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How to Create Texture With Artists' Soft Pastels

John is a retired scientist who enjoys painting. He creates tutorials to help others expand their artistic abilities.

Learn how to create textures using soft pastels with this easy-to-follow guide

Learn how to create textures using soft pastels with this easy-to-follow guide

How to Create Texture in Pastel Paintings

Do you paint with artists' soft pastels? Would you like to have more texture in your paintings? Then maybe I can help. Whilst learning how to use pastels, I found out how to produce wonderful textures. Maybe the process is not entirely original, but it was one of the reasons I came to love painting with artists' soft pastels. The other reason, by the way, was their vibrant colour possibilities.

Basically, my method depends upon laying down layers of pastel using the side of the pastel chalks. The amount of pressure used and the hardness of the pastel gives a tremendous range of painterly marks to produce wonderful textures. I fix early layers to avoid mixing the colours, but I leave latter detail and light colours unfixed for colour vibrancy.

  • Of course, you can use any number of different types of marks to create your painting and the type of mark will help to define your style. Mix and match depending on the subject at hand, the painting can only be improved by the variations.

That's my secret! I will now use the rest of the page to show examples of what can be achieved by this technique and how I use the pastels to actually do it step by step.

Note: All painting and photographs are by the author and are copyrighted. Please do not copy and use these images without written permission. This image is a detail from an original painting by the author, showing texture developed using artist soft pastels.

The winged man - pastel after Redon

The winged man - pastel after Redon

The Technique I Use to Create Texture

So, we can achieve texture in any number of ways using pastels, what is so special about this technique?

My style could be described as very loose and based on colour rather than representational drawings and I like to work very quickly. I find that I can cover a base of any size very quickly using the side of a pastel stick so I was immediately drawn to using the pastel in this way.

A pastel painting by the author, based on a work by Redon, "The Winged Man."

Also as noted in the introduction, I love the potentially bright colours of pastels so this technique enables me to layer the colours over one another several times without mixing or "dirtying / greying" the resulting image.

Each layer can be seen through subsequent layers so creating the texture and an optical colour mixing.

The fixative will allow each layer to stay as laid down, There is some effect on the colour by the fixative but since I work from dark to light, the vibrancy of the initial dark colours is not really an issue. As I work toward the final highlights, I use less and less fixative until the final layers of the lightest colours (yellow and white especially) are left completely unfixed and therefore the colours of the important highlights are left bright and brilliant.

  • I usually cover the ground completely with the first layer and when fixed this acts as a "tooth" for the subsequent layers. Layers can, therefore, be built up easily. Without the fixative, it can be difficult to paint in layers as the "tooth" on the paper can become filled.

I will describe how I build up the layers in a painting using this technique in a step by step sequence and then offer examples of the effects which can be achieved.

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Read More From Feltmagnet

A Spanish Sunset

A Spanish Sunset

A Basic Primer to Pastel Painting

First of all, I would like to suggest that before you attempt to use this technique that you may wish to review:

  • How to use pastels
  • A step by step technique for painting with pastels
  • A video of a pastel sunset scene

These are, as suggested, very basic but will remind you of the special characteristics of painting with artists' soft pastels.

  • How to use pastels.
    A simple guide from the Reeves company for beginners, but some useful reminders. A short PDF file.
  • A sunset in soft pastel
    A step by step demonstration of a sunset painting in soft pastel by L. Diane Johnson.
Let's Take a Quick Count: A falling tree, pastel painting

Let's Take a Quick Count: A falling tree, pastel painting

The painting here is by the author and features a dead tree falling in a forest, painted in soft pastel.

I would like to take a quick poll to ask if you use pastels in order to understand the audience, for potential future updates to this page.

Achieving Texture By Layering With Pastels

Step One

Right — it is now time to be more specific and to show you how I approach a very simple but highly textured pastel painting. This is a painting I did a couple of years ago but it still exemplifies the method of painting admirably so I have used it for this article. Below, I will include further examples of newer paintings although with fewer steps detailed.

A detail from a pastel painting by the author, showing texture achieved using pastels

  • First of all, I always cover the paper/board ground with a layer of pastel, which I then fix with a spray fixative. This gives me a coloured ground which I can specifically choose for the finished painting. I normally use either a complete coverage in one colour but more often will treat the painting as having a number of broad areas which will be painted in a contrasting or complementary colour. The use of a complementary colour will add "zing" to the painting when complete as it will show through the later layers.
  • In this instance, the painting is a skyscape, so naturally divides into the sky and the land below the horizon. So I have started the painting with a broad expanse of a warm colour above the horizon and a cool colour below. (Note: looking at my screen I can see that there are at least two colours in each area at this stage, I often use more than one colour at this early stage to achieve the feel that I am looking for. I.e. Colour and texture. I will use the side of the pastel to quickly cover the ground and usually rub it down into the paper with my fingers, messy but satisfying! A second or further colours will be added,again with the side of the pastel stick, before fixing.)

The Image at the First Stage


Step Two

  • The next step is to start to apply the colours which will make the painting look a little more realistic. If that is the direction you are heading, of course, if you are painting an abstract then this will not be so. In fact, I first used this technique with abstract paintings and grew to love it because of the rich texture which was so very easily obtainable.
  • Here we are painting a sky over an open landscape so lots of blue in the sky and greens in the foreground are our way forward. This I have done here in two stages. There is no particular reason, but again I build up the colours / layers / textures with an end in view and do not limit myself to a fixed process during the actual painting process. Once you start to use a technique like this yourself, the whole process becomes a natural progression and you will use your artistic abilities to determine what you do at each step. It should not be a mechanical process, understand what is possible and then do what is needed to achieve your vision.

