Using Soft Pastels for Observational Drawing

Making use of soft pastels for observational drawing on location or in the studio can be an excellent addition to materials you may already be familiar with using. The dry instant color is exciting to work with and feels very direct and expressive. As they are pure pigment with a clay binder in handy stick format they offer a lovely punch of color for very little effort.

They are also easy to transport around and lightweight which makes it perfect for location work. Similarly they aren’t too large so don’t take up valuable space on a desk if you have a small studio working space. They transport well in Jackson’s empty pastels boxes with foam dividers, or I save the little cardboard boxes they come in from my Jackson’s order and take them out on location in that. In my studio I keep them in a tray from the Jackson’s Wooden 3 Drawer Chest. It’s easy to see them laid out and I can pick the color I need quickly and easily.

Usually soft pastels are applied to a more textured paper so the paper can hold more of the colour, but it is also possible to work on very smooth paper both on location and in sketchbooks in the studio. You can achieve very different results depending on paper stock so it’s always nice to try a few ways of working. If working on a smoother surface then sometimes fixing a layer in place before working on top with more pastel will allow for more grip of the material to the page.

Jackson’s Handmade Soft Pastel Deep Orange

Observational drawing often requires quick marks to capture what you’re looking at and soft pastel is perfect for this. It doesn’t need drying time like paint, so you can make a drawing and move onto the next page in your sketchbook quite easily. You can also cover a large area and make bold marks with color by using the pastel on its broad sides. For finer details the pastels can also be used on their edges which achieves a crisper line. You can smudge and blend colors easily with your fingers or tools like a sponge or a color shaper, and they combine well with other materials. Using them in a mixed media approach means you can really enhance their properties and enjoy different textures within one image. They can be particularly enjoyable over the top of Liquitex Professional Acrylic Markers, ink, watercolours, brush markers and alongside pencils.

Unison Color Soft Pastel Single Brown Earth 18

When drawing on location with soft pastels, no matter the subject I normally start with laying down a large amount of color for the larger areas, mapping out shapes to work into later on. Sometimes if a softer edge is required I’ll smudge the pastel to give a more natural edge. I then work in other colors adding smaller details or tone as I go. If I’ve made any mistakes I’ll try and remove some of the pastel with a putty rubber.

Jackson’s Putty Rubber White

I used Jackson’s Handmade Soft Pastels, they have a low binder to pigment ratio which makes them rich and luminous – in particular I really love the fluorescent set they have which are unusual and make a nice addition to working with more muted colours. They are a good size, have a paper sleeve so you don’t get too messy and the pigment is lightfast.

Jackson’s Handmade Soft Pastel 3 Colors Fluorescent Set

I also used some other pastels, mainly Unison – my go to brand if I’m looking to expand my color choices, the colors are very rich and they are beautifully creamy to work with. The curated sets are very useful if you’re looking for something to quickly grab and go on the way out to draw. The landscape half stick set is a particularly nice intro set if you’re new to pastels, useful for lots of subjects, not just landscape. It can be good to combine pastels with something you can make finer details with – in most cases color pencils and graphite pencils. I sometimes use oil pastels alongside, which is a little unusual as they do tend to sort of fight each other but I really enjoy the contrast in textures I get.

Unison Color Soft Pastel Landscape Set of 16 Half Sticks

Using soft pastel on location outside is wonderful as they can be quite dusty and messy in small spaces and so it matters less when outside. They feel quite freeing to use like this. They don’t melt in the warm weather like oil pastel or neocolor so working in winter or summer doesn’t seem to affect them. I normally take a can of fixative with me to use either half way through the drawing to fix a layer or right at the end when I feel I’ve finished and to prevent smudging.

Jackson’s Pastel Fixative 500 ml

Sennelier Oil Pastel Aerosol Fixative 400 ml states it is for oil pastel but I have found it fixes soft pastel ok which is handy as I often use oil pastel and soft pastels together. All the fixatives I’ve tried seem to dull the fluorescent pastels so I recommend using it as lightly as possible.

