November 2018 I have recently had a lot of discussion about sharpeners both for wax type coloured pencils and - particularly - pastel pencils. This paragraph is an update on what is available and what could be ‘best practice’ for pastel pencils. I still hold by my recommendation that you try to get used to sharpening pastel pencils with a craft knife. It is economic to use and once you get the technique, it produces the most reliable point in the shape you want without the risk of breakages from a machine, HOWEVER many folk find sharpening with a knife difficult. So what are the alternatives ? Firstly I can suggest what NOT to use. Powered sharpeners with spiral cutters do work for a while, but they tend to jam up the cutters with powder and when a fragile lead breaks in the cutters they can be very difficult to take apart to clean out the point space. Some machines like the Jakar 5151 ( referred to in my wax pencil sharpening topic) can be taken apart, and the cutters replaced, but the operation is not easy. The Big Swordfish machines referred to in the same article are impossible to strip down to clean out. Overall, the Powered machines tend to apply too much vibration to the fragile colour strip in a pastel pencil and considering the buying expense involved and the need for a power source, I will discount them. This leaves us with hand operated machines. Ones with a single blade will blunt quite quickly against the abrasive content of pastel pencils, and a blunt blade will be likely to break the point being cut.
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Pastel Pencils - Techniques

The ‘HOW DO DO IT’  Page Some notes to guide the beginner in the techniques for using Pastel Pencils
First …. some examples of finished work
This small collection of my own pastel work is mainly from the last two years and on Pastelmat using pastel pencils and various pastel backgrounds. The Image of Staithes ( below ) is pastel pencil on Lana paper.
The picture titles are ( from top left ) Brecon stream and brecon Dry Stone wall . ‘Beached’ a scene in Brittany. and (bottom left) Pen y fan ( Brecon Beacons ). and View of Staithes, Yorkshire
NOW - Some basics First of all let us look at the basic weapons used in this medium Three images .............. First of all What a sharp pastel pencil does NOT look like Second What a Sharp Pastel Pencil DOES look like and Third What I use to get from picture 1 to picture 2
It seems obvious, I know,  but if you had walked round classrooms as many times as I have and pointed out to students (as many times as I have), that they will never get a quality result with a poor quality point on the pencil, you would understand the reason for me making this note at the outset. Using a blunt pencil is like trying to paint a watercolour with a yard broom You need to have complete control over the mark you make, and you can only do that if you know exactly where the mark is going and how big the mark will be.   Yes, I know that when you are laying down areas of background and putting down a base coat it is not so vital to keep the point pin sharp, but keeping a good point is a very good habit to get. In addition to the need to know how to sharpen the pencil to a good point, you also need to know how to keep the point sharp when you are using it.  Maintaining a point on all pencils requires a similar technique and I have quoted the method  elsewhere but will repeat it again here: When using a good sharp pencil ( of any type ), make sure that you keep giving the pencil a slight turn as you use it.  This introduces a fresh edge to the point and keeps the working area of pigment in fine ‘tune’. Constantly rotating the pencil makes sure that you are able to make exactly the mark you intend. Remember though that you also need a waste container to put the rubbish in, and best of all, one that does not easily knock over.  I have a small piece of blu tac on the base of the table top pot I take around with me so that an accidental knock doesn’t result a load of mess Hopefully the CP addicts who read this will already appreciate the points made. …………………………. I have been asked to go through the process, step by step, of sharpening a Pastel Pencil with a knife.   This is something I was taught to do many years ago by a superb teacher of Pastel Pencils, Colin Bradley, as the first step in working with this medium.   It may seem to be very basic to some of you, but you would be amazed how many people I see working with pencils that have virtually no point to them. It is a sad fact that Pastel Pencils wear down more quickly than almost any other pencil medium, so you have to be on the alert all the time to keep the point in ‘tune’.  If you don’t, the marks you make will become wider and less accurate.  Colin always sharpened his Pastel Pencils with a single edged razor blade, but these days very sharp craft knives are available which are much safer to use. I start with a broken pencil. For this I have selected one from the Derwent box - the Indigo , but the technique is the same whatever the colour or brand !!!    Some pencils are softer and require more care in cutting, some of the harder ones will take more pressure on the colour core.  It is a case of ‘know your pencils’.   I chose the Derwent to demonstrate this process as these Pastel Pencils are slightly softer than many other brands so they need a little more care with the sharpening.  Some of the harder varieties will take careful sharpening in a  hand driven spiral cutting desk sharpener.
