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Pastel Demo

Updated on September 14, 2014

Rendering with Pastels

Pastels can be a bit intimidating. But I'm going to show you that it's not really all that hard. This step by step demo will show you how I work. Now, it's not how everyone works with pastels, but I find this way works for me.

Don't let pastels intimidate you. They can take a little more practice than - say - colored pencils. Take your time, go slow and keep practicing. You will become more comfortable with pastels.

So, lets get started. You can grab a scrap piece of paper and a few pastels and follow along. Or read through the whole tutorial and come back and then practice. It's up to you.

What you need

You don't need a lot of supplies to get started. Pick up a few individual sticks of pastels and maybe a few pastel pencils for details. A sheet of watercolor paper and you're good to go.

Pastels come in round or square shapes, block and pencils and are made of powdered pigment. They range from hard to soft, powdered (dry) and oil and water-soluble. Because the dry pastels never dry out, you can store them for years and bring them out ready to go any time. When starting out, I do not recommend the oil pastels. In time they dry out and become useless. Stick with the chalk type pastels.

Pastels are not easy to mix on the paper so most manufacturers make a huge range of colors. You might want to start out with a small box of 24 to 48 and buy the colors you need to fill in the shades. Or you can just buy the colors you want individually. I find this the best way because the sets usually include colors I will never use. Start with a handful to get you started and build on them.

You can use just about any type of paper with pastels. Charcoal and watercolor paper works well and can be purchased as individual sheets to pads. If you're just getting started, pick up a pad of pastel paper to practice on. You don't have to make a masterpiece now. Use each sheet and work on one technique. When you feel more adventures, get yourself a single sheet of watercolor paper and cut into several sizes.


There are fixatives to use when your work is finished. The idea is to stop the pastel painting from smudging. However, be careful when using fixatives. Use very light coats and allow to dry before applying another. They will not stop the smudging completely, but will add a level of protection. If you apply too heavy a coat, some of your lighter applications of pastel will actually disappear. Never use hair spray. Yes, I said hair spray. Hair spray is considered the poor man's fixative. But if you're going to spend hours of labor on your masterpiece, why skimp on the one thing that will preserve it?

Workable fixative- A workable fixative allows you to continue working on a piece. Use it between layers, or apply it when you want to protect an unfinished piece and return to work on it later.

Final fixative - Final fixatives are non-workable, and should be used only when the artwork is completed. Apply the fixative lightly, without wetting or soaking the paper. Once the fixative has been applied, it provides some protection against smudging and ultraviolet light. But remember, you can never work on the piece again. I suggest you use the workable fixative for now. Live with the final piece for awhile and if you are completely satisfied and know you will not work on it again, only then use the final fixative.

This is the photo reference I'm using for this demo.

I am a member with several clip art and photo image web sites. And these are where I got the references. This picture is actually a composite of three photos. The background and river, the bear and the rocks in the foreground. After I manipulated the image to my liking, I printed it out so I can use it as a reference.

Paper - Find a nice watercolor or charcoal paper that has the color of your mid tones. With this image I could have gone with the light blues from the water, or mid gray from the stones. But I wanted the piece to have a warm undertone, so I chose a mid tone from the bear. A nice brown color.

TIP 1 - Always use a colored paper that compliments your work. If you choose a mid tone much of your work is already done for you. If you use white paper, you will always be fighting the white and will become frustrated with it. By allowing the mid tone paper to show through your work, it works with your piece, not against it.

2. - LIGHTLY sketch your composition onto the paper. Be very, very careful not to actually press into the paper. This will leave an indent that you will never get out. I've done a separate sketch so you can see what it would look like, but you won't see it in the steps to come because I've done it so light and I go back and actually erase it to practically nothing. I just get a road map sort of speak where everything goes with no real detail. I don't necessary follow it exactly and will sometimes change things as I go, but this will give me a guide to go by. Notice that I also indicate the direction of the fur. This is important so you don't go off in the wrong direction.

TIP 2 - If your using a very dark paper such as navy blue or black, use a white colored pencil. Again, be careful not to press into the paper too hard.

