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Mastering Pastel Painting for Beginners: Your Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

Pastel painting is a beautiful and versatile art form that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their skill level. As a beginner, you may feel overwhelmed by the variety of materials, techniques, and artistic concepts involved in pastel painting. However, with the right guidance and resources, you can quickly learn the basics and start creating stunning works of art. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the world of pastel painting for beginners, covering everything from understanding pastels and selecting materials to mastering techniques and preserving your artwork.

Pastel Painting for Beginners - countryside landscape

Pastel Painting for Beginners: Understanding Pastels

Pastels are a type of art medium made from finely ground pigment and a binder, typically chalk. They come in various forms, including soft, hard, oil, and pastel pencils. Soft pastels are known for their vibrant colors and easy blending, while hard pastels offer more control and precision. Oil pastels are similar to oil paints, and pastel pencils are a great option for those who prefer the familiarity of graphite pencils.

Getting Started with Pastels

Before diving into techniques and projects, it’s essential to gather the right materials and set up your workspace. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

Essential Materials and Tools

  • Pastels: Choose a set that includes a variety of colors and hardness levels.
  • Pastel paper: Opt for a high-quality, textured paper with a toothy surface.
  • Fixative: A spray or liquid solution to protect your pastel artwork.
  • Blending stumps or tortillons: These tools help blend colors and create smooth transitions.
  • Kneaded erasers: Useful for correcting mistakes and blending colors.
  • Pastel pencils: Optional, but can be used for more detailed work.

Setting Up Your Workspace

Find a well-lit and comfortable space to work. Cover your workspace with a protective surface, such as a pastel mat or a sheet of paper to catch any stray pastel shavings. Keep your pastels, paper, and tools within easy reach, and don’t forget to wear an apron or old clothes to protect your clothing from pastel dust.

Basic Techniques and Tips

Now that you’ve gathered your materials and set up your workspace, it’s time to learn some fundamental pastel painting techniques. These tips will help you create stunning artworks and improve your skills as a beginner.

Blending Colors

Blending is a crucial aspect of pastel painting, as it allows you to create smooth transitions between colors and create depth in your artwork. To blend colors, use a blending stump or tortillon to gently press and rub the pastel sticks together. Start with light pressure and gradually increase the pressure as needed. Remember to work in small sections and blend gradually to avoid over-blending and losing detail.

Layering Colors

Layering involves applying multiple layers of pastel to build up color and create depth in your artwork. Start with a light base layer and gradually add more layers to achieve the desired intensity. Be sure to allow each layer to dry before applying the next, as pastels can smudge if not given enough time to set.


Scumbling is a technique that involves applying pastel in small, circular motions to create a textured effect. This technique is particularly useful for creating the appearance of fur, hair, or other textured surfaces in your artwork. To scumble, use a dry pastel stick and apply light pressure in small circles, gradually building up the texture as needed.

Creating Shadows and Highlights

Shadows and highlights play a significant role in creating depth and dimension in your artwork. To create shadows, use darker colors and apply them to the areas of your artwork that are receding from the viewer. Highlights can be created using lighter colors, applied to the areas of your artwork that are facing the viewer. Remember to blend these areas carefully to ensure a smooth transition between colors.

Choosing the Right Paper

Selecting the right paper is essential for achieving the best results in your pastel painting projects. Here’s what you need to know when choosing the right paper for your artwork.

Understanding Paper Texture and Tooth

Paper texture and tooth refer to the roughness or smoothness of the paper surface. A paper with a high tooth will absorb more pastel, creating a more textured effect, while a smoother paper will allow for more detailed work. As a beginner, it’s recommended to start with a paper that has a moderate tooth, as it offers a good balance between texture and detail.

Popular Pastel Papers and Their Properties

There are several types of pastel papers available, each with its own unique properties. Some popular options include:

  • Sandpaper textured paper: This paper has a high tooth and is ideal for creating textured effects and expressive artwork.
  • Rag paper: Made from cotton fibers, this paper is smooth and offers excellent detail and blending capabilities.
  • Velour paper: A velvety smooth paper that provides a soft, luxurious surface for pastel application.

