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Pastel Pencils - Basics

Please remember that as far as the UKCPS and CPSA are concerned, these two International societies specialise in promoting the wax type of pencil, and do not accept pastel pencils (at the moment) as a medium for competitive Coloured Pencil exhibition except where specifically allowed in a Mixed Media context.  If you use Pastel Pencils in a competition entry for either these two societies, make sure you read the rules carefully and if you are in any doubt, ask the Exhibition Director! For those of you who come direct from an Internet search and are looking for information on Pastel Pencils, we also welcome you warmly. We need, first of all. to make the point that whilst the two types of ‘Coloured Pencil’ ( wax and pastel ) are similar in many techniques, the main difference from a working point of view is that while Wax Pencils are mostly transparent, fairly permanent on the paper and built up in layers, Pastel Pencils ( and pastels generally ) are an OPAQUE medium, so we are talking mostly about layers of pigment colours which are blended ON the paper.  The final picture surface is also more fragile and requires protection from damage by a mount and glazed frame. So let us have a look at Pastels - and Pastel Pencils in particular, The pencil, and near pencil, brands on sale in the United Kingdom The differences between them The surfaces they can be used on And how they can be used WHAT is pastel ? WHY use Pastel Anyway ? WHAT advantages do Pastel Pencils have over soft pastel in sticks ? WHAT disadvantages are there ? WHAT are the best types of surfaces to use ?   HOW DO the brands differ ? HOW can Pastel pencils best be used together with traditional Coloured Pencils ?
WELCOME to this Pastel Pencil section of the website.   Some of you will have come from other pages within the site and will therefore possibly have a basic knowledge of what we call ‘Coloured Pencils’  - that is, the wax type - which are mostly transparent, don’t need ‘fixing’ with a varnish spray, and depend on building up layers of pigment which glow through the layers and give the strong vibrant colours and fine detail we know. PASTEL PENCILS ARE DIFFERENT IN A NUMBER OF RESPECTS This pastel pencil section introduces the particular techniques for Pastel Pencils and the information you need to work with them and to understand the differences between the two pencil disciplines.  
Somerset Farm Soft pastels on sandpaper. Peter Weatherill circa 2014
WHAT is pastel ? Pastel is an ancient colouring medium which has its roots in the caves when prehistoric artists used soft coloured stone to mark the outlines of animals on the hard rock walls. Modern soft pastels are made up of pure ground pigment mixed with a binder and varying amount of filler into a soft paste and then left to dry in sticks.  Soft pastels have less binder than hard pastels and are therefore tend to be more crumbly. They allow fast lay down of colour which can be blended on the paper or card support but have the relative disadvantage that the picture surface is merely held in place on the support by gravity and the roughness of the surface.  For this reason, pastel images need to be framed up quickly with a special way of mounting and a protective layer of glass to prevent damage.  The high level of pigment and relative thickness of the medium mean that the images are usually safe against all but the strongest Ultra Violet light fading.
A box of traditional  soft pastels stored in colour sets.   Mainly Winsor & Newton, but a sprinkling of other brands. The sectional box enables the artist to keep the colours separate and reduces the amount of surface build up from other colours which make colour identity difficult. The colours are graded downwards from dark to light and across in yellows, blues, greens, greys & purples and finally reds & blacks. This box of mine is in need of use !