I like to work larger when I’m on location, an A3 Moleskine sketchbook, or else on loose sheets on a drawing board or folder. I find it useful to take bulldog clips too to stop pages blowing around. I protect my work when packing up with either sheets of tissue paper or some grease proof paper to protect the delicate surfaces of the pastel. If I’m storing the larger sheets for longer I’ll put a layer of glassine tissue paper between them.

RKBurts Glassine Paper Clear for Interleaving 50 x 75 cm

When I’m doing observational drawing in the studio I don’t have a huge amount of space so I tend to work in my smaller sketchbooks on my desk. I like working in a Royal Talens 21 x 30 inch sketchbook, and use other materials alongside – sometimes pastel pencils too as they are a little bit easier to control.

Caran D’ache Luminance 6901 Color Pencil Olive Yellow

I like to use soft pastel for online life drawing classes. I try to curate a color palette before I start to keep things simple and so to free up desk space. The sessions normally are quite fast paced moving from pose to pose so if you have a color palette to hand it can be good for fast decisions. The portrait set from Unison is a great addition to some of the colors I already have. I find pastel is a really nice addition to working from online life classes, again you don’t have lots of time, with some timed drawings being as short as 2 or 5 minutes so you can make clear and expressive marks in just a few strokes .

Pastel life drawing from the sketchbook of Sarah Dyer

Soft pastel is also great for roughly marking out where you think the pose of the body is. I often use a lighter color first, in this case Jackson’s Pale Peach, then when I feel I have enough of the figure mapped out I’ll work more into the drawing using soft pastels in darker tones, and colours, before moving onto other media to highlight details.

Angle Slice from the PanPastel Sofft Tools Starter Set Of 8

For the longer poses I like to combine materials – ink, paint, neocolor and pencils. Soft pastel can be easy enough to remove too with a putty rubber or standard eraser, so it means you can draw by erasing away the pastel too. I find the only downside to soft pastel is the mess – particularly in the studio. I have to be careful with my space and clear down well at the end. On some occasions I find the soft pastels in PanPastel form is a better option for studio observational drawing, and using the Sofft tools with them means mess is kept to a minimum.

Pastel life drawing from the sketchbook of Sarah Dyer

If you are thinking you’d like to add soft pastels to your observational drawings either out on location or in the studio I think the best way to introduce them to your practice is by just trying a small selection so you feel comfortable using them alongside the materials, you already know. A small curated set by Jackson’s or Unison is perfect. Or you could select a few colors as single sticks you are naturally drawn too – it can be hard to narrow down the beautiful colors available though!

Materials featured:

Jackson’s Handmade Soft Pastels

Jackson’s Handmade Soft Pastel Deep Orange

Caran D’ache Luminance 6901 Color Pencil Olive Yellow

Sennelier Oil Pastel Aerosol Fixative 400 ml

RKBurts Glassine Paper Clear for Interleaving 50 x 75 cm

Jackson’s Putty Rubber White

Unison Color Soft Pastel Landscape Set of 16 Half Sticks

Unison Color Soft Pastel Single Brown Earth 18

A3 Moleskine sketchbook

PanPastel Soft Pastel Pans

Jackson’s Pastel Fixative 500 ml


Shop pastels on jacksonsart.com

Shop sketchbooks on jacksonsart.com


Further Reading on Jackson’s Art Blog

Pastel Painting With Jackson’s Handmade Soft Pastels
In Conversation With Dan Hersey and Jim Longman From Unison Color Soft Pastels
Why You Should Join an Online Life Drawing Class
Fixatives Are Not All The Same

Sarah Dyer

Sarah Dyer is a picture book maker and illustrator. She enjoys working outside on location for reference and color which feeds back into her book work. In between writing and illustrating Sarah attends festivals and schools to carry out events and workshops and she also teaches on the Foundation course at Kingston University.

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