Taking Off the Straitjacket

The Freedom of Pastel Painting

Birth of Venus by Odilon Redon, pastel painting, 1912 | Pastel Painting | Artist Daily
Birth of Venus by Odilon Redon, pastel painting, 1912.

I am not a finicky person, so getting my hands dirty to get a job done is totally fine with me. But with painting, I can get so uptight and hesitant that the physical joy of it all goes right out the window. I’m trying to be better about what I’m calling my straitjacket tendency, and one way I’m doing so is by exploring pastel painting a lot more.

Pastel is an incredibly freeing medium. It almost begs you to loosen up and make flowing gestural marks or rub it around with your fingers. In fact, the pastel painting lessons I’ve learned always emphasize the artist’s hand as the most important tool we have and can lead to so much visual versatility. Read on for five tips for loosening up and becoming more confident with your pastels.

5 Pastel Painting Tips You Need to Know to Be Successful

Portrait of Madame Arthur Fontaine by Odilon Redon, pastel painting, 1901. | Pastel Painting | Artist Daily
Portrait of Madame Arthur Fontaine by Odilon Redon, pastel painting, 1901.

1. Work with the tip of your pastel crayon when putting in highlights or when you want sharp detailed lines.

2. Use the side of your crayon when you want broad passages of color that almost look like actual brushstrokes.

3. Blending with your fingertip is like magic. Two hatches of color come together in a soft puff of color. It looks like a cloud formation to me–that’s how highly blended the end result is.

4. Draw lines over passages of blending to create depth and texture.

5. Scumble color over color if you want more texture and visual variance on your surface than you would if you layered them and blended them.

These incredibly physical actions are an aspect of pastel drawing that make me feel comfortable and more fully engaged with my surface and, therefore, my artwork as a whole.

I also appreciate that there are traditional and nontraditional ways of using pastel. Since building up layers isn’t always the easiest thing to do with the medium, you can vary strokes, colors and ways of blending.

You can tone your entire paper and then pull out the light with an eraser or careful blending, or you can use colored paper to instantly create values in a work.

Let Loose and Enjoy the Process

I’ve realized in the last few years that art-making is definitely a journey and not a destination, but the one thing that makes the road easier–or at least allows me to not trip in the same rut time after time–is trustworthy instruction.

In pastel painting, the instruction I want is directly from a skilled artist, is easily digestible, and is something I can reference again and again. Desmond O’Hagan’s Pastel Painting With Confidence Collection is all the above.

“A key to [working with pastel and oil] is repetition. Keep going. Keep doing it. Keep experimenting,” says O’Hagan. “Experimenting is huge for the way I work. I want to try new things, I don’t want to be bored doing this.”

O’Hagan shows the real sweet spot for artists is a combination of freedom with the medium and strong technical skills. If you feel like you want to loosen up in your own practice, this resource just might be the one that helps you get there. Enjoy!

What inspires you to loosen up when you are working? Leave a comment and let me know!






Related Posts:


Artist Daily Blog
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.   

15 thoughts on “Taking Off the Straitjacket

  1. I’m reminded of the movie the Truman Show. There was a scene of the wife in the kitchen and she commented to Jim Carey that she loved this new product and what good it was doing for her. Then she turned to camera and said did a commercial. I also had a friend tell me about these great vitamins and how they were positively effecting her health. I was really drawn into the conversation and enthusiastic for her. Then she told me about this Amway product and how much it costs. My heart dropped.

    I don’t believe your authenticity Courtney. Mixing blogs with advertisements make you look like your doing your job or trying to sell us something. It puts your artistic integrity into question.

  2. Hold your art tool at the end of te instrument,use your whole arm, not just your fingers,paint to light airy music. most of all paint with an attitude of joy and freedom.. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Jan Schafir

  3. Hi Courtney, although I love oils and want to know it to the point where using it is second nature it does make me feel “hesitant” and I find myself making little dabs instead of bold conquering strokes, and uninteresting color combinations. Hence, I’m tempted to try pastels, especially panpastels. I’ve been taking Johannes Vloothius instructions through Wet Canvas and when he demos pans, it seems such a dynamic medium.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  4. Been into drawing and oil painting on and off for years. Last year I was in my friends and he gave me and old plastic box with all broken bits of chalk pastels in and said and explained about layering. WOW I could not believe the first pictures that I pulled out. The colours were like nothing I have seen before. I really love my purples and reds and I find that if you use a peices of say like a white hard bit of chalk, you can blend with it by rubbing it. I have put my pastels down for now 4 months and am back drawing heavily, I am just drawing anything old trainers faces anything as long as I have got a pencil in my hand. I want to become a master :O) Cant wait to get the pastels back out, however even though I am itching I will wait till my drawings and eye improve then watch this space. Da Love Tommy