Traditional pastel comes in sticks of the medium which vary a great deal in hardness. The softest pastel tends to leave a layer of chalky dust over everything within range in the studio - including the hands and clothes of the artist and neighbouring sticks of pastel colour, so that many pastel artists have boxes of sticks of colour that all seem to have a uniform grey look despite the actual colour underneath being very different.  This is the reason I have the box shown above - I can’t abide not being able to see the colours I want to use. The medium is a wonderful one for speedy working and gentle blends of colour - portraits are often superb - but pastel is renowned for the amount of mess that develops.   Senellier ( France ) -  list over 500 colours - and make one of the softer pastels as do Unison (UK ) - who make 400 colours.  Unison pastels are hand made and have a unique size and shape   Middle of the road pastels ( for hardness ) come from Daler Rowney and Winsor & Newton ( UK ) who offer something like 200 different colour shades each. Harder pastels are also manufactured - notably by firms such as Conte ( France ) 84 colours - and medium hard  by Talens  ( Netherlands ) - round about 200 colours. Hard sticks of pastel are also produced by the Pastel Pencil companies ( such as Derwent, Cretacolour and Faber-Castell) who produce square shaped sticks in the same formula that they use to make into wood encased Pastel Pencils Most colour ranges  of soft pastel comprise a pure colour and up to 10 tints of that colour mixed with white, and 10 shades mixed with black. Some brands then give graded mixes of two colours ( grey greens and green greys etc ), This gives a huge variation in tints and blends of colours. Softer pastel sticks tend to break more easily and, as with Coloured Pencils, softer mediums do not keep an edge or point very easily. However, a broken edge can provide an ideal tool for a fine line. If you wish to fix the surface to lock to pastel pigment down, spray fixatives are available, but they have the effect of darkening and dulling the colours so that it becomes necessary to add a final ‘unfixed’ coat of colour to highlights and areas of high contrast and colour. There is a section on fixative spray on a later page WHY use Pastel ? FIRSTLY Because it produces beautiful pictures rapidly SECONDLY and also on the positive side, colours can be blended easily on the working surface, and delicate transitions of colour can be readily obtained. THIRDLY The colour in the image has a clear crystal appearance where the pigment reflects the light without any added medium which might interrupt the eye seeing the artist’s original intentions. ALSO The media is dry and immediate - there is no ‘drying time’ The medium is very ‘tactile’ and repays getting your fingers involved in blending colours (But keep a damp cloth handy - or a block of blended Blu tac and white tac to clean your hands and fingers on) - again, see a later page on techniques WHAT advantages do Pastel Pencils have over soft pastel ? They are cleaner to work with, and, because they are usually harder than soft pastel sticks, they tend to keep a point or edge better for fine working. In summary - more convenient, cleaner and capable of more detail WHAT disadvantages do Pastel Pencils have over soft pastel ? A smaller range of colours Not so easy to lay down large areas of colour Large pictures will be more expensive to create as pencils are more costly than simple pastel sticks BUT Pastel Pencils can be used with Soft Pastel (or hard pastel sticks) for detailed work and finishing touches.    some pencil brands include pastel sticks of some or all of the main colours in the pencil sets, so that basic layers of colour can be applied and then the picture completed with detail using Pastel Pencils. WHAT are the best surfaces to use ? Paper or card specially made for pastel, with a soft, slightly rough surface to grip and hold the pigment. There are a number of special papers which have a soft surface - some with built in patterns and made in different colours.  There are also special card surfaces which have abrasive finishes or treatments of powdered cork - some with an acrylic finish to provide a coloured background.  I have discussed surfaces in more detail on the ‘surfaces’ page of this section. In 2019 the favoured surface for pastel is ‘Pastelmat’ martketed by the French company Clairfontaine. On the expensive side, but well worth it as it needs far less fixing and holds much more pastel safely. It is best to avoid traditional smooth (watercolour type) art papers. They are not designed to hold the Pastel medium Do the brands of Pastel Pencil DIFFER ? The question everyone asks ! I will go through the different brands in detail on adjoining pages, but in summary, mostly, no. There are several manufacturers making pastel pencils, and - as you would expect - there are some which are very similar and one or two which differ a great deal from the competition. Much of the difference lies in the colour selections.  Generally speaking the different brands can all be used together, so a mixed selection of brands works quite well. Most are of medium hardness and work well together. The one exception is that I have found Conte pastel pencils too hard to work well with other brands Sharpening Most Pastel Pencil cores are too soft to use a power sharpener on, and should be sharpened with a craft knife or scalpel. You can use a hand cranked desktop sharpener with a spiral cutter, using care. The main manufacturers produce simple purpose designed pastel pencil sharpeners which use a blade and are designed to accept the diameter of the manufacturer’s own pencils (many differ). These are inexpensive and excellent when new.  A blunt blade can be a pain though, and lead to multiple breaking, so as soon as your sharpener starts breaking points regularly, dispose of it. Knife sharpening is probably the safest choice anyway and the best style of point can be obtained easily and reliably.  You can also sharpen a point up to a special shape for a specific purpose.  