Pastels consist of pigment bound with gum Arabic to form a soft stick which powders away as it is used, leaving a layer of pigment on the page. They can be bought in boxed sets or separately; begin with an inexpensive boxed set, then buy good-quality individual colours as required. Different brands of pastels are softer or more crumbly than others, so try individual sticks to decide which you prefer using. You will find it useful to buy a soft stick of white immediately.
Store pastels in a box with separate compartments for each colour - plastic fishing-tackle boxes are good. If pastels become dirty you can shake them gently in a plastic bag with a little ground rice to clean them, but wiping them on a clean rag as you work is probably sufficient.
The term tooth refers to the roughness of your paper. Photocopying paper has very little tooth; fine sandpaper has a lot of tooth. The more tooth a paper has, the more pigment will stick to it and the more layers of colour you can use in your painting.
If the grain of the paper becomes filled with pigment you will not be able to work any further on that area. Use a bristle (oil painting) brush to remove excess pigment if correction is desired, followed by rolling (do not rub) with a kneadable eraser.
Fixative may be used to bind a pastel drawing, enabling you to work over it or to protect a finished study. It will, however, make light areas look a little muddy as whites will turn transparent, and have to be touched up after fixing. If you leave a pastel drawing exposed to the air for a few weeks the gum Arabic residue will absorb enough moisture from the atmosphere to fix the pigment slightly.
A smudged pastel painting can generally be repaired quite easily. A more annoying problem is when several drawings are stored in a pile and pigment rubs off onto the backs of the ones above. To prevent this happening always store them in a folder with acid-free tissue paper (available from art suppliers and many dry cleaners) between them. Never try to store pastel drawings in plastic sleeves; the pastel will stick to the plastic, and a pile of mud-coloured pigment will accumulate in the bottom of the sleeve.
Set up a still-life arrangement using several plain-coloured objects with a coloured cloth or wall behind them. Fruit and vegetables, plastic toys, footwear, pottery are particularly good. Take time to arrange them attractively before you begin. It may be better to postpone attempting flowers until you have had a little more practice.
Work in pastel on A2-size white paper and limit your range to a maximum of twelve colours. You will need red, blue, green, yellow, orange, purple and white; you can add darker or lighter tones of these colours. Try to avoid using black or brown pastels - place them somewhere out of sight to help you resist the temptation. The reason for this is that you will learn a lot more about how colours work if you are forced to mix them together to make browns and darker colours. You will also introduce much more variety, and therefore interest, into your picture as blacks and browns tend to deaden the colours unless used very carefully.
If using long pastels, break them about a third of the way along. You can then use the side of the pieces to fill in large areas quickly, using the shorter or longer one as convenient. Proceed in a similar manner to the tonal drawing in the previous chapter. The difference is that you will now mix white with your colours to obtain lighter tones and you will have to mix two or more colours together to make your darks; just putting on more of a single colour will merely make that colour more intense, not darker.
Decide on a colour that seems appropriate to the subject in front of you and use it to make a big, smudgy shape representing the object(s) you are drawing. Identify dark and light areas and block in the dark areas first.
Warm and cool colours: reds and yellows are generally said to be “warm” colours (think fire) and blues and greens are said to be “cool” (think ice). To obtain a darker colour, mix a warm colour with a cool colour.
I like to use a mixture of red, green and dark blue or purple for my darks, but use any mixture that works. Be sure you use the same colours for all your darks; this will help unify your drawing. Do not use white at this stage.
Once you have the darks in, begin to identify colour areas. Study your subject carefully. The object of the exercise is to learn how colours work in a picture, not to reproduce the colours you see precisely (this would be virtually impossible with the range of colours you are using). Look for the reddest thing you can see. It may actually be brown or dark orange, but colour it red. Then do the same with the blue, green and yellow areas. This is the same principle you used in your tonal drawing when you stretched the dark/light contrasts. You are now stretching the contrasts of hue. Look at my example, to see what I mean.