How to Begin with Pastels: Some Tips To Get You Started

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Making art is generally messy. With the possible exception of digital photography, making art is going to leave you with stained fingers, a floor in need of vacuuming, a trash can full of off-cuts, and a spare room piled high with works-in-progress. It's the nature of the beast. Artists generally accept this as a necessary evil…and so when you have people actively avoiding a particular medium specifically because of the mess, you know it must be particularly bad.

That's soft pastels for you. A soft pastel stick is essentially pigment - i.e. ultrafine colored powder - loosely held together with a gum binder, and when one is drawn across a textured surface, the pigment crumbles off the stick. Most of the pigment remains on the painting surface, where the micro-texture of the surface holds it in place (a process known as ‘mechanical adhesion'). But some of the pigment fails to adhere, and falls off or rolls down the face of surface, and some becomes airborne, later to settle on whatever is nearby. The result? MESS.

Added to this is the fact that pigment readily comes off pastel sticks and onto the artist's hands and fingers, from where it can spread to other pastel sticks and to areas of the work-in-progress where it shouldn't be. It's also very easy to inadvertently smudge. More mess.

So there's no doubt that soft pastels are messy, and it's not hard to understand why some artists decide to opt for oil pastels instead, solely to avoid some of these problems. If one decides to press on with soft pastels though, what are some steps that can be taken to reduce or eliminate the mess, or at least to make cleanup after a session easier?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Put a drop sheet under your easel, and tilt it slightly forward.

This way any pigment that decides it doesn't want to adhere to your surface will drift harmlessly off it, and gather on the drop sheet below. This works better if you work standing up, as otherwise some of the dust will settle on your legs.

2. Work outside.

Because soft pastels are so fast to work with (i.e. you just pick the color you want and go for it), they're great for capturing the ever-changing light of the great outdoors. And best of all, you don't need to worry about cleaning up afterwards!

3. Keep a moist cloth hanging somewhere near your easel.

Great for wiping your fingers on between putting down one pastel stick and picking up another.

4. Use a Mahl stick to avoid smudging your work.

A Mahl stick is a wooden rod about a meter long with a padded ball at one end. You rest the ball on your easel or on the edge of your surface, rest the wrist of your painting hand on it, and use your other hand to hold and position the non-ball end.

5. Get an air purifier with ionizer for working indoors.

Though expensive, they're the ultimate way to remove pigment dust from the air, preventing it from settling around you or being breathed in.

These are just a few good tips to help you to begin with pastels.

Emma Ralph is an experienced pastel artist and author of the book "Pastel Painting Secrets". To learn more about how to begin with pastels visit

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Occupation: artist
My name is Emma Ralph and I have been using pastels as a painting medium for many years and although I don't exhibit in a gallery on a regular basis, my work sells quite frequently at local art fares and exhibitions. I have also sold acryllic and oil paintings that I have done.

Talking to other artists has made me realize that people who haven't used pastels think they will be difficult or they wont last. Personally, I believe that they are a very versatile and forgiving medium and would love to think that I have helped others give it a try and discover how much fun pastels can be. Please stop by my website, it's specific to pastels and I offer a free 10 day mini course.

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