Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Breaking Pastel Sticks

Red Flowering Maple
9" x 12" pastel on paper

This post is mostly for new pastelists, though old timers and experts please chip in with comments to reinforce the point!

It's hard to deliberately break a pastel stick when you're starting out. There are so many reasons. The brand new pastels cost a lot of money. The set looks beautiful when it's full and you have all the colors available. The tips of the sticks look broad and blunt no matter what brand they are, even narrow rectangular hard pastels look wide compared to the tip of a colored pencil. How can you get detail with those wide tips? It'd be like trying to use a big graffiti scale marker to draw something tiny and intricate, right?

The first pastels I got in picking up the medium again were a 60 color box of vintage Rembrandt. Not one stick broken, all still had their labels, two or three were slightly worn down as if an artist sketched with them. These pastels were hand me downs from an oil painter who tried the medium and hated it, who'd been given that set by a different oil painter who tried the medium and hated it, all the way back to whoever bought the set back in the 1950s or 60s to try the medium and hated it. I felt lucky they all hated it.

I've now found out why those oil painters did, they never broke the sticks to use them on their sides. The painting I posted as today's example is a perfect reason to do it. I could not have done that painting without side strokes. Even working loosely on plain paper, broad side strokes with a half stick become expressive marks. They get painterly results. Pastels aren't usually a tight medium.

Of course for some painters they are - but the experts approach tight realism more the way oil painters do. They block in first to get the general shape and color, maybe the big shadow shapes, then start refining and getting more detailed until at the very end they bring in small details and hard edges.

If you'd ever used colored pencils, you know how fast you'll use up the sky blue pencil in a landscape, or the greens. All the greens. One undersea painting will kill all the blues. A decent sized sunset or a close-up of a red-orange flower will slaughter the reds and oranges too. I went through Prismacolor Premier pencils like I was smoking them back when I did Prismacolor realism. You can never have enough colors. In fact, I did more mixing when I had 120 colors than when I only had 72 in that old favorite brand. Nuances like dusty gray-violet over a red in just that little area of a petal became possible and the waxy pencils are translucent.

So you can imagine how I felt using those Remrandts. For some time I kept them exactly as they were. What helped change my mind was buying a set of Sennelier half sticks to go along with them. These already came out the right shape and size.

There's two reasons I recommend half sticks to anyone starting in pastels. One is that you get twice as many colors for about the same money and the same size of box footprint. The other is that you don't have to face breaking beautiful new pastels until you're ready and know what you're doing with them.

120 Unison half sticks

They look so fine in their boxes. I don't have a photo of a box of pastels with the labels still on because I've gotten used to breaking them to provide usable lengths. I think the toughest time I had was when I lucked and got 200 Winsor & Newton pastels in a wood box when they were discontinued. I'd always wanted a full range big set of pastels, I never had exactly the right color I wanted, it was so frustrating and all the artists I admired on Jackson Square swanked about with 250 or 525 or at least 100 Sennelier pastels in a wood box.

That was when I found out I didn't have a table big enough to spread out all 200 of those brand new sticks. The wonderful big new range went fallow for almost two years because it was unusable. Literally I'd have had to keep it open and keep moving the top tray off every other stroke to get at the cool colors and neutrals but get back to the warm colors. It might have worked with a long table. But it decided me to snap all sticks and get rid of the labels. I'd never be able to replace those pastels anyway. I bought up as many extras as I could, they were going for 50 cents to a dollar a stick on closeout. But when they're gone, they're gone, that's it, and I'll still have a beautiful wood box slowly filling up with Rembrandt and Art Spectrum ones.

I moved halves back and forth till I had all 200 colors in one tray and from then on I was able to use the set. I'd take out just the top tray and be able to find the colors I needed. More to the point, I wasn't limited in my strokes to the width of the tip of the stick. 

It's possible to get decent results just with the tip, especially if you do some finger blending the way I did a lot during my portrait years. It goes faster and looks better to be able to use a piece an inch to an inch and a half long on its side and block in the background looser. You can get distinct broad "flat brush" looking strokes and a lively look that way - and it looks natural to a painting to do that. That's why it's called painterly. You can still tell what it is but you can also see that it's a painting.

Sunset 7" square pastel on paper

You can also move a side stroke back and forth on the same direction as the stick, getting narrower marks that are very expressive. I did a lot of side strokes in this little painting, twisting the sticks and turning them and twirling them. The detailed tip strokes came at the very end. I even used relatively small pastels, the Blue Earth ones are short small squares that don't need breaking or peeling.

As opposed to this type of pastel drawing done mostly or all with the tips:

Two bananas and apple, pastel drawing on paper

This one was almost entirely or completely done with the tips of my pastels. No, I can see I used some side strokes blurring out the shadows. I started with a charcoal pencil, created a tone drawing and worked over it with medium soft pastels mostly using the tips. I didn't finger blend much, just kept the textures as is. It's possible to get good effects using the tips but it takes longer and may result in filling the tooth of the paper faster.

As mentioned, the best way for a new pastelist to get over that panic is to buy half stick sets that are already a convenient size and shape. They usually aren't labeled either. Some hard pastels and a very few soft pastels come in a convenient size right from the start. Terry Ludwigs, Blue Earths and Townsend Terrages come in a convenient size at the beginning.

Terry Ludwig Violets set and Sunset set with one V100 stick

The advantage of the block shape in Terry Ludwigs is that you can get very fine lines with the sharp edges of the block in either tip length or stick length, and very small dots with the eight corners of the stick. This makes them wonderful for sky holes and twigs and catch lights in the eyes of anything, fur textures, a lot of uses for Terry Ludwigs. But they are very, very soft and so are the smaller Blue Earth pastels.

