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Pastel Perfection: 15 Essential Tips for Aspiring Pastel Artists

September 18, 2023 12:52 PM | Colleen Algeo (Administrator)

Our September Art Talk was presented by pastel Artist Cathy McIlhenny. She shared her journey, did a wonderful demo and reminded us that working with pastels can be a rewarding and creative experience, whether you're a beginner or an experienced artist.

Here are her top 15 tips to help you get started with pastels:

  1. Invest in Quality Pastels: Start with a good set of soft pastels. Professional-grade pastels will provide better color, texture, and blending capabilities. Brands like Rembrandt, Sennelier, and Schmincke are known for their quality.
  2. Choose the Right Paper: Use pastel paper or paper with a textured surface. Sanded papers like UART or Pastelmat are excellent choices because they grip the pastel well and allow for layering and blending.
  3. Prepare Your Workspace: Keep your workspace clean and organized. Pastels can be messy, so have a clean surface and keep your pastels sorted by color for easy access. Cathy has her pastels sorted light to dark. 
  4. Start with a Limited Color Palette: When you're beginning, limit your color choices to a few essential colors. This can help you understand how to mix and blend colors effectively.
  5. Understand Color Theory: Learn the basics of color theory, including how to mix primary colors to create secondary colors and how to use complementary colors for shading and contrast. Use a color wheel to help you determine what colors should be included in your painting. 
  6. Layering and Blending: Pastels are excellent for layering and blending. Start with a very light touch and gradually build up layers for depth and richness in your artwork.
  7. Use Different Strokes: Experiment with various pastel strokes, such as hatching, cross-hatching, stippling, and scumbling, to achieve different textures and effects.
  8. Fixative Spray: Fixative spray or quick drying alcohol can help set your pastel layers and prevent smudging. Use it sparingly and apply it in thin layers to avoid dulling the colors. Cathy suggests the technique where it is used only after the initial blocking of colors is complete. And always spray it outside.  
  9. Work from Background to Foreground: Start your pastel artwork by blocking in the background and gradually work your way to the foreground. This helps create a sense of depth and perspective.

10. Explore Different Surfaces: Don't limit yourself to just paper. Pastels can be used on various surfaces, such as canvas, board, or even sandpaper, each offering unique textures and effects.

11. Study and Practice: Practice is key to improving your pastel skills. Study the work of pastel artists you admire and try to replicate their techniques. Don't be afraid to make mistakes; they can lead to valuable learning experiences.

12. Protect Finished Artwork: Once your pastel artwork is complete, handle it with care to avoid smudging. Use a spacer in your frame to protect it the art from touching the glass. Framing it will also help protect it from dust and damage. 

13. Take Breaks: Pastel work can be physically demanding, as blending and layering require pressure. Take regular breaks to rest your hand and eyes.

14. Seek Feedback: Share your pastel work with others and seek constructive feedback.

15. Join art communities or classes to connect with fellow pastel artists and learn from their experiences.

Have Patience and Persistence: Mastering pastels takes time and patience. Don't get discouraged if your early works don't meet your expectations. Keep practicing and experimenting to improve your skills.

Remember that art is a personal journey, and there are no strict rules. Feel free to develop your unique style and techniques as you become more comfortable with pastels. Enjoy the process, and don't be afraid to take risks and be creative!

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Serving Mongtomery, Bucks & Berks Counties, PA

Perkiomen Valley Art Center  (PVAC) is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization founded in 1957 to further art appreciation and direct involvement with the arts by providing cultural programs and exhibitions by area artists.

Program presentations and show receptions are free and open to the public.

Meeting Address: Maplewood Estates, Arbor Conference Center, 2nd Floor, 815 Maplewood Dr., Harleysville PA 19438

Mailing Address:
PO Box 474  Schwenksville PA 19473
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