1/   Note how I have the pencil held firmly in my hand and I can use my thumb to guide the craft knife.  The grip is a balance between the thumb and the other hand holding the knife so that movement is controlled with care. I am also avoiding any sideways pressure on the pastel pigment core as the pastel is more delicate than either a graphite or a traditional coloured pencil. Too much sideways pressure is inclined to break the point. 2/  The knife blade slices into the wood in a curved motion. I want to cut away wood without cutting too much of the core away 3/ and 4/  I can work on round the point removing wood and revealing the core which will be sharpened up later
5/  So I now have a clear section of core and I can consider bringing this up to a point - if I need a point. Of course we sometimes use the pencil with a flat surface to the pastel, and sharpening up to a fine point will be quite wasteful of the media in this case. I usually keep a good point on all my pencils though, as they are mostly used to work detail after starting off with woodless hard pastel sticks.
6/  To keep sideways pressure from breaking the new point, I now rest the tip of the pencil on a hard surface which has some grip.  I have used a piece of scrap mount board today to rest the point on.
7/  Using careful downward strokes, I remove pigment as a powder  and keep turning the pencil as I work. This produces a fine point and a low chance of the point breaking. You can save the powder in little pots and use it for the initial stages of a work, rubbing it into the clean pastel paper surface, but I don’t bother.  I have too much pastel ‘bits and pieces’ saved already.   You can see that the final stage does remove quite a lot of the pastel, though.
A correspondent wrote to me in June 2011, to alert me to the Derwent Pencil Sharpening stand and knife set. These work well if you have a problem holding and using a knife as they provide a good base to hold the pencil while it is cut with the sharp craft blade. I take one or two with me on courses, and some people find them helpful, particularly if they suffer from arthritis. I must admit I prefer to sharpen pastel pencils as shown in the demonstration above, it is just a question of what you find helpful to keep a good sharp point on your pencil.
So here we have our box of pencils all sharpened up and ready to go …… So what about Paper ?
There is a whole topic in this section on paper and suitable surfaces for pastel and you should read that for fuller details, but in brief........... The pastel pigment used in pencils is harder than the soft pastel used for centuries by artists. It is cleaner to handle and capable of a sharp edge or point for detail.  It still needs a similar type of paper to that used for soft pastels Pastel needs a surface able to grip and hold the dry powder - whether from a stick of pastel or a pastel pencil. Suitable papers are usually quite soft and have a rough surface - or if you are using a sandpaper type of paper it will be able to hold the pigment in tight embrace and be even better at holding more colour. For the purpose of this introduction we will be using a pastel paper with a slight grain to it made by Fabriano and called ‘Tiziano’.  There are dozens of papers of a similar type so there is no need to spend time and money searching for this particular paper to experiment with... It just happens to be the top piece of pastel paper in my store cupboard !    You will see it is coloured.  Many pastel papers are coloured and you will often see packs sold in colour sets. Using a coloured paper provides an instant background as well as providing an overall harmony to your picture.  This paper has a slightly ribbed surface.
Here on the left you will see a trio of soft pastel sticks, still mostly in their original wrappers, in the middle a trio of hard pastel sticks as manufactured by Caran d’Ache, and thirdly a trio of Caran d’Ache pastel pencils - more or less the same colours
Let us have a quick look at how the colour goes down on the paper and what we can do with it. First image is the dry pastel from the pencil laid down on the dark cream paper. Note how the ribbing of the paper shows the underlying colour through where the pastel has ‘missed’ - this is most obvious on the darker colour. When you want a dark colour in your image, it does no harm to lay down a dark foundation, and similarly when you will be wanting a white in the final picture, a white foundation will protect the surface and enable you to get back to white later. Slightly closer up photo, shows the effect of blending the edges where the colours meet, with the dry end of a finger. This is just the foundation stage and we will be able to apply many layers of colour over these first coats See how the addition of another layer has intensified the colours. The black is quite dense - even over the white. The blue shades from light at the edges to darker blue when it is over the black, and the white produces shades of grey at the centre My final photo shows the effect of adding a further set of three vertical lines of colour in the same direction as the original blocks. Note how the white goes over the black line from the previous stage.  Some colour travels with the white and makes it slightly grey, but the dense black has been covered. The blue in the centre returns the area to blue but picks up a little of the black in transit The final line of black is now very dense and the paper grain virtually filled
