Major Build-Up When Pastel Painting

23 Feb 2014

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, landscape painting with pastels is the way to go. There's nothing more dynamic than nature, and using pastel to capture it can be an exciting challenge. Liz Haywood-Sullivan just the artist to lead us through the process. Her DVD, Landscape Painting in Pastel, is a wonderfully in-depth resource that gives us a solid foundation for understanding this beautiful medium and how to apply it to the landscape. Enjoy!

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


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on 25 Jan 2012 7:33 AM

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.

on 25 Jan 2012 8:33 AM

I've heard that you can build up from hard to soft as well. I think it is probably a matter of experimentation to get the effects you want!

on 25 Jan 2012 9:56 AM

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.

on 25 Jan 2012 10:09 AM

The paper you use matters. Kitty Wallis can get many layers on her paper. Wallis sanded paper is available at all the online art supply vendors.

on 25 Jan 2012 10:30 AM

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!

BuddhaBear wrote
on 24 Feb 2014 10:48 AM

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.

WmMcconnell wrote
on 24 Feb 2014 12:18 PM


Just a quick word. Your pages are great instructions to remember. Keep up the excellent work.

WAM McConnell