In normal times, when you first come to my art class I’d take you straight into the kitchen of our village hall (in Holt, near Wimborne in Dorset). It’s small but perfectly formed! We’d have a cup of tea or coffee and perhaps a biscuit or two. Because ahead of your art days I always want to make sure that you feel welcomed and comfortable.
Since we can’t get together face to face, this very warm virtual welcome will have to take the place of the tea and biscuits! One of the aspects of feeling comfortable is knowing that you have what you need to get started, so here are some suggestions. If you have any questions, please let me know. I always like to hear from my students – the human aspect is part of what makes my life as an artist and teacher so rewarding.
While I can teach you the knowledge and skills you’ll need, the biggest commitment you’ll need to make is time. Regular practice will broaden and deepen your skills. For my own part, I’d imagined that I would have more spare time during lockdown but everything actually seems to take more time. So I can relate to my new students who, like me, find that a week can fly by. Don’t worry! If you find yourself struggling to keep up a weekly commitment don’t be too hard on yourself and just start the following week afresh.
What do I need to do an online art class?
Ideally, I would recommend that you should buy specialist pastel card with a gritted surface. These prepared surfaces make such a difference to a new student’s experience. When I have someone join my art class for a ‘taster’ I give them a sheet as part of their day. Sanded papers give the soft pastel a tooth to hang onto. It means that layers can be built up and also the finished artwork is more stable. If you are working in ‘dry’ pastels, then I love PastelMat (can take a light wash) or Sennelier La Carte (warning, this paper does not like liquid) BUT for painting with pastels and liquids, see below.
I always recommend this sample pack from Jacksons Art when joining my art class for the first time. However, if you only have watercolour paper or cartridge paper, don’t worry too much. You’ll just find that the layers are a little harder to build up.
Painting with Soft Pastels: You can use water to liquify but alcohol evaporates more quickly. Some pastels respond differently to liquid, it’s worth experimenting with yours. Unison Colour or good quality brands have more pigment so they turn to a paint like paste. Not all pastels will do this which can be a disadvantage. You could use inks to create an underpainting instead.
For best results, use sanded surfaces.
Here are my favourites – I’ve added a link for you
Art Spectrum ColourFix original
Mi Teintes TOUCH ( it’s important to check it’s Touch not just a paper ).
These specialist surfaces are designed for using liquid and you need a robust surface for this technique.
Go for a colour that suits your scene. For example, click to see this workshop which is suited to a lighter background and this darker background. Rather than a ‘right’ colour, look for one that suits your image and your personal response to the ‘feel’. If you want to try ‘moody’ go dark, ‘light’ sunny feel then a lighter colour. I look for the paper surface colour in the image I am going to recreate. So it is sympathetic to the artwork. Seascapes have warm blues, greys, creams and tans so investigate these colours.
Applying liquid to the surface
If you don’t have a spray, you can just paint the liquid onto the pastel surface. I mention my favourite brushes further on. I use a fine mist spray, you can find similar for decanting make into for holidays. It’s worth mentioning, if you are using spray vodka, use in a well ventilated room. I don’t use much spray so be cautious in applying it, super saturated pastels aren’t needed. Less is more!
If you are sensitive to dust then please use a mask. Spraying too close to the paper can kick up with pastel dust so farther away is better. Getting the balance right is really a case of learn through trying. You can read up on the risks associated with pastels on Unisons site, they are deemed to be low risk as it is you as the artist taking responsibility for safe use.
I always use a damp cloth to clear dust up and I wipe down my desk before and after using pastels, it’s just common sense really but if you are nervous then you can always use a mask during your creating and some people use silicone gloves to reduce skin contact.
There’s two approaches (for transparency: I am a Unison Colour Associate Artist)
- If you are still a bit cautious...
It’s possible that you have a set of soft pastels. If not then I would recommend Inscribe 64 half stick colours as a basic starter set. Unison Colour also do a fantastic starter set of half colours.
I place a lot of importance on investing in good quality art materials, because they really improve your enjoyment as well as your progress as an artist. So no matter which starter set you buy, I would treat yourself to one or two very high quality key colours as a taster. I recommend white or sky blue (Unison BV9 is a great blue) in a high quality brand – ideally Unison Colour as I know these are always reliable. Note that Unison Colour white is often called Light 1 or Grey 28. You will find that these colours are the ones you will use up most quickly. Buy some pastels pencils, the numbers listed below will help, they can be useful for blending.
2. If you are super keen!
That’s great. Investing in your art materials will mean that you will enjoy opening your art box each time you sit down to your new hobby. My favourites are the handmade Unison Colour pastels, which are a joy to use. If you’re just starting out then the starter set is a good foundation of colour. Try and invest in a white, sky blue and maybe some sumptuous darks as individuals, firstly. Whether you’ve got a passion for seascapes or you love a landscape, then you will find there is a set for you.
