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Using hard pastels vs soft pastels - "Grebe"

How do you use hard pastels in a pastel painting? What are they good for? What are their benefits over soft pastels? What brands are best? What features define the best brands of hard pastels?

I've only recently started using hard pastels. When I first tried very soft pastels (Schmincke) I thought they would be all I would, or could ever need in terms of types of pastels - the pigment is so smooth and buttery and the textures you can create are so similar to painting rather than drawing.

Recently, however, I've discovered that I can't create quite the right level of detail that I desire with soft pastels, and moreover, I've had difficulty using pastel pencil over soft pastel because it tends to displace the soft pastel rather than overlying it. In addition, I had been using graphite for my under-sketch, and on the odd occasion, I found that it wasn't adequately covered by the overlying soft pastel (this isn't always a problem, but on these occasions I wasn't happy with the result). I also wanted to start testing out the technique of under-painting a pastel picture with watercolour.

So I turned to hard pastels as an option in addition to the soft pastel for gaining greater control over my initial sketch and the detailed areas of my paintings. But a question had been plaguing me - which brand of hard pastels should I invest in?

While many pastelists will have different answers to this question, and I certainly haven't tried all the brands, there seems to be a trend in the forums towards the more colour-fast and smooth lay-down of the Faber Castell Polychromos pastel brand (the original 120 colour range has recently been pruned to only 60 colours unfortunately). Figure 1 shows some example sticks from the Faber Castell Polychromos colour range.

Hard pastels.jpg

Many artists had been using Prismacolor NuPastels only to discover that many of their colours are reputedly fugitive (range of 96 colours; NuPastels aren't available in Australia). The other main brand is Conte a Paris (full range of 84 colours), however I had the opportunity to try these in the local art shop and found them both crumbly (corner fragments broke off rather than transferring smoothly to the paper) and scratchy (inconsistent hardness within the stick). Cretacolor hard pastels (range of 72 colours) have been gaining in popularity lately, but I haven't had the opportunity to try them yet.

In summary, in a hard pastel brand I was looking for the following characteristics:

  1. Decent range of colours - this is especially crucial if you're planning to use the hard pastels for detailed areas of your painting

  2. Consistent hardness throughout the colour range - this is a difficult one; even the best soft pastel brands tend to vary in softness throughout the colour range, which is a property of the pigments themselves to some degree

  3. Light-fast colours - these days it's a wonder if pastel brands can consider their range of 'artist quality' if the colours are relatively fugitive

  4. Smooth and creamy texture (despite relative hardness compared with the soft pastel ranges) - this is a really important characteristic for me, I'm not keen on losing pigment to crumbling, nor having scratchy marks on my paper

  5. Reasonably dustless - dustiness is a feature of cheaper student brands that disintegrate to powder at a touch, and blow off your drawing/painting surface, barely making an impression

  6. Edges able to maintain a sharp point - in order to paint detailed areas

  7. Small, square cross-sectioned, stick form - for ease of expression (not possible with pastel pencils)


Some potential uses and benefits of hard pastels in a pastel painting (either alone or in combination with soft pastels) include:

  1. Under-sketching - hard pastels, like charcoal, work perfectly for defining the general layout of your painting before you start in with soft pastels. Their colour range permits the sketch to be either subtle (and easy to cover) or readily visible (where it's desirable for the sketch to show through), especially on variably coloured papers. They're a better sketching medium than graphite for underneath pastel paintings because they can be completely blended in to the final painting (whereas graphite doesn't blend well with pastel).

  2. Detailed areas - one of the great disadvantages of soft pastels is that the sticks don't hold edges or points well, making painting detailed areas almost impossible unless a very impressionistic style is employed. Hard pastels overcome this disadvantage. Their pigments are mixed with a moderate amount of binder that allows the colour to both hold together well in the stick, and be transferred slowly to the painting surface. The sticks tend to have square cross-sections for ease of obtaining sharp edges for detailed painting, and their edges remain sharp for longer. Hard pastels may be used alone or with soft pastels for highlights in detailed regions of the painting.

  3. Smaller paintings - because soft pastels disintegrate more easily, their sticks must be relatively larger (for example, 13mm diameter of Schmincke) than those of hard pastels (for example, 7mm diameter of Faber Castell Polychromos). This not only makes detailed areas easier, but permits smaller paintings overall, which can be an advantage especially due to cost of materials.

  4. Lower cost - Since hard pastels contain less pigment and more binder, not only are they cheaper due to the lower cost of binder to pigment, but also because since they're hard, you tend to use them up less rapidly. A single stick may last tens to hundreds of paintings, while with soft pastels, a single stick may only last a few paintings (due to thicker coverage and colour lay down).

  5. Blending effects - while soft pastels tend to blend completely into a smooth transition of colour, there are occasions when you want to achieve a degree of blending, and yet still be able to see the individual pastel strokes. This is a feature that hard pastels can be useful for. I've illustrated this effect in the water reflections of Figure 2 (painting of an Australasian grebe in breeding plumage). In this case, finger blending served to effectively make the water appear softened and wet, but not remove the detail of the reflection completely.

  6. Watercolour effects - most pastelists would know that pastel pigment can readily be blended with water (either over a painting, or prior to pastel lay down). Furthermore, many pastelists make use of a watercolour underpainting which serves to provide unity of colour, particularly on rough papers and sanded surfaces (where many layers of soft pastels would otherwise be necessary to fill the grain and cover the surface colour). Hard pastels are very beneficial for both these uses. In the first instance, because they're hard and the sticks maintain a good point, they can readily be used similarly to watercolour pencils. Secondly, as little colour is laid down with each stroke, hard pastels can be used to provide layers and texture to a watercolour underpainting, without completely obliterating it.

Overall, I've been very happy with my experiments with hard pastels, and I'm sure they'll form an important part of my pastel medium repertoire. The grebe painting (Figure 2) was done entirely with hard pastels from initial sketch through to the final touches. I was especially pleased with the way the water reflection could be blended without losing essential detail, and furthermore, how the blending could be directional (to maintain that sense of horizontally rippled water).

When and where do you use hard pastels in your pastel paintings? Which brands do you find the best and why?

#jun14 #pastel #polychromos #hardpastel #grebe #bird #blending #swimming #water #wildlife

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Laura is a visual artist, veterinarian, conservationist and disease ecology Research Fellow trying to juggle a multitude of passions - and she's too stubborn to drop any of them! She is particularly fond of bush walking, rogaining, camping (especially with her mother, Jenny), bird watching and photography. She lives with her partner Pete in sunny Brisbane, Australia, and dreams of having an art studio in the rainforest!

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