Various Hardnesses of Pastels and How to Use Them

© Margot Schulzke 2007

We are talking here about Pastel, which is usually over 90% pure pigment with a very small amount of binder. It is not to be confused with Oil Pastel, which contains oil and wax and so it is more appropriately linked to oil than to pastel.

Pastel is a 400-year-old medium, known as pastel for most of that history; oil pastel is a post-World War II medium. They are two altogether different media and do not mix any better than oil and watercolor do.

Other names used for Pastel are “soft” pastel, a confusing term since pastels are both soft and hard, and “dry” pastel, a more descriptive term used in Belgium, France and Canada to describe the historic, traditional form of pastel.

Pencils: Regular drawing pencils should never touch a pastel painting surface – they are relatively hard and can indent the surface, and prevent pastel from adhering to the indented area.

Pastel Pencils should not be confused with colored pencils. If there is wax in the pencil, it will resist pastel being applied over it. Pastel pencils can be used
1) to lay out a pastel painting on the untouched board or paper, or to establish the drawing, again on a fresh surface. Be careful when using them for this purpose if you are using LaCarte Sennelier; the hardness of the pastel pencil can “engrave” a slight depression on that surface.
2) They can be used for fine details or
3) work in small scale early in the development of the work, while you still have plenty of tooth and have not covered the surface with the ultra-soft pastels.
4) They can be used to glaze sheer layers of color over an already-painted object, such as putting the blush on a cheek or a peach, or the blue-green in a pane of glass. In this application, because it is so hard, you can apply it over soft pastel without risking burying the underlayer with another layer of opaque, soft pastel.
5) You can use them to “feather” or harmonize already-applied areas of color to drag tiny amounts of color back and forth, to soften or lose an edge.
6) If you have not overfilled the tooth of your surface, you can apply small, dark accents in a nearly-completed painting, to deepen the sense of shadow in small applications.
You may think of other ways to use the pencils, but this gives you a starting point!

Hard Pastels: Such as NuPastel, Faber-Castell, Rembrandt. NuPastel can be put to all of the uses mentioned above for pastel pencils. They are excellent to glaze with. They can also be used in broken chunks on their sides to block in areas. They can be sharpened to a point, and can be very useful for drawing for that reason. They have had a bad reputation for fading in certain colors (pinks, blues) but I understand the newer editions are more colorfast.
Faber Castell is just a tiny bit softer, and a bit more brilliant; except for their rather limited range of color, they are wonderful to work with. Holbein is a similar texture.
Rembrandt is round, and a bit fat, and so is less adept at drawing detail, but if you handle them carefully, you can get detail with them, too. Used on their sides, they are great for blocking in. They are not soft as some describe them, just slightly softer than NuPastel. You could call them “medium hard.”

Medium-Soft Pastels: Such as Girault.Someone will come along who competes with Girault one of these days, but at this time, I don’t know of anyone who does. These are slender, highly maneuverable sticks that allow you to put down detail without getting too tight about it; they are powerful, high-quality pigments, and I use them in virtually every painting I do. I can start out a painting with just Girault, and finish a painting with just Girault and some Great Americans (and on occasion, I have done just Great Americans, too.) They have a huge range of colors, lots of subtle mixtures, and I would not be without them.

Softer Pastels: I own the following: Sennelier, Schmincke, and Great Americans. A few Unisons, and some others. Schmincke is virtually identical to GA’s, but I don’t believe they have the color, tone and value range of the latter. But they are even in texture, exquisitely soft. I have used them for years. Sennelier I also have in my arsenal, a fairly large assortment, and I use them, but more rarely. They are very soft but not always consistent in texture; you can run into hard spots in a stick. Great Americans are uniformly soft, buttery, and have a huge range of colors, both true and toned, and all of those in a range of six or seven values each. There are a number of iridescent, too – about eighteen of those, which are wonderful for use on water or glass.

There are a number of other brands available, such as Unison, Diane Townsend, Terry Ludwig, etc. and you should try as many as you can get your hands on. Various artists swear by these. Find out how permanent the pigments are, what the background of their manufacturers are, and evaluate whether that background makes you trust the quality of the product. (I like GAs partly because the manufacturer is a chemist, and he knows what makes color permanent; other manufacturers have a very long track record, for example, a larger operation, and so may have trained chemists on staff or as consultants.) Ask other artists what they have used, and what their experience has been with the various brands.

Don’t be misled into paying sky-high prices for a product just because it is sky-high. There are only so many pigments and so many chemicals out there that produce colors. If a lower cost pastel has a great texture, and a high degree of lightfastness, you don’t have to pay a premium price for the same thing with a different label.

Fixatives: Yes, you can use them. And should. There are workable fixatives, such as Krylon or Grumbacher Myston.  I like the latter when I can find it; it rarely leaves any droplets. These you use in the progress of the work. They will extend your working time, allowing you to apply more layers than you might otherwise, and to isolate layers of color. DO NOT use these at the conclusion of your work. They should be used at least a half-hour before you are through, so they are not on the surface.

Archival fixatives such as Lascaux are intended for use at the conclusion of your work. They do not degrade or darken color. They should be applied with the work vertical on a support (easel, porch rail), and the can of spray should be used to pass by the work, starting and stopping off the surface, with the can held about eighteen inches from the work. …You can also steam your work with distilled water and a steam iron; we’ll talk about that. A new technique for fixing work that I just read about. – MSchulzke ©2007


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