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by Anne Kostecki


5 Tips For Starting In Hard Pastel Drawing

by Anne Kostecki

5 Tips For Starting In Hard Pastel Drawing

by Anne Kostecki

Hello! I am sharing another 5 Tips for an artistic medium. This time it's hard pastels, which are my favorite of the pastel options (hard pastels, soft pastels, pastel pencils, pan pastels, and oil pastels). 

Pastels are made by mixing dry pigment with a gum binder and filler to form a paste, then it is molded into sticks and dried. Ingredients will differ based on the type of pastel, quality, and brand. Like many other art supplies, cheaper brands tend to have more filler and binders. 



What is the difference between hard pastels and soft pastels?

Soft pastels have less binder and more pigment: so, much more intense color. But, less binder also means more dry pigment, and the dryness means the pastel stick crumbles much more easily. 

Soft pastels' fragility and powdery texture makes them ideal for blending, layering, and for specific artistic effects. You can also use the edges for fine lines, but this isn't something I do very often. In fact, I've gotten away from soft pastels so much, I don't know if I'd even know how to use them best.

And so, here I am: with a few tips for hard pastel drawing!



1. Dress for a mess.

The first thing I learned about hard pastels was how messy they are. Just touching a pastel stick means you will get the pigment on your fingers and hands. Pastel sticks crumble very easily when you draw, so small pieces may crack off and pulverize in all directions. The pigment can quickly go from your hands, to your clothes, to your face, desk, floor, and all over your drawing paper, if you aren't watching carefully.

So my first recommendation for you is: to wear old clothes, put down old papers on your desk, work on a hardwood floor, and possibly wear thin plastic gloves if you need to. It's not absolutely necessary to do these things, because pastels don't permanently discolor things, but it makes cleanup a lot easier if you protect most of your surfaces. Some people wear masks because the dust irritates their lungs, and this is something else you can do. 



2. Use the right supplies.

Hard pastels can't be used on any type of paper. The best papers are heavier with "tooth" that can hold the chalk as you apply it. The tooth is the texture, the characteristic small "hills and valleys" look of the paper. Here are the different kinds of tooth:

Laid/Ingres: This type has criss/cross or grid lines. This one is more of a "gapped-tooth," meaning you won't be able to get sharp details unless you really get in there with your pastels. This is a popular tooth, so it's easy to find and affordable. Colors blend easily and smoothly on these.

Dimple/Honeycomb: This one is very similar to laid/ingres, it just has a honeycomb pattern when you look closely. It has similar blendability and color-smoothing as laid/ingres. This one is harder to find, and may be pricier.

Gritty: This has a characteristic sharkskin or sandpapery feel, but it's not nearly as harsh as the real thing! Gritty paper grips the pastel quite well, prevents pigment spillage, and allows you to add great highlights on top. This one is more expensive, so save it for more dedicated projects.

Velour: This is designed for pastel, but smooth to the touch. It holds the pigment well, and is great for blending. This is the most expensive (unsurprisingly) so use it once you're very confident in your skills. 



Other characteristics: 

Paper Color: The great thing about pastel drawing is how wonderful it looks on colored paper. A lot of Artagain pads have multiple colors in a book, and it allows you to experiment with letting the paper color add to the artwork. 

Paper Weight: Most papers are in the unit "GSM" which stands for "grams per square meter." The higher the GSM, the thicker the paper usually. I recommend working with papers that are 175 GSM or higher. 

Spray Fixative: Pastel drawings are like chalk -- meaning that the dust can fall off and smudge very easily. You've got to take good care of your drawings by storing them horizontally, in your art pad, and preferably with binder clips or rubber bands on the end so that your pad doesn't flap open. When you are finished with your work, you use spray fixative to prevent it from dusting or smudging any more. Make sure you put your art on top of papers or junk mail and spray from some distance, and don't inhale. Spray fixative can get on your clothes and hands, so use care. 


3. Resist the urge to blend with your fingertips too much.

Once you start drawing with hard pastels, especially on a paper with tooth, you'll quickly realize that there are "gaps" as you draw where the valleys in the paper are. Meaning: pastels are not like ink, they don't make smooth lines or shapes, they have a very "chalk on a chalkboard"-like appearance. And, if you're like me, you might see those gaps and think, "Ooo, I need to blend this in."

DON'T! Well, at least wait before you do that! The oils on your fingertips will affect how the pastels draw on the paper, and it may be an effect you don't like. The drawing will only be able to be blend effectively with the pastels for a certain number of layers. If you repeatedly blend with your oily fingertips, it will be much more difficult to fix mistakes. The new layers won't stick, or you won't be able to blend the colors seamlessly. 

I have a method that will aid you: use a stiff-bristled brush (preferably with a long handle) to blend as needed. It will dust off some of the pigment from your paper, but it will give you an idea of what the color will look like blended before you add oil to it. I carefully brush in one direction (not back and forth) to avoid dusting off too much pigment.


4. Experiment with using few colors. 

When I was learning how to draw (or paint, either one can be used when referring to pastels), my first lesson was to complete a work using only 2 colors, plus white. Those colors were to be opposites (blue/orange, red/green, and yellow/purple). I used blue and orange, and was unbelievably surprised when I saw all of the wonderful colors I could blend!

Pastels are so highly pigmented and vibrant, that a few strokes can change colors quite surprisingly. If you're the type of person that starts an art hobby and thinks, "I need to be a rainbow of colors, so I can achieve exactly what I need in my work," then know that you don't need a lot of colors to do that with pastels. 

In fact, I would recommend doing the same exercise I did when I first learned pastels. Take two opposite colors and white, and draw a picture. See what happens!


5. For details, use a blunt knife. 

The edges of your hard pastels form a square, and since pastels crumble so easily, your edges might smooth out fast. I remember when I first drawing with pastels, that I got frustrated when my nice sharp edges would dull so quickly. Then I had an idea!

I had an old, blunt folding knife in my possession, and I tried sharpening my pastel stick with it. It worked really well! The folding knife was ideal for the job:  it had a blunt tip that was folded over and safe to store in my bag. I made sure to have a discard cup for the shards as I sharpened the pastels too. I'm sure there are other ways to get those coveted details with pastels -- I know artists use blending sticks (or stumps), various brushes, or pencil sharpeners, but I really like my little folding knife.


 So, there you have it! Those are my 5 tips to start with hard pastel. As always, feel free to email me with any questions. 




  • Thank you for sharing, I’m ready to start!

    Sherri Verzosa on

  • Thank you for confirming my process using hard pastels! I’ve been using hard pastel sticks since I began painting 2 years ago. Truly, you are one of the only information sources I’ve seen on using dry pastels.

    Lorna on

  • Thank you Anne. This is such a great write-up on hard pastel. It’s such a bummer that there are not many resources on it.

    Trang on

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