New Sketching Technique with Pan Pastels

Pen and Pastels. Jamaica Beach Scene sketch by Robert A. Sloan, 5" x 7" in ball point pen and Pan Pastels on Pentalic Nature Sketch paper. Photo reference by VladK on
Pen and Pastels. Jamaica Beach Scene sketch by Robert A. Sloan, 5" x 7" in ball point pen and Pan Pastels on Pentalic Nature Sketch paper. Photo reference by VladK on

Pan Pastels - a Sketching Medium?

Pan Pastels by Colorfin LLC are a new form of soft pastels. Colorfin's proprietary binder allows them to pack finely ground pigments into pans where they can be lifted easily with micropore Sofft sponges and painted onto paper, sanded pastel papers, any surface you can use pastels on really. Many beautiful paintings done with Pan Pastels can be seen at the gallery on the Pan Pastels website.

One of those paintings is a sketch I did using X-tra Dark Shade Ultramarine on plain white sketchbook paper. I submitted it to the gallery and was delighted my simple sketch could take a place with paintings by Charlotte Herczfeld and Deborah Secor. I'll post my sketch below. It's my first experiment with using Pan Pastels in a transparent way as a sketching medium as well as a painting medium.

Later, after doing a series of pen and watercolor paintings, I wondered if Pan Pastels used lightly could work just as well with pen drawing for a light, loose sketch. Jamaican Beach, above, was a successful experiment - the loose style worked well and the colors mixed just as easily with light applications as they do when I'm painting heavily on sanded pastel paper.

Reflecting Lake Sketch, Pan Pastels Monochrome. Reflecting Lake by Robert A. Sloan, 8 1/2" x 11" monochrome Xtra Dark Ultramarine pan pastel on sketchbook paper.
Reflecting Lake Sketch, Pan Pastels Monochrome. Reflecting Lake by Robert A. Sloan, 8 1/2" x 11" monochrome Xtra Dark Ultramarine pan pastel on sketchbook paper.

Start with a Value Sketch for Practice

To get a feel for using Pan Pastels in a transparent way, use ordinary sketchbook paper with one medium or dark Pan Pastels color and one Sofft sponge tool. What I used for this sketch was the wedge sponge tool, which comes in the sets or in the four sponge bag or in bags of three by itself.

Instead of loading your Sofft sponge every stroke, load it and get in a deep dark area. As the color wears off, move into medium value areas and when it's very thin, work on the lights. Keep going until the entire sketch is done. Use any subject you choose.

The idea is to get some practice using sponges that are only lightly loaded and get into a rhythm of moving from the heaviest application with that color to the lightest around the picture. Any good monochrome color will work for these sketches, Ultramarine or its shades, any of the Deep Darks, any of the medium to dark browns or green or red. Or combine dark or medium colors to do it.

Treat it like watercolor in a way. Use bare paper for all your light and bright areas, putting very little color on by wiping it off in the dark and medium areas. Once you're used to that, it's very easy to do a pen and Pans sketch because in planning, it's a lot like using waterproof pen and watercolor applied with a brush pen.

Pan Pastels are also a forgiving medium. If you get more color into an area than you want, gently lift it off by pressing a kneaded eraser on it. Or erase it completely by rubbing the kneaded eraser. I deliberately didn't clean up my lines in the first example because I wanted loose, jazzy color effects like some magazine covers I've seen. But you can use a kneaded eraser to clean up your sketch and get as refined as you like.

Five color Starter colors on top of stacks of other colors in Pan Pastels, photo by Robert A. Sloan
Five color Starter colors on top of stacks of other colors in Pan Pastels, photo by Robert A. Sloan
Sofft sponges and tools from Colorfin LLC. Photo by Robert A. Sloan
Sofft sponges and tools from Colorfin LLC. Photo by Robert A. Sloan

Materials Needed

To sketch with this method, you'll need some Pan Pastels. A five color Painters starter set is enough colors to do anything you want, because the Permanent Red, Hansa Yellow and Ultramarine colors are perfect mixers that can create browns, greens, violets and oranges just by loading your sponge in both colors. In fact we'll be doing some mixing on the paper during the project.

The more colors you have of course, the more convenience. I eventually invested in the full range of 80 colors including 20 tints, 20 pure tones, 20 shades and 20 extra dark colors. Actually, black and white are two of the colors and there's more than four grays, so that's what makes up some of the shades and tints. You can also get a full range set of 80.

Colorfin LLC currently offers a Sofft tool or two in a storage jar under open stock Pan Pastels colors, and all sizes of sets also include some basic Sofft tools. For this project, I would recommend you get a bag of four assorted shapes of Sofft sponges and a pack of small tip applicators, either the long handle tool with replaceable heads or a bag of the tiny handle applicators. The sponge I used came in the storage jar with some Pans, it has a square end and a round end combining two of the shapes in the four-sponge sack.