Pastel pencils. If you are making a purchase – say from Jacksons Art – then I would suggest adding a few pastel pencils to your cart. You will use them to make finer marks, but they are also a great tool to blend pastels with. When you book a workshop with me, I send you a list so you can see which specific pastel pencils I use. A great set to start with is Faber Castell Pitt Pastels – I suggest at least the 36 set. I also suggest that either you invest in a good quality pencil sharper or a snap blade knife to whittle your pencils to a nice sharp point. Some people like sand paper too, just to finish that point off but I find it wears to a natural sharp point as I use it.
I’ve been asked for my favourites, so in the FC range, I’d recommend, 101 White, 199 Black, 270 Grey, 140 blue, 170 green, 103cream, 157 Dark Blue, 230 Cold grey, 175 Burnt Umber, 183Brown, 273 warm grey – They are great additions to your toolkit!
Hard Sticks Faber Castell also do PolyChromos Sticks. I like the set, it’s got some great hard Pastels which can be used for creating an underpainting or adding detail.
A solid surface.
It’s so helpful to have your paper attached to a solid surface, I use the back of an old frame. You might choose something similar or you can buy a board from a hardware store. I’d recommend something about A3 size. When you’re not working on your artwork it safely stores your artwork too. You can just cover it with a layer of greaseproof paper, taking care to tape it securely.
I don’t tape my paper down on every edge. I just stick the corners to my board. However, some people like to tape every side down because it gives them a frame to work within. It’s your choice, but however you stick your paper to your board it is important to use masking tape or framers tape because it won’t damage the surface of your paper when you take the tape off.
If you develop your soft pastel paintings by using liquid you want to invest in a good quality brush. I like a light hog haired brush, my favourites are called ‘flat thins’. If you can get two, then one small and one large, if only one, just choose a middle sized one. They are lovely objects in their own right!
When I’m working in the studio I like to have a roll of kitchen roll nearby. I also have a lightly dampened tea towel. Some pastel or cards don’t like water, so it’s a good idea to keep your hands dry but I have found it very useful to have something to clean my hands with.
Should I spray my work ( to fix the pastels )?
You’ll find that this is a hotly debated topic. Many people don’t fix their pastel paintings at all, while others swear by cheap hairspray, and certainly we used gallons of it when I was at art school. However this is not guaranteed against yellowing over time. If you wish, you can buy specialist art sprays or fixatives. However, it’s worth noting that even with the best fixative the surface of a pastel will never truly be fixed. If you are going to spray then it’s worth studying the spray brand’s advice. Try a sample of your pastel and then spray it. See what happens to the colour, rather than risking your artwork to start out. You will find that simple things like distance from the paper and making sure the nozzle is clean can be so important.
Some artists like to spray their work between layers so that they have fixed a surface ahead of working on it again. This also has a tendency to darken colours which can be of benefit in some circumstances. It’s worth noting that it’s very much personal choice but if you’re starting out then carefully storing them is probably more essential.
The longevity of soft pastel relies on storage. I recommend taping your work to a board or similar and then covering it with greaseproof paper or glacine paper. Tape both down firmly and make sure that you don’t rest anything against the surface. It will then be safe to transport or store.
Using soft pastel safely
I’ve been using soft pastel for many years. I’m often asked if pastel dust is dangerous. My thoughts are that if you use soft pastels in a safe way that it can be no more dangerous than walking by a busy road with particulates from car fumes.
Here are some sensible suggestions.
- Don’t eat or drink near your art work. I often find that inadvertently my cup of tea can find itself underneath my easel and so pastel dust covers the top layer. Don’t drink pastel dust!
- It sounds obvious but wash your hands regularly.
- If you are sensitive to dust then please use a mask.
- Ideally invest in a tabletop easel. They can save you getting neckache. If you don’t want to make an investment in the easel then just prop up your board so that you’re not working completely flat.
- It’s very tempting to blow pastel dust off your artwork, but you can just tap the paper so that the dust falls away and then you can clear it up with a damp cloth afterwards.
- If I’m working flat then I use the edge of a piece of card to drag which I drag over the top of the artwork very lightly. That removes the bulk of the dust but doesn’t affect your artwork. I use an old photo or a business card. Try it – you’ll see it works!
- I am fastidious about clearing up with a damp cloth. If you use a dry cloth then you’re just moving dust from one surface into the atmosphere. A damp cloth catches those tiny particles. And if you’re nervous about your carpet then use an old sheet, place it under your chair.
As a beginner it’s very unlikely that you’ll be passionately flinging pastels around in a way that will generate a great deal of excess dust. Hopefully like me you’ll build up layers slowly and carefully with your colours, which will mean that there isn’t a great deal of dust created.
I’m nervous about doing it wrong.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt it’s that if you ask 10 different artists you’ll get 10 different answers on how they use soft pastel. If you look for artist whose work you admire and then follow what materials they use, you’ll find that there are many many ways of creating pastels. The best advice is, get stuck in! You’ll love it!