Choosing the Right Paper for Your Project

When selecting the right paper for your pastel painting project, consider the following factors:

  • Subject matter: Choose a paper that suits the style and subject matter of your artwork. For example, sandpaper textured paper may be more suitable for expressive landscapes, while velour paper is ideal for portraits.
  • Experience level: Beginners may benefit from a paper with a moderate tooth, while more experienced artists may prefer a higher tooth paper for textured effects.
  • Color intensity: Consider the intensity of the colors you plan to use and choose a paper that will allow your colors to shine without absorbing too much pigment.

Color Theory and Composition

Understanding color theory and composition is crucial for creating harmonious and visually appealing pastel paintings. In this section, we will explore the basics of color theory and composition, as well as how to apply these concepts to your artwork.

Color Theory

Color theory is the study of how colors interact with each other and how they can be used to create different effects in art. Some key concepts in color theory include:

  • Primary colors: Red, blue, and yellow are the primary colors in pastel painting, as they cannot be created by mixing other colors.
  • Secondary colors: Orange, green, and purple are created by mixing primary colors.
  • Tertiary colors: These are created by mixing primary and secondary colors, such as red-orange or yellow-green.
  • Complementary colors: Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel, such as red and green or blue and orange, create contrast and vibrancy when used together.


Composition refers to the arrangement of elements in a work of art. A well-composed pastel painting will draw the viewer’s eye and create a sense of balance and harmony. Some key principles of composition include:

  • Rule of thirds: Divide your artwork into thirds both horizontally and vertically, and place important elements along these lines or at their intersections.
  • Leading lines: Use lines in your artwork to guide the viewer’s eye through the composition.
  • Focal point: Determine the main point of interest in your artwork and arrange the other elements to draw attention to it.

Step-by-Step Pastel Painting Project

Now that you’ve learned the basics of pastel painting, it’s time to put your skills into practice. In this section, we’ll guide you through a step-by-step pastel painting project, focusing on a simple landscape scene.

Materials Needed

  • Soft pastel set
  • Pastel paper with a moderate tooth
  • Blending stumps or tortillons
  • Kneaded eraser
  • Fixative (optional)
step by step pastel painting

Step 1: Sketch the Composition

Begin by lightly sketching the basic shapes and composition of your landscape scene on the pastel paper. This will help you plan the placement of the various elements and ensure a balanced composition.

Step 2: Establish the Sky and Horizon

Start by laying down a base layer of pastel for the sky. Use a light blue or a gradient of blues to create the desired effect. Next, establish the horizon line, using a slightly darker color to create the illusion of depth.

Step 3: Add the Landscape Elements

Begin building up the landscape elements, such as hills, trees, and buildings. Use a variety of pastel techniques, including layering, blending, and scumbling, to create texture and depth. Remember to consider the placement of shadows and highlights to add dimension to your scene.

Step 4: Refine and Enhance

Continue to refine your painting by adding more details and adjusting the colors and values as needed. Use your blending tools to smooth out any harsh edges and create a cohesive, harmonious composition.

Step 5: Finishing Touches

Once you’re satisfied with your painting, consider applying a fixative to protect your artwork. This will help prevent smudging and ensure the longevity of your pastel painting. By following this step-by-step guide, you’ll have created a beautiful pastel landscape painting that showcases your newfound skills in pastel painting. Remember to practice regularly and experiment with different techniques to continue improving your craft.

Video Tutorial: Pastels

Advancing Your Pastel Painting Skills

As you continue to explore the world of pastel painting, there are always opportunities to expand your knowledge and refine your skills. In this final chapter, we’ll provide you with some additional tips and resources to help you on your artistic journey.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

Even experienced pastel artists encounter challenges from time to time. Here are some common issues and how to address them:

  • Over-blending: If your pastel painting appears too smooth and lacks texture, try using a lighter touch or working in smaller areas to maintain the vibrancy of the colors.
  • Muddy colors: If your colors start to blend together and become dull, try layering more pure pigment on top or using a kneaded eraser to lift out some of the excess pastel.
  • Pastel dust: Manage pastel dust by working in a well-ventilated area, using a paper towel or cloth to catch any excess, and cleaning your workspace regularly.