While the small applicator and some of the sponges like the big oval may look like women's makeup applicators, those do not work as well for Pan Pastels. They don't pick up or hold as much color, they wear out much faster and though they're cheap, they're just not as effective. It's much better to get the real Sofft painting sponges and tools and wash them when they get too dirty, gently blotting them and letting them air dry. They will wear out, especially on sanded pastel paper, but in sketchbook use they last a lot longer.

You don't need many, I used one applicator and one sponge to do both the Jamaican Beach and the fruit bowl project without damaging either because the sketchbook paper's soft.

You'll need a sketchbook with light or white paper that has some tooth, a vellum-like surface that takes charcoal or pencils well. Canson mi-Tientes smooth side is good paper, but so is any white sketchbook or close to white like the Pentalic Nature Sketch one that I used. I mention that one specifically because Pentalic donates a portion of the proceeds to the American Wildlife Federation from the sale of every sketchbook in the line, and I like the super heavy 130lb drawing paper. It curls up less when I spray fixative on it than thin sketchbook paper.

Last, you'll need paper towels or paper napkins. Toilet paper doesn't work well and neither does kleenex for cleaning off the Sofft tools. Rags don't work at all. So keep a roll of actual paper towels aka Kitchen Paper to the Brits nearby while painting with Pan Pastels. When you want to change the color and don't want the old color mixed in, swipe it on the paper towel until it comes off clean and you can use the next color.

Or as I did this time, let them blend and use the blend where it does the most good.

So that's all you need:

Pan Pastels, paper, Sofft Tools, paper towels and a spray fixative once you're finished to protect the facing page in your sketchbook. You can use any workable fixative like Krylon Workable Fixative or Blick Workable Fixative, or you can use the new SpectraFix fixative that's nontoxic and smells nicer. SpectraFix costs more but you don't need to take your art outdoors to get enough ventilation, it just smells like you sniffed a glass of vodka. Also, the SpectraFix is environmentally safe, so that's what I used.

Step One - Pen Sketch

Fruit bowl by Robert A. Sloan, stage one, ballpoint pen sketch on Pentalic Nature Sketch off white heavy drawing paper.
Fruit bowl by Robert A. Sloan, stage one, ballpoint pen sketch on Pentalic Nature Sketch off white heavy drawing paper.

Do a Loose, Light Pen Sketch

Happily, you don't even need to use a waterproof pen. It isn't going to get washed with water, so if your favorite pen has washable ink, use it. This example, like my first one, was done with a ballpoint. But you can use a fountain pen, Pigma Micron pen, technical pen, roller ball, gel pen, whatever pen you prefer most for sketching. Get in the basics of the form and add any accents that you want to show up in pen work. 

If you put pen lines where you don't want as many, they can be covered with the Pan Pastels. Remember that Pan Pastels do become opaque in heavy applications, so they can be used to make corrections or cover guide lines. Whether to leave any of the pen drawing visible afterward or not is entirely up to you.

Feel free to copy my sketch if you want, this is a step by step lesson. Just credit this tutorial and link to it as the source if you do it and post it online. I love seeing what people do with my tutorials, so please let me know even if you sketch a different subject.

Start Adding Color with Pan Pastels

Fruit sketch in progress, stage two, some Pan Pastel color added.
Fruit sketch in progress, stage two, some Pan Pastel color added.

Step Two - Add Color with Pans

For this stage I used the small Sofft sponge with a round end and a chopped-off square end. That's my convenience tool of choice because I can get wide smooth strokes or fine lines and small marks with the points of the square end.

Set out some paper towels, your Pan Pastels and the sketchbook or paper you've done the sketch on with a small point Applicator (the long handle one with removable heads is the same as the dozen small in the bag for our purposes) and your Sofft sponges. I didn't use Sofft painting knives in this but you can if you like, the flat painting knife with cover will give similar effects if you prefer using that.

First, I blocked in the basic colors of the fruit and then refined them, adding some orange over the red and using some darker colors on the sponge to shade the bananas. I'd used the sponge before on something with blue, green and brown, so the colors started to mix as the yellow wore down. 

The trick to this sketching style is to observe the way the color changes as you use the tool and then just go put it where you want that color. It's very frugal. Because my sponge wasn't perfectly clean I didn't dip into the darks at first, though I dipped into X-tra Dark Ultramarine on the shadow - and let that mingle with the dark colors already on the sponge for a varying color in the shadow and the sparkles on the bowl.

This sketch could be considered finished at this point if I wanted to keep it light. But I didn't put any highlights on the shiny tomatoes and thought it'd be cool to give it a background and add some other finishing details. So there's a third stage.