So are the convenient little Mungyo Standard student grade half sticks that I love so much for color studies and sketching. This actually is the best cheap set for putting your toe in the water, it's a bit over $10 at Jerry's Artarama or Amazon and has a large enough range for a beginner.

Mungyo Gallery Standard 64 half stick set

All pastels crumble. They lose little chips. The crumbs collect in the foam padding and sometimes a stick breaks in transit shattering into two usable pieces and a dozen little crumbs. Once in a great while even with the well designed set boxes, whole sticks will be reduced to little crumbs.

I use regular prescriptions so I collect a lot of pill bottles. Save those crumbles in pill bottles, baby food jars or any other container that will let you sort by color. If you don't sort them by color, what you'll get are interesting muted colors, grays and browns created by mixing many different pigments. It's possible to grind up the crumbles from many different pastel brands in a mortar and pestle, then add a drop of distilled water to make a paste.

Mold that paste into a stick shape or a half stick shape and set it in a tinfoil drying rack, let it dry out naturally. You can remold entire broken sticks that way, if the whole stick is gone the dust and crumbles can still be reconstituted. I'm saving them by hue and value, spectrum hue. My handmade leftovers sticks may be a little mixed-up or muted by having blue greens and yellow greens together, but they should come out definably green or red or blue or brown. 

The important thing with that is saving enough dust to make at least one stick and then being sure to grind it up fine enough it doesn't have inclusions of chips that are a distinct color. Terry Ludwig deliberately did some confetti pastels though so even that may be a fun, unique recycled stick. I haven't collected enough crumbs to try this yet, but I've seen a number of online friends create beautiful hand rolled sticks from the leftovers.

So don't throw out the dust that accumulates. The dust from the bottom of your easel, where hopefully you put a foil dust catcher, can also be poured off into a jar and used to make a neutral stick. Each one will be different based on the palettes you used. Even the smallest crumbles still are valuable. Pieces too small to paint with just go into the jars.

But you'll be surprised at how long it takes for a stick to wear down. The reason my pencils vanished as if they were Pringles was that a colored pencil is mostly wood with a little core and half the core material's thrown out in sharpening. Woodless colored pencils wear down much more slowly, as do pastels. Also, the more colors I have, the slower they all wear down.

With only 60 colors, the White and Ivory sticks wore out fast. so did one of the reddish mid-tone browns because I used it in almost all skin tones. That was back in New Orleans when I mostly did portraits of tourists using a 30 color basic assortment and 30 color skin tones set, both Grumbacher. Now that I've got a much larger assortment, I haven't run out of any one color. 

White vanishes fast for the same reason it does in paint - making tints with pure colors. If you have a half dozen near white tints, it becomes easier to choose the right one to shade what you're doing. That's not always matching it. Doing a lavender rose, it might be great to use a near-white pink for its highlights to warm them in the sun, and a blue for the highlights in shadow. Black can wear down for the same reason if you're using it to make shades, though having charcoal handy will reduce the wear on the black stick.

More colors gives a better range of nuances. But here's where we get into table size too. I did have to break my Winsor & Newtons or I could not get 200 of them into one tray.

My best recommendation for beginners is to get the largest half sticks set you can afford, in a good artist grade brand. If it's a casual interest, start with cheap student grade ones but get a big box. If you come out of using colored pencils, go for the big 120 color half stick sets, those are complete enough to be a comfortable palette. If you come out of paint and too many colors are confusing, 60 colors is about right. Make sure your set has all the spectrum colors including violet, it's more useful than you think. If possible make sure it has both warm and cool darks and lights. 

I don't recommend subject specific sets like landscape or portrait because they often leave out colors essential to doing those subjects. Check on them to see if there's violet or purple. You need violet in landscapes, a lot, it wears down fast. You also need it in portrait shadows. Blues appear in highlights, eye colors and clothes as well as backgrounds. Greens show up reflected into skin. As a second set portrait sets will give more earth tones and muted colors, landscape sets more greens and blues and browns, but a basic assortment is best to start with and get the largest one you can.

Of course you might have the budget to jump right in with a full range set in your favorite brand. If you do that... get ready for a slow process of peeling and breaking. You won't regret it. The chore does get easier with time and a lot less shocking. If you hesitate and get scared to wreck them, give yourself a reality check. You're just preparing them for use the way the best painters do!


  1. Excellent, as usual. I learned a few nuggets. Thank you.

    1. Thank you! I love hearing from readers. Will be posting a new one on fur textures early in February if not sooner.

  2. ...love pastels, don't do enuf of 'em, good things here, and the red flowering maple flowers at the top of the page are fab, they really sparkle with rainbow brightness. Thanks for sharing so much valuable info...

    1. Thank you for your comment! Pastels are so much fun, so glad you're inspired to get back into them. Instant gratification is so hard to resist! My best tip - get a towel, dampen the bottom quarter and keep it handy to wipe fingers clean, dry on the dry end. Saves a lot of cleanup.

  3. Thanks, Robert! Such encouragement is just what I need...someone without a teacher per se, picking up what I can learn from the 'net. I so appreciate your appreciate your generosity...and I love your work. I lurk on WC and see you there, too. You are a man about town, indeed.

    1. Glad I could help! I should post more often, warming up to it as the weather gets better. Literally!

    2. I also have a demo in progress on WC that I'll edit and post here as well, it's coming out cool!