Cretacolor advise that their Pastel pencils are best sharpened with sandpaper as they use a soft variety of wood. A sandpaper block or pad is very useful to hone up and shape the point of any brand. I have been asked to include a more detailed section on sharpening pastel pencils and this is in the Techniques section Which brand of pencil to choose ? A lot depends on the feel of the pencil, and only the artist can decide what he or she likes best.   The one brand which stands out as markedly different from the rest is Carbothello from Swan Stabilo which is made to an entirely different carbon based formula.  Anyone considering buying Pastel Pencils should test one of these if they can, to see how they compare with the traditional formula pastel pencils, most of which have a chalk or calcite mineral base.  Carbothello may appear harder than others but are actually no harder in use. They have a ‘crunchy’ feel, more like charcoal than chalk.   Pastel artists generally use a mixture of brands to give them the best colour range and Carbothello are quite acceptable as one of the mix.. UK Manufacturers Derwent have made Pastel Pencils for many years and in 2010 launched a new formula Pastel pencil which has been road tested and will be discussed on the later ‘brands’ page .  The Derwent pencil set now extends to 72 colours. 72 is a good range for pastel pencils.  Lightfastness rating is available on the Derwent web site. Pencils from Derwent are usually available singly for replacement of used pencils in sets, and the new formula pencils are available in this way. There is also a set of 36 pastel blocks  matching colours in the pencil set. These are handy for faster lay down of colour on larger pictures Daler Rowney market a pastel pencil sold in sets of up to 36 in number.  Not tested.  Actual country of origin is European and believed to be Austria, which makes it probable that they are manufactured by Cretacolour. It is difficult to get information from Daler Rowney on their pencil brands as they have not replied to mail on questions about the products.  Though they do have wide circulation in retail outlets, these are usually sold as sealed boxes, and individual replacement pencils are not easily available. European Manufacturers Faber-Castell - Pitt Pastel.( Germany )  An old established brand with a good selection of 60 colours.  Good levels of lightfastness  sold both as pencils and in the same colours, as sticks - also 60 to the set.  Available singly for replacement as pencils in sets are used. Easily found in art shops around the UK.  This is a great benefit. Swan Stabilo. Carbothello pencils. ( Germany )  Manufactured with a high carbon content rather than chalk and have a different feel to other brands - more like charcoal.  60 Good colours.  Available singly. Conte ( France ) More limited colour range (48) a thicker barrel with more pastel content and a harder pencil than the other brands.  Not always easily mixable with the softer brands. Bruynzeel ( from the Sakura Group .... sourced through the Netherlands)   more limited colour range than some makes (48)  but good pencils.  Hard enough to sharpen in a power sharpener but soft enough to use easily. I still suggest a knife to sharpen them. Sets sold in attractive foam lined drawer boxes but not easily found other than through the Internet. Individual replacements not seen. Cretacolor ( from Austria )  Good pencils, wider than average colour range ( 72 colours ) also can be power sharpened but probably better maintained with a knife or with sandpaper as the manufacturer suggests. You are unlikely to find them in shops but they are readily obtainable on line both in sets and as single pencils (useful) and like most other brands, they are watersoluble. (see link on brands page). This is a brand I like, they sharpen well, the colour range is good and sticks of the colours are also available. Cretacolour has a very good reputation for using lightfast pigments Caran d’Ache introduced a range of pastel pencils and hard pastel sticks ( ‘Cubes’ ) in the Spring / Summer of 2012. THIS IS THE MOST RECENT INTRODUCTION ON THE PASTEL PENCIL MARKET ( as at 2019) This product has had extensive testing during 2011 and we saw samples at most stages of the development.  There are 84 colours in the range - both as pencils and as ‘cubes’ which makes them a very good colour choice.  The pencils and cubes are sold individually and as sets - some of the sets being designated for Portraits, Landscapes etc.  Prices tend to be higher than other brands and this is understandable for a product manufactured outside the EU, in Switzerland, and having to negotiate the various currency hurdles. The product is a good one and I have sampled them with a number of my students who were all impressed by the quality. Individual pencils are on sale at major retailers and also via the Internet at a price of around £2.50 each. See the section following on Brands for more details Thornborough Bridge.  Pastel Pencils on Grey Fabriano Tiziano paper. I have included in the pastel pencil section of this web site, the picture shown below of an old bridge on the A421 near Buckingham.  I sat out in a field alongside the bridge and watched the swans come down the river with their cygnets - unfortunately too late to include them in the picture, but I have some nice photos.   As a matter of interest, the main road now by-passes the bridge ( on the other side ) and there is a picnic spot and car park for those who want to stop.  Each arch of the bridge is different and it has been patched up many times over its lifetime of regular road use between 1400 and 1974.   There is a deserted mediaeval village site  nearby. The basic picture done on the spot was mostly completed in just under 3 hours.  Another 2 hours fiddling at home enabled me to complete the picture for framing. The completed image is 9.5 ins x 13 ins.   It was fixed twice in the painting process , once when I had all the basics blocked in with Faber Castell Pitt Pastel sticks, and once when I packed up to come home at the 3 hour point. The finishing off was with Pitt pastel pencils.  A relatively hard pencil which releases low levels of dust in use.
Page reviewed February 2019