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Dry pastels - the way I use them.

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

Two years ago, I had no idea how I could include dry pastels in my mixed-media art journaling.

I thought that they are reserved for fine arts. I was pretty sure that dry pastels are challenging to work with, that they smudge and smear and require a lot of faffing around (fixing, having the right paper, smooth surface, and so on).

And I knew I have to keep my daily art journaling practice simple for it to be consistent. 

But the beautiful problem was that one of my drawers was full of dry pastels, leftovers from Jamie's Wanderlust 2016 filming.

And all the colours seemed so scrumptious.

One day I thought I just have to give it a go.

It took me a little practice, but soon I found my favourite ways of using dry pastels. I also worked out which exact kinds and brands work for me, and now I want to share all that with you.

A word of warning before you continue reading. All I am saying here is based on my own experience and my personal preference.

Dry pastels have various levels of softness and the differences are big.

Out of those that I have, Sennelier seems to be the softest, the most crumbly kind.

Others will be super hard, so you can get a sharp line, and therefore they also won't smudge as much. Among my collection, Daler-Rowney Soft Pastels are definitely the hardest.

That brings me to a conclusion: even though it may say "soft" on the packaging, they may feel quite hard to you (and the other way around!). It all depends on your personal preference and what you're used to. I guess every manufacturer decides whether they consider their dry pastels soft or hard. It seems to me that there aren't any strict rules about it.

Here's my tip. If you haven't got any dry pastels or aren't sure what you like then order a few single colours of different brands and have a play. Or you could simply go to an art shop and ask them to let you use some samples. 

My favourite kinds are those that are somewhere in between. 

I especially enjoy:

  • Unison handmade pastels (that's the chunky ones on my pictures)

  • Mount Vision Pastels, 

  • Daler Rowney Hard Pastels (I know, confusing, they are actually softer than the "Soft" ones)

So I guess you gathered that my collection is big mix of brands, right? For that reason, I got rid of all the packaging and sorted them in little tins and boxes by colour (or favourite colour combinations). Thanks to that it's easier and quicker for me to choose and pick colours that I want.

Soft pastels won't work on every surface. They won't always look juicy and intense. They are not as straight forward as I would like them to be. But still, since I discovered their potential and beauty, I'm in love.

Here's how I use them in my daily mixed-media art journal:

1. I usually apply them as my last layer, to add sharp, strong, bold and colourful marks. 

2. I always apply a layer of smooth, clear gesso* beforehand. 

My mixed-media pages are usually a mix of collage, heavy body acrylic and inks. Soft pastels won't stick to any of them. To make it work, once I am ready for my soft pastel marks, I apply a layer of smooth, clear gesso on top of everything. Then I dry it and start playing with the pastels. That's how I get them to look bold and intense. 

3. I almost never fix my soft pastels.

The reasons are that I don't like the smell of my spray fixative and, to be frank with you, I just can't be bothered to do it. I learnt to embrace the smudges and enjoy how that changes my daily spreads. I'm never striving for perfection in my daily art journaling. I don't care about how my page looks after I finished with it. All I want is the pleasure that comes from the process. I use my spray fixative only on those pieces that I sell or frame.

*Some clear gessoes aren't smooth at all and that's not going to work quite so well for soft pastels. I use and love Prima Marketing's clear gesso. All the other ones that I tried weren't quite good enough. 

These three key but simple steps help me get the most out of the scrumptious colours of soft pastels, while at the same time keeping my daily art practice relatively easy. And that's all I want.

Soft pastels are great fun, and I wish I would start using them earlier.

Have you got a box of basic colours of soft pastels in your stash? Maybe you too hesitated to use them in the past? Please don't wait any longer! Take my tips and start having fun. You'll soon discover your favourite ways and marks.

Dry pastels are perfectly suitable for mixed-media techniques. You just have to respect their properties and try to embrace them rather than fight them. 

Have you got any further questions? Feel free to post them below, and I'll be happy to answer. 

1 comment

1 Comment

Kasia Avery, You have been keeping a secret! Dry Pastels! OMG. I can not stop playing with them. They are addictive I swear. I did the week #19 lesson you did for Wanderlust and am just going bonkers with how much these add to my artwork. Woot! Thanks. Dry pastels rock.

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