When you do yours, work loosely and intuitively. It's okay to stop and do another sketch at any stage you like how it looks. Work fast and don't worry about getting things perfect. Pan Pastels are forgiving - a kneaded eraser can remove smudges and unwanted color right back to the bare paper if you really want to.

Step Three - Finish and Refine

Fruit in Crystal Bowl sketch in pen and pan pastels by Robert A. Sloan.
Fruit in Crystal Bowl sketch in pen and pan pastels by Robert A. Sloan.

Finish and Refine your Pen and Pans Sketch

I left off the highlights on the tomatoes. There are two ways to deal with missing white highlights in a Pan Pastels sketch. One is to use a kneaded eraser and roll it to a point, then dab at the spot the highlight belongs, squish it around to clean it, dab again and eventually rub that small spot to get the last of the color off. I used that on the tomato to the far right and the upper small highlight on the top tomato.

The other two highlights were added afterwards by loading the small applicator Sofft tool with white and patting it on. I reloaded the white for each stroke and repeated a couple of times till the highlights were as white as I wanted. Even on regular nonsanded sketchbook paper, I got a good opaque coverage to add a white highlight over a strong color by not blending at all. Pat the color on with a direct motion, pressing down and lifting. Don't rub or it'll mix with the color under it. That's the trick.

If you do want to mix colors, rub back and forth with the Sofft sponge tool and you'll blend them as much as you want. I used the same small Sofft applicator to add some light blue details reflecting onto the crystal bowl, then I went back to the square-and-round Sofft sponge to paint in the background. I used X-tra Dark Orange for the base of the table around the shadow and then only cleaned it with a swipe or two before picking up Pthalo Green Tint and Ultramarine Tint to do the wall. That gave me a blended, mixed color with a bit of the table worked into it that unified the background and the foreground, but it was blue enough to cause the blue highlights in the crystal bowl.

I deliberately didn't always go that close to the pen lines. A glow around the objects suggests light flashing off of them and imprecise coloring gives it a loose, jazzy look. Sketch fast and loose, have fun with it, try different things. Whatever the colors on your tool are doing, look around for places a dab of that color in that value might improve it.

As long as you pay attention to the values of different areas and more or less get the hue what you want, you'll get a good result. Even if you decide to do fantasy color, like blue tomatoes and purple bananas, you can do this the same way. I used Permanent Red X-Dark shade for the wood grain in the table streaking back and forth with the small applicator.

So give this technique a try in your sketchbook, both the value drawings created by letting color wear off your Sofft tool and combining that with pen sketches for a lively multi-media drawing. It's clean, it's fun, and Pan Pastels are among one of the most easily mixed expressive art mediums I've ever had the joy of handling. You'll never know until you try, so have a go!

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Comments 9 comments

waynet profile image

waynet 6 years ago from Hull City United Kingdom

Great review of the pan pastel sketching technique!

I recently bought the five primary color set to test these pastels out on a few clown art pieces and they seem quite good, just using them experimentally just to see....

I'll probably buy more colors to add at a later stage.

cupid51 profile image

cupid51 6 years ago from INDIA

Fantastic article! Bookmarked for future reading, thanks for sharing!

ggerner profile image

ggerner 6 years ago

I love it! Something new to explore. I like your banana and tomato still life. Nicely done.

robertsloan2 profile image

robertsloan2 6 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Thank you, Cupid, Gerner and Wayne!

Wayne, I can't wait to see your style of art colored with Pans. It'll be spectacular. Very easy to shade the way you do in colored pencil - do the dark color first, shade it out thinner and thinner, then start at the other end with the light color and watch them mix to a perfect gradient. It may take a little practice and you may want to work large given the detail in your drawings, but remember that a sharp-edged white vinyl eraser or a kneaded eraser squished into a fine edge will clean up any lines you cover.

marisuewrites profile image

marisuewrites 6 years ago from USA

What a wonderful Instructor you are...and your Art is so real and lifelike. Love this! I have a secret desire to draw, paint, watercolor. In my mind, I do wonderful pictures, but I seldom put them on paper due to not really knowing where to start. One time I did a beautiful Iris with chalk. I took a class with the foster kids, and found out I could do a few things. In my next life...

BrendyMac profile image

BrendyMac 5 years ago

I love your style of painting..I feel so envious!! I will be back again and again for more!!!

Shaun Hays 5 years ago

Thank you for posting this hub and introducing me to pan pastels. I am always looking for ideas to broaden my use of pastels and "chalk".

vnp777 profile image

vnp777 5 years ago from Moon ;) currently on earth coz i lost my ship ( India )

you would like to the my blog

and feed back too :)

evie 3 years ago

I like all of you're artwork Robert. I choose as a my artist for my visual study. currently im in year 12 and studying stage 2 art, and my work is about how oil pastel used in contemporaryart. i found a lot new skills from your work. its so helpful. But I find little bite difficult to write about where did you get inspired from?

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