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Colors for Pastel Painting

How to Select Colors for Pastel Painting?

Artisans Gallery - Rembrandt Pastel Color Set

Off the Shelf Starter sets

Probably the quickest and easiest way to get started in regards to selection of pastels is to get a ready-made set. All of the major artists manufacturers make the sets. If you just want to try out pastels and get a good feel for whether you will like them then start with a small set. Or better yet by several sticks, each from a different manufacturer so you can experience a range of pastel softness/hardness available.

If you really want to become a serious pastel painter, you'll need to get a set of between 30 and 40 pastels. Maybe you already know you intend to paint mainly portraits or landscapes and if so then you can refine your choice by buying a targeted pastel selection that starts with 10 mid tone colors.


Artisans Gallery - Chalk Pastels

Why You Should Limit Your Choice of Pastel Colors

One of the skills you will need to learn for pastel painting is a feel for how the pastel is going to behave on paper. This understanding of how the different tenants work with each other is a technique and an innate understanding of color.

Many people make the common mistake when they start out with pastels and they buy too many sticks and too many different colors. You need to limit your range of warm and cool colors from each of the primaries and secondaries, plus a few browns or earth colors, a black, and a white.

Always putting together your own selection is better than buying a ready-made set of pastels because you only buy what you need. Look at what's available at your local art store or an online art supply store and let your subconscious select one example of the primaries and secondaries.

You also will need a few light and dark versions of these colors so you have a range of painting tongues. The ideal list are three different tones across the colors, light, mid, and dark. Some colors like yellow, only really come in light and mid tones.

Artisans Gallery - Chalk Pastels From Light to Dark

Identifying Pastel Color Tints, From Light to Dark

A first step toward selecting your own set of pastel colors is to put together one of each of the following: warm red, cold red, orange, cold yellow, warm green, cold green, cold blue, warm blue, cold violet, and warm violet. There are many options so how do you choose?

Pastels come in a range of tents. The majority of pastel manufacturers produce a basic tint and then ranges of lighter and darker tints of this basic tint. These all can be identified by the pastels code number. You can select the second or third darkest of any tint in the colors listed and this will provide you with a set of 10 mid tone pastels.


Artisans Gallery - Chalk Pastels, Mid-Tones

Start with the Mid-Tones

The initial 10 pastels provide you with a set of mid tones (warm red, cold red, orange, cold yellow, warm green, cold green, cold blue, warm blue, cold violet and warm violet). Remember to pick those that are harmonious and representative of the subjects you will paint.

You can try to make the choice yourself but if you're hesitant here are some suggestions:
Warm red: Scarlet Lake, permanent red, or poppy red
Cold red: Carmine, alizarin Crimson, or madder Lake
Orange: mid orange or permanent orange
Cold yellow: lemon yellow
Warm green: permanent green or phthalo green
Cold green: blue-green or turquoise
Cold blue: cerulean blue
Warm blue: French ultramarine or ultramarine deep
Cold violet: ultramarine Violet or blue violet
Warm violet: red violet or quinacridone violet
These are your 10 basic pastels but you will need to expand the set to include dark and light tones.

Artisans Gallery - Chalk Pastels, From Light and Dark Tones

Add Light and Dark Tones

Pastel manufacturers create lighter tents adding kaolin or china clay or chalk to the pigment mix. Darker shades are created by adding black pigments such as PBk6 or carbon black. You can get a light and dark tone to complement each of the 10 you have selected for your mid town set.

Don't bother with the dark versions of the cool yellow and orange, as dark yellows tend to be a dark green or black. The mid-tone orange is probably as intense as you need. For the dark tone, take the darkest pastel from the same group as the mid-tone. For the light, take the lightest, or second lightest from the group. Here are some recommendations:
Warm red: dark and light
Cold read: dark and light
Orange: light only
Cold yellow: light only
Warm Green: dark and light
Cold Green: dark and light
Artisans Gallery - Essential Earth Colors of Pastels Cold blue: dark and light
Warm blue: dark and light
Cold violet: dark and light
Warm violet: dark and light
You will now have 28 pastel sticks. Next you need to get earth colors.

Essential Earth Colors

At a minimum you will need warm and a cold earth Brown, along with a lighter and darker tint. Try a yellow or gold ocher and a burnt sienna. If you want a larger range of earth colors consider raw umber and caput Moruum, Indian red or Mars violet. Now you want to consider black-and-white.

Artisans Gallery - Pastels Black and White

Black and White

With pastels you don't use black very often as it is very intense and a selfish color but sometimes where the dark tan is just not intense enough, a black and get that final touch. Several manufacturers offer an intense or serious black, which are ideal.

White however is much more useful especially if you have chosen the second lightest tense of the mid-tone colors for your set. If you might be using the white mainly for highlights, consider buying one from Unison, Sennelier or Schmincke. These are always softer and easier to apply.

Make sure you don't forget a couple of gray pastel sticks. Rather than choosing a neutral gray take a warm such as Davy’s gray or Mouse gray and cold Paynes gray of Blue gray color.

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