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Why pastels?

Pastels probably aren't an obvious first choice as an art medium and I'm often asked why I choose them above oils, watercolours or acrylics.

It was longer ago than I care to remember but in fact I have Mr. Snow, my art teacher, to thank. I had to complete two pieces for my O'level exam. A drawing of my hero, David Bowie, was always going to be one and I chose to do that in graphite. However, I was struggling for a second idea, especially as I wanted to do something at least a little out of the ordinary. "Try these" said Mr Snow, introducing me to a box of pastels for the first time.

Pastels and I hit it off straight away.

A selection of pastels.

How could anyone resist messing about with them?

To understand the appeal, we need to understand the physics of pastels (the 'soft' pastels that I use shouldn't be confused with 'oil' pastels, which are a different medium entirely).

Pastels, oils, watercolours and acrylics all use the same colour pigments as their basis; they are just held together with different binders. In the case of pastels, the binder is neutral in colour, meaning that the natural tone of the pigment is retained more so than with other media. That's the first reason for liking them.

The binder is also dry, unlike those that are used in other media. This means that the experience of using pastels is a little like using chalks; they are applied directly onto the paper (no mixing with water or solvents) and blended on the surface with your fingers (no palettes or brushes). Indeed, because they are so inert and simply fashioned, there are very few 'rules' to follow. That's the second reason.

Together, these things give pastels an immediacy and accessibility that you just don't get with other media. Oils can be reworked over and over but take ages to dry; watercolours and acrylics dry quickly but can't easily be reworked. With pastels you get the best of both worlds - inherently dry and infinitely reworkable.

For me, the joy of painting is that moment when everything suddenly comes together and I can see that a piece is working out just as I had imagined it (or better!). And if I'm in that moment, the last thing I want is the interruption of having to put my half-finished painting to one side for a few days to let the latest layer of paint dry.

It was many years after that O'level that I returned to painting but there was never any doubt that my first choice medium was going to be pastels.

Lastly, if you want to see for yourself just how accessible pastels are, then all you need to get started is a basic set of pastels (I would recommend Unison), some suitable paper (try Clairefontaine pastel paper pads) and some masking tape to hold your work still. You can get all of these at

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