastels so cover the paper even with a very thin coating. And of course, using them means you save your pencils from being used up fast. Soft pastels are, as the name suggests, quite soft, there are varying degrees of softness in these traditional looking cylindrical shaped pastels, some makes are super soft, other quite hard – each has a use. My two favourite brands are Jackson’s own brand and Rembrandt. Both of them are quite hard when compared to most other brands. But that means they are also much easier to control and a lot less likely to fill up the tooth of the paper. The super soft ones like Schmincke are great for very soft backgrounds etc but even with a light pressure they can crumble and fill the tooth in an instant. So, use them very lightly and sparingly.


panpastel supplies

These are getting very popular now, they are a very pigmented pastel in a plastic holder. You can apply them with sponges and their own Sofft tool applicators etc in many of my videos you will see me use them for the blocking in process, skies etc I loved them so much I even have my own wildlife art set of basic colours.

For me they have many benefits. As an artist that LOVES detail it can sometimes be a bit of an effort to stop myself diving in with the details right at the start. PanPastels make me do the important things 1st – that is getting in a solid foundation, an underlayer that shows me where my lights and darks will be and also give me a good midtone to work over. This is essential in the way I work.

Some artists (especially those coming to pastels from a coloured pencil background), work on a very small area of their drawing at a time and stay there until it is completed, then move on to the next area. As I come from an oil painting background it seems much more natural and logical for me to get a base tone down over larger areas (even the whole drawing sometimes) and then work on top of that, refining with each new layer.

PanPastel colours can be combined to make a different colour, more so than you can with standard pastel sticks, and in lots of my videos you will see me do this, mixing on a piece of standard printer paper. I don’t mix colours to make a completely different colour though ie yellow + blue, making green, but I mix to slightly adjust a colour, ie I might add a little yellow to a brown to give it a slightly yellow / brown appearance.

The basics of using PanPastels can be seen in my free videos here –

Sofft Tools

panpastel sofft tools
panpastel tools

There are many different types and shapes Sofft tools in the PanPastel range, and they all make different marks.

My two favourites are the knives (like little shovels) and the larger sponges. The larger sponges are much more robust, and I use those for blocking in medium to large areas fast, these sponges will last a long time and can be cleaned by wiping in a microfibre cloth or washed thoroughly in water. The small ends you pull on to the blue knives are MUCH more fragile and do wear out quickly on Pastelmat paper – the small black ended tools are a little longer lasting.

Paper Types

There are LOTS of different pastel papers out there, some have a very uniform texture, as you can see on the one below (Ingres). I personally never use those types of papers, I don’t think they look particularly great for wildlife. You will also find they dont hold the pastel in to the surface, so if you blend it can quickly end up in a muddy looking mess.

engres pastel paper
el paper

I always use pastelmat by Clairefontaine, oits a very unique surface. The drawing surface is made out of cellulose fibres and these grab and hold the pastel pigment whilst still being quite smooth and velvety to the touch (so you can blend with your fingers). There is literally no other surface like it as of 2023. There are also Sanded Papers like - UART 600 - 800 grade or Fisher 400 – these are basically a sand paper, so much rougher to the touch than Pastelmat and they allow layering, but not in the way pastelmat does. Its worth experimenting with them to see what you personally like, but I find you need to use a much more direct approach when using them rather than applying lots of thin layers as I do with pastelmat.

The other benefit of sanded papers (and pastelmat is not very rough) is that they hold the pastel very well and allow many layers, which is essential for my techniques

Clairefontaine Pastelmat paper

clairefontaine pastelmat paper

I have videos covering this subject in depth, but to cut a long story short, I use Clairefontaine Pastelmat in either Light Blue (my current favourite) Dark Grey, Brown or Sienna for almost all of my drawings. It’s a superb combination of just textured enough to hold many layers but not so rough it hurts your fingers when blending.

Confused? This should clear it up 😊

OK, so even though I have kept the explanations of the supplies as simple as I can above, you might still be a bit confused, especially if you are brand new to pastels. Let me simplify it even more with these basic suggestions.

For the under drawing, basic blocking in this is what I use – PanPastels are great and quick to use.

Soft pastels like Jacksons, Rembrandt, or even just use pastel pencils. For the details, Pastel pencils, and sharpened conte sticks.

Good Starting Set - Getting Started with Pastels (Pastel pencils, soft pastel and PanPastels)

So, a great set for beginners just dipping their toes in to pastels, is a small pad of pastelmat paper (you can get a mix of colours ) and a set of pencils like Carbothello or PITT that is really all you need – but if you don’t mind spending some more then a small set of PanPastels or hard Pastel sticks, to go with them would be a useful addition.

To this you can add other pastels a bit at a time.

As mentioned things like PanPastel, great for underlayers and soft backgrounds and also soft pastel sticks, are also great for soft focused backgrounds.

But if you want to keep start-up costs to an absolute minimum, just buy the pencils.

pastel supplies for beginners
pastel supplies

Some extra links you might find of use Videos

Start learning pastels today

Do you want to avoid years’ worth of frustration and trial and error as you learn the techniques of using pastels? If so then I have a way for you to avoid all that and start creating right now. I have taught literally thousands of artists from complete beginner to super advanced my techniques and they can’t believe how quickly they learn. You can get access to hundreds of hours of my lessons on my Patreon art channel here and start learning today, all for the price of a coffee – it doesn’t get better value than that.

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