What I am showing in the test above, is the way the pastel - even the relatively hard pastel of the sticks and pencils - will blend and cover. It is an OPAQUE media.  Given half a chance it will totally cover the colour underneath.  Quite different to the transparency of wax type pencils and watercolour pencils. Let us now look at a worked example of a little still life subject and see how the working of pastel pencils develops a picture HOLD ON A MINUTE !       What happens if I go wrong ? Good question, and one best looked at before we begin, so that we have the re-assurance and knowledge that disasters can be (mostly) put right if caught in time. As pastel builds up on the working surface it becomes more and more difficult to correct, so any corrections need to be done whilst there is still some grain of the paper or card surface to go back to.  Dense pastel which has built up moves easily from side to side, but is very difficult to lift ( see bristle brush - below ). The tools of the correction trade are as follows :  Blue tac/White tack.  Blue tac on its own tends to be on the stiff side and white tack tends to be softer and stickier.  A blend of the two makes an ideal lifting medium for pastel and a blob of the mixture kept to hand is invaluable.  Store it in between the fold of a small sheet of thick plastic or in a pot which you can get your fingers into to excavate it.  The mixture has a habit of ‘flowing’ if left for some time, so keep an eye on it.  I keep a bit stuck to the top of my easel and it is fairly well behaved there and doesn’t wander far.  This sticky mixture can be moulded into an exact shape to lift specific areas of pastel, and will lift pastel pigment from most surfaces and absorb the dust.  It also keeps your hands clean when you have been indulging in mixing the colours with your fingers. Just keep folding it in on itself to reveal a new sticky surface.   The pale blue mixture will get greyer and greyer over the years but will still work well.   I have a blob that is around 8 years old. I prefer the tack mixture to the commercial kneaded erasers though it has to be said that the Faber-Castell kneaded eraser is equally as good. It works out somewhat dearer to buy but may be easier to find than the elusive UHU White tack. Another excellent pastel remover is the ‘Magic sponge’ sold by chain stores like Aldi for general cleaning. The sponge is white and made from a very dense foam which can be easily cut into strips. It is very inexpensive and is also said to work well removing watercolour from paper !
A craft knife can also be used to scrape away pigment, though care is needed that you don’t damage the working surface and ruin the grain of the paper for working the correction. I have seen books quote using a ball of kneaded fresh bread as a good correction material that will lift colour from the surface, but I haven’t tried it. I do keep a short bristle brush handy as this can remove some of the upper layers of pigment when the pastel gets too built up
CAN WE START NOW ? Let us look at a little vase as a subject.   The pot has a matt surface and delicate colouring so is very suitable to show the benefits of Pastel for both still life and portraiture As Pastel is an opaque medium, I will also be working on a coloured background, merely to show how well it works and to point up the difference between Pastel Pencils and the more transparent wax and oil  based coloured pencils. My paper is a 160gsm Ingres pastel paper and I am using it on the smoother side rather than the ribbed one.   I have the paper taped down to a drawing board so that the paper stays absolutely flat, and there is a sheet of smooth card underneath the working paper so that any imperfections in the board surface are not carried through to the picture. I also have a sheet of thin paper on the top and secured along one edge,so that when I stop work, the covering paper can be brought over the artwork to protect it from damage.  It all sounds a bit of a fiddle, I know, but you willsee the benefits as you work. Here we have the layers - desk at the bottom, then the drawing board Then smooth white card, then the blue working paper, finally the thin paper on top to provide protection The board is A3 size ( for those in the rest of the world that is 16.5 inches by 11.75 inches approx ), so the image I will work will be quite big for a little pot.    That will scan well, though, for showing you the working process And the final board looks like this.  It is not necessary to tape all round the working paper - we are not stretching it.   The top is taped straight across and the sides just have enough to stop the paper moving about. The white card is just visible underneath, and the protective layer is folded back. You can use a little bit of tape on the bottom edge to close down the top protection if you need to take the work somewhere to work on it. The protective layer can be ordinary white paper, Glassine anti static paper or even brown paper - it is just that I had tracing paper the right size, to hand.
