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Written by Gaka

First, I would like to say that I have never been told how to use pastel, nor have I ever been shown how to use pastels. What I have learned, I have learned through the trial and error method - many, many errors. My way may not be the way that qualified artists or teachers do it or teach; but, it is how I do it and it works for me and I get the results that I desire.

My subject for this painting is a Blue Macaw. The color choice of the pastel paper is very important, and in this case, it is a mid Blue Canson paper. Canson has a smooth side and a rough side. I've chosen the smoother side of the paper to use. Choice of the paper's color is important because I totally fill the grain of the paper with pastel dust and the dust will blend into the same or similar color much easier.

I use Faber and sometimes Rembrandt pastels. To begin I sharpen my pastel on a wood file. You can use a fine or coarse file since either will work. I use a toothbrush to brush all of the pastel out of the file and onto a board or canvas board which then serves as my palette. Next, I lay out all the colors I will need for the painting on the palette and begin with the area which I consider the most difficult.
My hands and fingers do not touch the paper to do any blending, at any time, during a painting. I cannot remember when I last blended with my fingers! I fold a tissue into a 1 inch or 25mm square and use this to dab into the dust on the palette and apply to the background. You can see how I have blocked the background behind the Macaws with the pastel dust. If you really flatten the tissue and just put the sharp edge into the pastel dust you can get a very fine line with it.

With the subject, I use the same principle as the background. I start painting the Macaws with the blue dust in a midtone range. You can see where I have done the left-hand wing, darker shadow and lower bird. The pastel dust is applied with a tissue or cotton buds.
I always have my pastel paper attached to a piece of backing board with clips and sitting upright on my easel in a vertical position. When you work with fine dust and sharp pastels, you don't get very much residue on the floor. I take the painting off the easel every now and then and give it a bang vertically on the floor or I give it a thumping on the back of the board to dislodge the loose dust or pastel.

I use tissues, cotton buds, cosmetic applicators, tortillions and color shapers. Color shapers are perfect for working pastels in fine detail. They are designed like a brush, but instead of bristles, there is a synthetic rubber tip. They come in different shapes and sizes. I use the chisel version. They will eventually wear away, but you can get more life out of them by carefully cutting them back into shape. I can't purchase them in Australia any more, due to lack of popularity.
I must add that, other than a color shaper, the most important tool for me is a rest stick or a mahl stick. This is a piece of dowel about 800mm or 32 inches long which I plane down to make it thick on one end and tapering to thin on the other. On the thin end I put a little square of folded material and over that, I put a larger piece and tie this on with string or fishing line. I use the rest stick to keep off my work and to steady my hand so I can be precise with the detail and application of the pastel. You will notice my fingers on the left side of the image resting on the board to keep the stick stable.

As you can see in the previous Macaw photo, I have worked on the heads. I will use a cotton bud where possible, but if I can't, I will apply the pastel by hand using a sharpened pastel and then blend this into the background with a Cotton Bud, Tortillon or Color Shaper. Your detail can be as fine as you can keep the point on the pastel, and sometimes my pastel is just laying on the surface of the paper with very little pressure at all.
At this stage I am not concentrating on detail too much, but more on getting the color tones right. You can see in the photo how I am working my way down the painting.

In this close up of the finished detail, you can see where I have darkened the shadows giving the feathers depth and defined the feathers more with fine lines. I decided to work on the eye to make it more glass-like and round. If you look into the detail, you can imagine working the detail with a very sharp pastel or working the blend with a pointed piece of rubber. I do not use pastel pencils as I find them too gritty and scratchy.

If you took all of the pastel on the paper and added it up, you would not have used 3/4 of a stick of Faber Castell pastel. You will use a reasonable amount during sharpening of the pastels. I use no fixative on my pastel paintings.
Blue Macaws is about 400mm wide x 480mm high or 16 inches wide x 19 inches high. My pastel paintings can take anywhere from 20 to 180 hours. Blue Macaws was completed in approximately 80 to 90 hours.

I hope that I've covered enough in this article to give you a good start for working realistically on your own. If you have further questions or would like to discuss my approach to photorealism, please contact me or share your thoughts in the forum thread. This style will not suit everyone; but, if it helps anyone with the direction in which they are going, then it has been well worth the writing.
Bruce has been interested in drawing and painting all of his life. He paints with watercolors, pen and ink, pencil, oils and pastels. The level of Bruce's work has been achieved by hard work, determination, and a passion for art and creativity. He has never taken a structured art class or demonstration of how to use any of the mediums that he paints with. Bruce's greatest reward is the enjoyment and inspiration others receive from viewing his work.