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Pastels for colour and immediacy

Pastels are a vastly underrated medium and I wish they were given more credit. They have much to offer in terms of richness of colour and immediacy, and work well with other media.

They are also more permanent than other media, such as watercolour which fades. Pastels can be messy but this does not make them any less exciting to work with. There is a marvellous variety of pastels available. They include soft, hard and 'scenic' pastels.

A painting done with pastels

They all have their own qualities, so do try them out. Map out the shapes with hard chalk first and then gradually use the softer pastels which have more vibrant colours. It is also cheaper working this way, since soft pastels are expensive. Pastels can be applied to a variety of papers, including cardboard, fine-textured sandpaper and toned papers which can glow though and enhance the pastel colours. Soft pastels can be broken up with the fingers and ground or smudged onto the surface of a paper to create the effect of a damp piece of paper as a wash. Pastels work well too, over water colour or etching. The only snag with them is that they have to be fixed to stop the pigment coming off the paper. You could use hair spray for this purpose. If you use sandpaper, you do not have to fix the pastel, but merely shake off the excess.

One of the most attractive aspects of soft pastel is that it is both a drawing and a painting medium. By making broad sweeping strokes with the side of the pastel stick you can represent an animal's fur, while the texture of a rough haired animal could be described by a series of short lines of varying thickness. Pastel sticks are well worth considering for animal subjects, particularly those where you want details rather than broad effects.

These are simply this sticks of pastel encased in wood, slightly harder than normal pastels, and more controllable. They are often used in combination with soft pastel to add areas of detail.

Pastel seems the ideal medium for rendering skin and hair and is extensively used for portraiture because it is a drawing and painting medium. It allows you to achieve a wide variety of effects from soft blends and subtle gradations of tone suitable for young skins with flowing strokes with the side of the stick perfect for representing hair.

The only real difficulty with pastel is that you cannot make a detailed under drawing which is usually necessary for portraiture and figure work.

Although many successful portraits and still life drawings are done in pastel, it is not the easiest medium to handle and beginners are well advised to practise before embarking on a human subject.

Pastel has been a favourite drawing medium for rendering the soft folds and sharp highlights of different materials. Pastel artists who use colour thickly building up in layers usually apply fixatives between stages to allow the new colours to adhere to the old ones. Remember that a heavy build-up of blended colour will give the smoothest effect.

You can use the different surface qualities of pastel to suggest contrasts of textures, for example, blending the colours for glass and metal objects. The effects of blending depend to some extent on the implement you use. Try a soft brush, a piece of rag, your fingers and see which is most effective.

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