Two Stages Are Shown Here:

  • Note how the initial colour is showing through in both the sky and ground and contributing to a lively image.
  • More colour added, note the variation in the sky, dark blue at the top and lighter blue above the horizon suggesting recession by aerial perspective. The original colours can still be seen however enlivening the image. In the foreground, the stokes are directional suggesting hillocks and uneven ground.
  • I have again used a little rubbing down of the pastel to achieve the effect which I am looking for here. This is completely personal and will depend on exactly is required by you, the artist. I know that at this point I still have lots to do and that there will be opportunities to add more texture as I progress further. I now fix the pastel again, ready for those subsequent additions of colour.
  • I have not tried to cover the dividing line on the painting at the horizon because I will be adding the line of distant hills in the next stages.

Step Three

  • Now is the time to start adding clouds and a touch more colour in the foreground.
  • Still using the side of the pastel, I rough in a large bank of clouds (cumulo-stratus I think) and add shadows along the bottom edges.
  • A little judicious blending in the sky as texture is not really needed here.
  • Also, the variation between the sky and the clouds and foreground is a good step to helping with the overall composition. More colours are added to the foreground and the distant hills are modelled.
  • I will not fix the latest additions because being very light colours (especially the white) the vibrancy of these new marks will be affected by the fixative. I know I will not be doing too much more to the painting so it is time to leave off the fixative.

Step Four

  • Just a few more tweaks will add a little more detail to the painting and complete it. Again this step is something that you will judge for yourself with due regard for your own style. How much detail do you personally feel is right? Are the colours right? Are all the features doing the job that is required of them? The answers to these questions will depend on your own style, there is no need to rigidly stick to my decisions. The overall approach to achieving texture is what I hope to have imparted to you with this demonstration.

So Here Is the Final Painting:


Again, the use of the fixative is not required and should be actively avoided now. The vibrancy of the pastel colours is now an over-riding consideration.

Bad Weather on a Scottish Loch

This painting is a further example of the technique, shafts of light coming through threatening clouds on the mountains around a scottish loch.

This painting is a further example of the technique, shafts of light coming through threatening clouds on the mountains around a scottish loch.

Again a very simple painting with few details where the texture is providing the interest.

Sunset at Sea: This one is very colourful, did I say that this is why I like pastels? A sunset at sea, I enjoyed painting this one.

Sunset at Sea: This one is very colourful, did I say that this is why I like pastels? A sunset at sea, I enjoyed painting this one.

If you are a pastel painter, please have at ago with this technique and tell me how you get on. I love the effects which you can get with using this method and would recommend it to anyone, beginner or experienced artist. Great results are easy to obtain and nearly every painting can be a winner. I realise that it may not appear to be for those of you who strive afer reality and detail but it does us all good to loosen up and letgo once in a while.

The Effect of Those Last Few Details

A Beach Scene, A Pastel Painting

It is quite amazing how the addition of those last few details can really bring a painting to life. As an example of this I would like to show this painting. Like all of the paintings on this page it is very simple, but those last touches do show how they count, It is always a very difficult balance between adding sufficient detail and "fiddling" which can spoil it all. It is a very personal choice but this does show how a few details and finishing touches can have a dramatic effect.

The "almost" finished painting shows a lack of vibrancy and is far too subdued to attract more than a cursory glance from any passing viewer.

But a few details,in the distance the sky and the hills. In the foreground the shadows and grass. Overall little additional touches of a stronger colour.

But a few details,in the distance the sky and the hills. In the foreground the shadows and grass. Overall little additional touches of a stronger colour.

I think you will agree the difference is marked. Whether you like the scene depicted is, of course, another matter.

I think you will agree the difference is marked. Whether you like the scene depicted is, of course, another matter.

Review of Various Soft Pastels

Now It Is Your Turn......

KarenBoquete on January 07, 2017:

Excellent instructions, beautiful art.

Gayle Dowell from Kansas on June 09, 2014:

Great tutorial on using pastels. I've not used mine much, but that will have to change. You've done some great textures using them. Thanks for the information.

opatoday on September 14, 2013:

Thanks for the helpful tutorial great work you are a real artist.

Terrie_Schultz on January 27, 2013:

Your paintings are amazing! Thanks so much for the helpful tutorial.

cmadden on December 24, 2012:

I love your paintings.

John Dyhouse (author) from UK on December 17, 2012:

@nknithya: With the current changes it is unwise to add to many "off-standard" formats to a lens but search on HTML for lenses on SQuidoo and you should find lots of examples you can use to achieve these tricks.

nknithya on December 16, 2012:

Your lens looks great. I am new to this website please let me know how to add bullets and change fonts or the formats for few lines within a text module

John Dyhouse (author) from UK on December 08, 2012:

@WildFacesGallery: Thanks, I have learnt to put up with the dust, I do sit away from the others in the art group however!

Mona from Iowa on December 01, 2012:

Brilliantly done. Almost makes me want to break out my pastel set. (The dust gets to me.)

BestRatedStuff on November 25, 2012:

Beautiful work, enjoyed the visual.

WriterJanis2 on November 25, 2012:

Very, very beautiful.

Beverly Rodriguez from Albany New York on November 24, 2012:

Beautiful artwork. I have't used my pastels in ages. Now I'm inspired to get them out.

EEWorkouts on November 24, 2012:

This is great, wonderful lens!

getmoreinfo on November 24, 2012:

Such beautiful artwork, I love pastels because it gives the canvas such a soft natural look. well done.