  5. Hey that comment about advertising… everyone has to make a living and the vibe I get from this site is one of positivity. There is no need for that come on :O)

  6. Hi Courtney,

    very nice article, thank you. I like pastel very much too, even I´m not a profi artist 🙂 I love pastels, because I can feel the work, touch. I have pastel all over when I´m finished 🙂 And also, I can some like control what I´m doing. The other way round, I´m still fighting with the aquarel. This is still a mistery for me, but woudl like to get into.
    Thank you a sorry for my english, I´m writing from Czech Republic (Europe).

  7. This feedback is great! Thank you!

    And as always my goal is to highlight great resources and interesting instruction that might be of use to the Artist Daily community, which includes beginners and more advanced artists. And I’ve always got an open-door policy, so if you have a resource that deserves attention or an artist that I should know about, don’t hesitate to let me know. Thanks!

  8. When painting, working with a brush that’s many times larger than you might think should work will allow you to use the brush differently, and more loosely. You’ll get large marks quickly, then can use the edge or a corner to tick in smaller, but looser markes. It adds some spontaneity and fun.

  9. Courtney—

    Excellent article. You almost had an old watercolor guy like me ready to take up pastels again.

    You are right about pastel being a hands-on medium. I started in advertising art during the days of Mad Men—before the magic marker. All roughs and comps were rendered in pastel—pastel pencil, hard pastel and soft pastel. In those days we came to work dressed in business suits. For years I had pastel on my hands, my face, my shirt cuffs and my favorite ties. Between all the fixative and dust in the air it’s a wonder any of us lived very long.

    However, pastel is a fun medium—not very demanding and very forgiving. Because of that, I think it is a wonderful medium to learn to work with color and picture composition. Just remember to take a few precautions. We know more now about work safety now than when I started.


  10. I have to agree with KatPaint about the sales pitch in the blog… It is a bit of a put off. As a newbie to this blog, Ive often skipped it because I figure it’s just a sales pitch with very little info. However as I love pastels I was drawn into reading this one. More painterly advice, less sales pitch would be nice 😉

  11. KatPaints, Leslie and all—

    The information in this blog is an honest attempt to interest us in a medium that can offer a new, free way of working. The fact that there is reference to book on pastel painting at the end of the article should not be offensive to anyone.

    Kat, Leslie—you make it sound like we are receiving a cheap sales pitches for snake oil.

    Artist Daily is a website we enjoy at no cost. It is not a charity. It is part of a large corporation. That means that somebody involved has to make money or there isn’t any Artist Daily. If they suggest a book published by North Light—they are suggesting a book by one of the best art publishers in America.

    Kat, you question the “artistic integrity” of the editor of Artist Daily because a book is suggested for those interested in learning more about pastel painting. That’s sad.


  12. Courtney its through Artists Network that I discovered pastels – having used mainly watercolour up until then. Then through artist Richard McKinley and his wonderful book and dvds – its opened up a whole new love and discovery of painting while using watercolour and pastels together. Even though pastels dirty your hands etc its a wonderful tactile way of painting.
    Here ‘downunder” I pass on your wonderful website to anyone I can encouage to use the resources available through Artist Daily and Artists Network. I never knew how many great artists there are in the U.S.
    Lib D’Arcy

  13. Hi Courtney, I thought when i began this comment I would explain that unleashing for me with pastels began when I created a live model protrait with pastel pencils. It was super and I never looked back! And then I read the last comment by KatPaints. No need to be rude in public, especially when you cannot possibly know the person in question. Courtney over the years I have left you comments and you have been absolutely sincere and caring with what you have said to me. It was always appreciated and obviously remembered. Perhaps this person does not understand the business world and what you have to do. Ask questions before you assume, you know the old saying, right? Anyway, I always look forward to all of your messages, Courtney. Thank you.

  14. Kat, Think of it as if you were having a conversation with a fellow artist who is knowledgeable on the subject. If the subject really interests you, wouldn’t you like to know what resources the artist considers to be helpful, rather than having to search through countless books, dvds, etc. and then perhaps being disappointed with your choice. At that point you may perhaps think, ‘ I wish I had asked this artist which resources they would suggest.’ There is no arm twisting, just suggestions.