Here we go. I'm not going to give you the different colors I've used. I know, that can be very frustrating for beginners, but to be honest, I don't know what the colors are. I find a color that I think will work and go from there, I'm not paying any attention to the name of the color. If I find the color is too light or too dark, I just choose another.

I've started with the bear here. Some people would do the entire background and add the bear on top. I don't like doing that. I find when you do that the colors of the background influence the colors you place on top. I would rather keep the paper color clean and work around it. Notice that I always go in the direction of the fur. In this step you see that I've even added a few strokes of color to show me where the colors change and to keep track of the direction. Even though I've got the drawing underneath, it just keeps me on track.

Moving along with the bear, changing colors as necessary. I usually just try to get all the basic colors down first then go back and adjust the colors. I like to work whole areas like the head first, then the body then down each leg. It's just how I feel at the time. No particular reason.

Here's a close up of the bear so far.

A word about using black.

Black just sucks the life out of a painting. Try using dark blue, green, brown or purple or even a mixture of these. The more colors you use to create black, the more life the black will have. Be careful though. Try not to use more than two or three colors or you will end up with mud.

Having said that, I use pastel pencil black only when I'm trying to bring out a very small detail, such as the eyes or nose.

The bear is done for now. I'll probably go back and add more detail if I think it needs it. But for now lets move onto the rocks in the front.

I block in most of the colors and go back and add bits of detail here and there. I don't want them to look too detailed and try to leave them a bit loose.

You can see in this close up that the strokes are very simple with a lot of the paper showing through. I'll go back later and pick out some details. Again, let the paper color do some of the work.

Think like the impressionists

When painting with pastels, mixing colors can be a bit hard. It's not that they don't blend into each other, it's that they end up looking muddy and lose the sparkle. So, when mixing colors, think like the impressionist painters. They used pure color next to each other and let the viewers eye do the mixing. Here is a perfect example of this technique. Seurat was a master of this type of painting. That doesn't mean you have to dab and tickle the pastel on, it just means that if you have to "mix" colors to get a nice black for instance, then try placing strokes, or dabs of color next to each other.

In the step above with the rocks, you can see that I've placed pure color next to other colors. If you look closely, you'll see that there really aren't that many colors in the rocks. Your eye wants to fill in the missing colors and so see the colors that aren't really there. Plus, the paper adds some color as well.

The rocks are finished for now.

The water was a bit tricky for me. So I turned the work and the source photo upside down and worked from that.

TIP 3 - Whenever you find yourself getting lost in a piece and don't know where to go or how to go about working the area, turn your work and your source photo upside down. This is a great way to turn off the left side of your brain. When the work is upside down, the right side has a chance to work and all you see are shapes and colors. I use this method a lot when I get into complicated areas. While working on this piece, I used this trick many times.

I worked with the water for awhile until I was satisfied with it and now have moved on to the background. This is another area that I turned the piece upside down several times. I wanted this area to be out of focus so the bear would really stand out. My sketch only showed me where some of the key colors were and from there I just played with it. Dabbing colors here and there and blending some of them in a little. No real details here. Just enough to be able to tell what it is.

I just continue working the background, adding highlights here, shadows there.

A close up of the background. I worked some details into the rocks, but not too much and added lights and darks where I felt it was needed.

After completing the piece using the hard pastels, I went back into some areas again with the pastel pencils and picked out some details here and there. I have a hard time leaving a piece alone when I get to this point and really have to slap my hand and tell it to stop.

I add my signature at the bottom left and call it done.

You can see in many places where I've left the color of the paper show through. Because it's a nice mid tone, it really works.

I hope you enjoyed this demo and that it inspires you to give pastels a try.

Wildlife art by award winning artist Kathie Miller

Many mediums have been used, airbrush, colored pencils, even textiles

To see my store, go to Wildlife Art

I use many different mediums, colored pencil, watercolor, even textiles.

Elephant Portrait

Tiger and the Buddah


Barrel Racing

American Alligator

Be sure to check out all my art demos, go to The Natural Gift

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain - I highly recommend this book to all beginers

The all time best book to get you started drawing. This is the book that gave me the idea to do some of this painting and many others upside down. You will be amazed at how much better you will begin drawing just with this book alone.


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