Use crystal paper to stop pastel pencils smudging

How to Use Pastel Pencils

How to Use Pastel Pencils (for Beginners)

So you want to know how to use pastel pencils? I’ll show you the best pastel pencils for beginners, how to sharpen pastel pencils, how to blend pastels, how not to smudge pastel pencils, (what a nightmare!), and everything else.

The Best Pastel Pencils for Beginners to Use

Buying pastel pencils can be very confusing, but don’t worry, I have an easy chart below to show you the best pastel pencils to use, (especially if you’re a beginner!). When you are buying pastel pencils, you should consider how much pigment they produce (colour), how soft or hard they are and the colours available in that brand.

I use Pitt Pastel Pencils by Faber Castell (I’m not sponsored), as they are the best pastel pencils for general wildlife and pet portrait work. They’re really easy pastel pencils to use because they sharpen well, produce a good amount of pigment and have a solid range of colours to choose from.

But, there are many brands to choose from, here’s a quick comparison of pastel pencils for beginners. One of the most expensive pastel pencils, the Caran D’Ache, might seem like a good choice. However, these are not the easiest pastel pencils to use for beginners!

Pastel Pencil BrandPigmentationSoftnessColour RangeCost (2023)
Derwent PoorSoft & ChalkyVery Good£1.95
Faber Castell Pitt PastelVery GoodMedium Good£1.79
Stabilo CarbothelloVery GoodMedium SoftGood*£1.80
Caran D’AcheVery GoodSoft & ButteryVery Good£3.40
CretacolourGoodMedium HardVery Good£1.70
Pastel Pencil Brand Review for Beginners

Easily Sharpen Pastel Pencils

Before you can use your pastel pencils, you need to prepare your materials. I have a video showing you how to sharpen a pastel pencil, which might be easier to follow. To sharpen a pastel pencil, you’ll need:

  • P180 sanding paper
  • Sharp craft knife
  • Paper towel
  • Bowl

How to Blend Pastel Pencils

Something you need to learn to use pastel pencils correctly is how to blend them together well. Some people use blending stubs, however, I have a better technique that improves your drawings faster.

If you are drawing on Clairefontaine Pastelmat paper or board, (the best paper, trust me!), then a blending stub can damage your work. If you press too hard, it will ‘crush’ the structure of the paper, leaving an immovable mark. You’ll also find it very difficult to draw over the top again.

blending a pastel pencil underpainting
I use pastel pencils to blend from one area to another

I use pastel pencils to blend, it works so well and gives your professional results! To use the pencils in this way, you’ll want to move it in long oval motions, almost as though you’re mixing. Again, don’t press too hard when you’re using them to blend or else you’ll draw back into the area, adding more markings.

I work back and forth between the two pencil colours until I have a smooth, even blend form one pastel colour into the next. This also allows you to rethink areas where two colours won’t mix together pleasingly. Usually, this is because you need a different colour to ‘bridge’ the gap!

Stop Pastels Smudging!

Pastels can easily smudge, but there’s a simple way to stop it. The most common problem is trailing your working hand through the drawing and finding it all over the place. I’ve done it before, several times, but then I discovered how to stop it from smudging!

Firstly, use the right paper for the job! Clairefontaine pastelmat paper or board is by far the best pastel paper out there for beginners (or anyone). It is expensive, so if you’re only starting, buy the paper which is a bit cheaper but still very good.

Use crystal paper to stop pastel pencils smudging
Rest your hand on crystal paper to stop pastels smudging

This paper is specifically designed to ‘grab’ the pastel and prevent it from smudging like normal. It can still allow pastel to move around but you’ll have a hard time accidentally smudging work from top to bottom.

The second thing to do, is to use crystal paper whilst using your pastel pencils. Crystal paper, or glassine paper, is basically an ‘anti-grip’ surface. It allows you to rest your hand on top of your drawing while you work, without smudging the pastel. Magic!

How to choose the right colours for a drawing

We can’t talk about how to use pastel pencils without talking about how to choose the right colours for your drawing. I have a full video taking you through the process in more detail, but in short, here’s the trick!

When you’re a beginner, start with fewer colours than you might think, and always make sure that a grey is in your drawing. If you’re drawing wildlife you’re very unlikely not to need a grey (or a brown!). Grey will reduce the brightness of your colours, something that can contribute to an ‘amateur’ painting.

Choose a colour of paper that compliments your subject as this will reduce the number of pencils you’ll need. You should then do a little tester of each colour. This is going to help you refine the palette for your drawing. I would also take a photo of this and turn it black and white. This shows you if you actually have enough dark, mid-tone and light pencils!

Trick for choosing the right colours for a drawing
Create a little colour swatch chart to help you choose the right colour for your drawing

Lastly, look for the most dominant colour in your subject. If this is a blue butterfly, for example, then here’s what to do. Choose a neutral blue, (or just generic blue), that is about the right tone, for your main colour. Then, choose a colour that is slightly cooler (this would mean a greeny/blue), for your shadows and a warmer blue (purple/blue) for the lighter areas. This is going to excel your work and make it beautifully professional!

I have a full ebook on warm and cool colours that makes sense of it all here.

How to layer pastel pencils for fur and hair

Learning to use pastel pencils for your underpainting (the messy part), will save you money in materials and make your work better. I usually only use the big, messy chalk pastels for an underpainting that is on 50x70cm paper.

Use your pastel pencil on the side, holding it towards the end which allows you to place it a low angle to the table. You’ll see me drawing like this a lot in my YouTube videos. It gives you a very smooth and even shade without lots of lines and texture.

Begin with light layers of your first pencil, making sure to use a long flat edge. Over this, add your next colour. You shouldn’t see thick pastel dust on the page at this stage. Most underpaintings don’t need to be too heavy, if they are, details might not show up on top.

If you have a very short, flat coat to draw, such as a horse, then you will need a thicker underpainting. However, the technique is very different to normal fur and hair as the underpainting is really the finished layer for very short coats!

Want to know what an underpainting is in pastel pencils? I have a short video showing you exactly what it is and how to create one:

Learn how to use your pastel pencils for an underpainting

How to use pastel pencils for fur and hair

Lastly, let’s see how to use pastel pencils to create fur and hair. I use pastel pencils for wildlife and pet portraits, so fur is a big thing for me. Luckily, pastel pencils are really good for drawing the texture of fur realistically.

5 Techniques for Drawing Amazing Fur

  • Make sure your pencil is very sharp
  • Move the pencil before it touches the paper
  • Move the pencil quickly
  • Sweep the pencil off the paper
  • Twist the pencil slightly to keep the tip sharp

5 Mistakes to Avoid when Drawing Fur

  • Don’t press too hard
  • Avoid starting the lines with the pencil on the paper
  • Try not to hold the pencil point straight down (it blunts quickly)
  • Do not draw straight lines in a row
  • Avoid drawing every mark the same length
How to draw fur using pastel pencils
Pastel Pencils can create realistic fur

Start Using your Pastel Pencils!

You could research ‘how to use pastel pencils’ until the cows come home. However, the best thing to do now is to pick one up and give it a go. Be prepared to make some ugly art, we all do. But also be prepared to discover one of the best art materials and go on to create amazing work.

I have some free lessons to get you drawing, from a Highland Cow to flowers, pick one and see what you create!

How to draw a Highland Cow in Pastel Pencils

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