I have drawn out the image using a limited number of colours. At this stage I am just putting down the basis of the colour, so I have reserved white for the areas that are light, and the darker colours for the shadowed areas that I want to keep more subdued.  The colours chosen are White, Raw Umber (for the mid brown), and sepia ( for the darks - a very useful colour ) - these three provide the basis for the inside of the vase.  The Sepia used for drawing provides the dark limit of the side.   The colours for the outside of the vase are White for the lighter side and a combination of Purple and Magenta for the dark side.  The darkest part of the shadow has been marked in using sepia for now. Notice that all the strokes follow the shape of the vase surface as we see it.  When shading in a curve, always turn the work surface (and the reference) so that your drawing hand moves with a normal wrist action and draws a natural curve.  It is much easier to move the paper around than to try to draw a curve in an unnatural way. Although this example is quite a large picture (the image of the subject is 8 inches high), it took just over half an hour to get to this point. Pastel is very quick to do. Using the larger pastel sticks or blocks would have been even quicker, but the detail would have been more difficult to achieve
When we work in wax and oil based coloured pencils, we lay down a base coat of colour in the same way and build upon it. The initial base of the colour - the first layer - is vitally important in setting the tone and basic colour of the final layers as the wax based pencil goes down in semi transparent layers and each layer builds upon the previous layers.   With pastel we still need those first layers to set the tonal and colour balance, but rather than just building layers like lines of bricks in a wall. Pastel also involves the mixing of the pigment on the paper, and we need that early foundation to provide the palette that the detail is worked into.   A really dark area needs a really dark base.  A really light area needs a base of white.  Mid tones are less of a problem as added white will always lighten, and added darker colours will always darken.
I have worked some heavier layers in with a Flesh coloured pastel to bring up the lighter areas.  That top edge of the vase looks a little wobbly at the moment but it should come right as the detail is built up.   Notice that I have put some heavy vertical layers of light pastel down the left hand outside and also built up the right hand inside quite a lot. Heavy use of a pastel pencil soon wears down the point. So you need to be aware of two essentials - 1. Keep the point at a reasonable length and sharpen up the pencil regularly to avoid working with a stump of pigment.   2. Keep turning the pencil to get a fresh edge to the point, that flat point is very useful to get a crisp edge on a line. You will build your own point as you work, so it is not necessary to sharpen up the actual point with a knife until you get to the later stages of the work. 3. A piece of sandpaper is useful to tailor a point to an exact shape
Now we come to the big difference between Coloured Pencil and Pastel. No additional pastel has been added to the image on the left. The difference you see is that I have applied a clean forefinger to the pastel surface and rubbed it in - pressing the powdery material into the paper as I go.  There are those who recommend using a paper ‘torchon’ or a silicone tool to do the rubbing in, and these are very helpful in small detailed areas and small pictures where the finger does not easily fit.  One benefit of using the finger is that the dry skin holds a certain amount of powder which it picks up and blends. CARE should be taken not to try this method with greasy or oily skin as the rubbing in process will not work as well and the pastel will absorb the grease and may permanently mark the picture. The next step is to introduce some more colour to the right hand outside and work back into the lighter left hand side. I will also sort out that wobble in the top edge Here you can see that I have added French Grey to the right hand side - all the way down to the bottom
Look closely at the base where I have now gone back in with the Flesh pastel and Shaded OVER the French Grey.  The Flesh pastel picks up and merges the colours. I can repeat this process over and over working from opposite sides until the shading is evenly graded from left to right. I can then repeat the process inside the vase and develop those ribs in the pottery and finally put in the sharp and soft edges for shadows and sharpen up the top rim
And thus we come to a fairly acceptable image. You will see that I have completed the shadow at the foot of the vase.  This had a first shading with Sepia for the darkest area of shadow, and then a layer of dark blue over the top extending over a wider area and then rubbed in. Remember that shadowed areas are not black or grey (unless they are on a grey surface) . Shadow is a darker and colder shade of the body colour of the area when seen in sunlight, toned down to a slightly cooler version I have sharpened up the edges against the blue paper with a pastel that more or less matches the blue of the paper. This I have worked in and ‘lost’ into the paper using a silicone tipped colour shaper tool which enables me to get very close to an edge. If I were going to frame this up as a finished work, I would do some more to the inside where the darker shadow is a little too dark, but in real life, the ‘finished’ picture you see here looks quite  three dimensional. Possibly not something that anyone would want to buy, but that isn’t the point here !
In my original page here, I added some notes about Pastel pencil courses run by several highly skilled pastel pencil artists. Unfortunately, over the years, the people covered in those notes have ceased to teach. I have run some basics courses myself at Knuston Hall, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire ( UK ). Those local courses have been successful, but not attracted enough students to justify the overheads, and it seems likely that the last ones will run in November 2017. My suggestion is that you see if there are any pastel courses operating near you, and check with the tutor whether they also cover pastel pencils. I have attended courses of this type myself and taken advantage of the background teaching to work pictures in pastel pencil. The picture below is a case in point, worked on the coastal path just opposite Padstow in Cornwall while my Associate/Tutor worked a picture in Pan Pastel ( soft powder pastel ) of the same view.