Continuing Education and Community

To further develop your pastel painting skills, consider the following resources:

  • Workshops and classes: Look for local or online pastel painting workshops and classes, where you can learn from experienced instructors and connect with other artists.
  • Online tutorials and resources: Explore websites, blogs, and YouTube channels dedicated to pastel painting, where you can find a wealth of instructional content and inspiration.
  • Pastel painting communities: Join online forums, social media groups, or local art clubs to connect with other pastel artists, share your work, and learn from each other.

10 Famous Pastel Artists and Their Best Artwork

Edgar Degas Dancers at the Barre Google Art Project
Degas: Dancers at the Barre (Wikipedia)

This table showcases the diverse range of pastel works created by some of the most renowned artists in art history, from the Impressionists to the Expressionists and Surrealists. Each work highlights the unique qualities and expressive potential of the pastel medium.

ArtistPastel WorkDescriptionGallery
Edgar Degas“Dancers at the Barre”Degas is considered the artist most responsible for transforming pastel into a major medium. This work captures the grace and movement of ballet dancers, showcasing his masterful use of the medium.The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Mary Cassatt“The Bath”Cassatt was inspired by Degas to work in pastels, and her portraits of women and children are renowned for their sensitivity and bold strokes. “The Bath” depicts a mother and child in an intimate moment.The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Odilon Redon“Closed Eyes”Redon’s pastel works are known for their dreamlike, symbolic quality. “Closed Eyes” is a haunting portrait that captures the introspective nature of the subject.The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Childe Hassam“Fifth Avenue in the Rain”Hassam was a master of American Impressionism, and his pastel works capture the energy and atmosphere of urban scenes. “Fifth Avenue in the Rain” is a vibrant depiction of a rainy day in New York City.Mall Galleries
Jean-François Millet“The Gleaners”Millet was one of the first artists to use pastel as a primary medium, and his works often depicted rural, working-class subjects. “The Gleaners” is a powerful depiction of peasant women gathering leftover wheat after the harvest.The Metropolitan Museum of Art
William Merritt Chase“Portrait of a Lady”Chase was a renowned portraitist who helped establish the Society of American Painters in Pastel. His pastel portraits, like “Portrait of a Lady,” are known for their elegant, refined style.Mall Galleries
Édouard Manet“Luncheon on the Grass”While Manet is primarily known for his oil paintings, he also created several pastel works, including this study for his famous painting “Luncheon on the Grass.”The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Berthe Morisot“The Cradle”Morisot, a member of the Impressionist circle, created delicate pastel works that captured the intimacy of domestic scenes, such as “The Cradle.”The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Lovis Corinth“Self-Portrait with Skeleton”Corinth, a German Expressionist painter, used pastels to create bold, expressive self-portraits, like this haunting work featuring a skeleton.Mall Galleries
Leonor Fini“The Unicorn”Fini, a Surrealist artist, used pastels to create dreamlike, fantastical works, such as “The Unicorn,” which blends human and animal elements.Mall Galleries

Preserving and Displaying Your Artwork

Proper care and storage of your pastel paintings are essential for ensuring their longevity. Remember to:

  • Use fixatives: Apply a fixative to your finished paintings to protect the pastel from smudging and fading over time.
  • Store your artwork carefully: Keep your pastel paintings in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight and moisture.
  • Frame and display your work: Consider framing your pastel paintings with a mat and glass or acrylic to protect them from environmental factors.

By incorporating these tips and resources into your pastel painting practice, you’ll be well on your way to mastering this versatile and expressive art form. Remember, the key to improvement is consistent practice and a willingness to experiment and learn.

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