Thoughts on soft pastel


A scorchingly hot day of cloudless blue found me digging my soft pastels out of storage for an outdoor sketching session. Two sessions, in fact, each one cut short as I started wilting and had to seek shade.

Since I have a soft pastel commission lined up and have, shockingly (to me), used my softies just twice in the past 3 years, I figured I could do with the practice.

“Floppy Poppy” took about 40 minutes, and doing it reminded me of several things about this medium, the first of these being that it’s no wonder beginners to dry pastel become quickly discouraged by a lack of contrast in their work; you need DARK darks, which the most readily-found assorted pastel sets do not provide. I rummaged around for a few Unison pastels (including a deep red) to supplement my half-stick Rembrandts, but really should have made use of them earlier. This brings me to the second point: if you want the colours you lay down to look clean and vibrant, avoiding an icky smeary appearance, it really, really helps to work gradually from dark values towards light.

This next sketch took about 35 minutes, and by now I was starting to look forward to working on an abrasive paper again (such as Colourfix), which would hold more layers of colour, as well as limiting pastel dust.

Once you’re familiar with soft pastels, you know there’s going to be dust and you just suck it up (not literally, though – please!) and get on with things. But, though I had a cloth over my knees and regularly took my sketch aside to tap off the dust, I couldn’t help but marvel, as though a beginner again, at how messy these things are. In comparison with the oil pastels I’ve been using, this is obviously true; but the softies are like an old friend, and though I was pretty underwhelmed by the sketches I made today, I was hugely enthused by the act of sketching with my dusty sticks again.

Two portraits


pastelworks, my online portfolio, has a new home.

The move to reflects the fact that my art is now as much about oil pastels as it is the soft pastels which were once my only true passion. Why not pay the new site a visit and leave a note in my guestbook to let me know you stopped by?

Vi’s Eyes
10″ x 12″ Caran d’Ache oil pastels & wax pastels over gouache
on Art Spectrum Colourfix paper

I’m noticing that my approach to using OPs is evolving in a pretty similar way to the process I developed when painting with the softies, with an underdrawing and block-in using wax pastels (artist’s crayons) the equivalent of using harder pastel sticks in the early stages of a soft pastel painting. I also find myself turning to the wax pastels for a certain amount of blending. In the portrait below, I also used a Sennelier blending stick, as well as fingers and kitchen towel, and scraped away colour with whatever tools were to hand: these happened to be a screw of unknown origin and a plastic knife from my daughter’s tea set.

Portrait of M
9″ x 12″ Sennelier oil pastels & Caran d’Ache wax pastels
on Canson paper

Melody in shades of green


My gorgeous wooden box set of 120 Sennelier oil pastels arrived a couple of weeks ago, shortly before my departure for a week on the Isle of Wight, giving me sadly little chance for messy play before I left.

Back now from what was a wonderful family trip involving beaches and zoos and dinosaurs (and my first visit movie outing in 18 months, to see the stunning Coraline 3D), I’ve put the finishing tweaks to the portrait I’d started back in the real world.

This is Melody in shades of green, 6×9″ on Daler Murano paper. [Please click for embiggened view.]

The possibility has arisen this week of a painting commission; my first in over 3 years. Bring it on, I say, even if the demands of freelance work and home and motherhood will make it tricky. It is, ultimately, the thing I most want to do with my life.