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Medium Spotlight: Pastel Pencils

Updated: Aug 19



As an illustrator, I like to work with a variety of mediums. These spotlight posts are meant to give a brief overview of what I use and why I use the medium, as well as give any advice I can to other artists who may wish to try them. Enjoy!


I was first introduced to pastel pencils about three and a half years ago. I found myself on Derwent's website, a pencil manufacturer in the UK. As I was browsing through their site, I came across an illustration of a Bateleur Eagle. The illustration showed amazing attention to detail and the overall look and feel really intrigued me. Upon clicking on the banner I landed on the pastel pencils product page and instantly started learning more about this medium. I got to see how other artists use these pencils in their own work through short bios on the page and I had found the artist who had drawn the eagle that led me to this medium in the first place. The artist was Martin Aveling, a wildlife artist and conservationist located in the UK. I browsed through his artwork and found that he works exclusively with these pencils. I was amazed at his work and the level of detail he achieves was (and continues to be) a big inspiration to me. His work showed me the huge potential in working with pastel pencils. I was very excited for this medium and I ended up buying my first set, a set of 36 to start sometime later and when they arrived I couldn't wait to give them a go. After practicing with them for some time, I decided to reach out to Martin and ask for any tips or advice when working with these pencils. He was extremely helpful and even shared an article he had wrote on the medium. With his advice in mind, I decided to try these pencils on a larger scale drawing.


Admittedly, my first go with pastel pencils wasn't what I had expected. I had planned on doing a large illustration of an American Kestrel using these pencils but that was now in doubt. While practicing to test out blending and the best way to put down the pigment, the overall feeling of the pencil while drawing was very chalky and put me off from using them. I had expected a softer feel. After some initial disappointment, I put aside the pastels and continued on with my illustration using a different medium. Some time passed and as I continued my illustration I kept thinking about the pastels, a part of me wanted to give them another go. Perhaps it was the challenge they offered, but I decided to pick the pastels up again and this time I wasn't walking away so easily. I found the more I worked with the pencils, the easier it became in handling them and understanding how to apply just the right amount of pressure. I soon realized that the approach that worked best for me had the pencil barely touching the paper, this allowed me to be light and gradually build my layers and the values. I have now done two illustrations with pastel pencils, one being of an American Kestrel and the other is of an Orchid. Both illustrations took over 80 hours to complete, which is why patience is so important with this medium. If you want great results, you have to put the time in with the pencils.


If your looking for tips, I can offer a few when working with this medium. The first piece of advice I can offer is to have patience with them, don't treat them like a graphite pencil. Patience is the one thing I would stress the most. Make sure to also start light when drawing with pastel pencils, whether that's sketching or doing a more in depth drawing, start with a light color. I have found that using powder blue allows you to lightly sketch in your subject, while also allowing the pigment to be erased easily, should you have to make any changes. Starting with a color like powder blue also allows you to build your layers over the initial sketch without worrying about the blue showing. Now, when sharpening pastel pencils, a normal pencil sharpener does work, however, keep in mind that pastel pencils are a bit thicker than a normal pencil. You also run the risk of the pencil breaking using a sharpener. A straight blade I find works best, using the blade to remove the wood around the pigment (with the blade facing away from you) and then sanding it to a really nice fine point. Pastel pencils also require a slightly different paper stock, the paper has to have enough tooth to hold the layers of the pigment. Pastelmat by Clairefontaine and canford card by Daler-Rowney work very well. I have more experience with the pastelmat, but I do keep stock of both papers. Along with the paper, you may have to consider fixatives as you work. I personally have not used a fixative with pastels, but I can see the benefit, as it will help to preserve the artwork as well as prevent it from smudging as you work. With that being said, another tip is to use a piece of paper to rest your hand on while drawing. I like to use the thin, translucent paper that comes with the pad of pastelmat. The last tip is to not give up on the medium! Unless you have experience with pastels already, these pencils will feel different that what your used to working with. Don't do what I did initially and get frustrated and give up, the more time you work with these pencils, the more you begin to understand and develop your way of working with them.


Pastel pencils are a joy to work with and offer amazing potential to really bring your subject to life. When your working with them there's an excitement as you begin to see your drawing take shape. They can be tricky to work with initially but don't give up on them. They're worth putting your time and energy into learning and improving with them and once you get comfortable with the pencils, you won't want to put them down!

© 2020 Kirk Zimmerman