Major Build-Up When Pastel Painting

Cirque Tents by Terri Ford, pastel painting.
Cirque Tents by Terri Ford, pastel painting.

“That dog won’t hunt.” It’s what I thought to myself when I started to look into how to get layers of pastel to build up. It just didn’t seem possible, or easily possible. But I did my research, and that dog will hunt! Here are a few tips on how to get the layered effects you want when pastel painting.

Major build-up. To get a vibrant glowing surface when painting pastel works, start by putting down a layer of color with the side of a soft stick of pastel. Then spray fixative over the area. Then apply another layer of color, and so on. You can lay down as many layers as you want, fixing in between each one. You can also allow the fixative to dry or experiment with your surface while it is wet.

Feather light. With pastels, it is easy to inadvertently blend or rub in areas, whether by resting your hand on the surface or as a result of too much blending and overlaying of color in a given passage. To brighten up an area again with visual interest, take a hard pastel or pencil and make vertical strokes over the area. It will allow the surface beneath to show through, but will no longer be a flat passage of color as it is built up with the addition of these feathered strokes.

Architectural Remnants by Charles Timken, pastel painting.
Architectural Remnants
by Charles Timken, pastel painting.

Show us your teeth. The paper that you work with in any pastel painting or drawing should have a good deal of texture if you want it to hold successive layers of pigment. And you’ll want to use the side of soft pastels so that large swaths of area are covered in color that can be layered upon with additional colors.

If you really want to explore all the layering possibilities that pastel painting has to offer, exploring with artist Christine Ivers is the way to go. There’s nothing more dynamic than her series of DVDs, all devoted to discovering and using pastel to capture the world around us. The resources in Pastel People, Places, and Scenes Collection are wonderfully in-depth and give us a solid foundation for understanding this beautiful medium and how to apply it to the landscape, the figure, and more. Enjoy!

P.S. Do you have any strategies on layering pastels? Please share and leave a comment!


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

7 thoughts on “Major Build-Up When Pastel Painting

  1. I am an weekend artist and I have heard that in pastels you want to put down hard pastels first and go in progressive layers with softer and softer media. Your article seams to suggest the opposite. I typically dont use fixident except at the completion of my painting.

  2. I appreciate what you do for us on this website, Thank you!
    I am fairly new to dry pastel, and have a bit more experience with Oil Pastel.
    With both, I have an assortment of Hard and Soft sticks, arranged by brand.
    If layering is important, I begin with the hard sticks, and gradually progress to the softer, then the softest. This allows several layers to be put down without disturbing what is underneath.

  3. I love Wende Caporale’s intuitive approach in her methodical way of capturing the subject. It was also a pleasure to be her friend and classmate at Paier College of Art, back in the day. So proud of her accomplishments, and such an inspiration to further pastel work!

  4. To build up a color’s intensity, I often place a sheet of tracing paper over the area and rub with a spoon. Then I can add more pastel on top. I also find that dampening an area with alcohol lifts the grain and lets it hold more color. You can simply dampen a brush in the alcohol, then stroke it through pastel that you’ve powdered onto a small piece of #400 sandpaper. The color will be more intense, and you can add more layers without additional alcohol.