By Edward Dyas

If you enjoy the control in painting with a smooth, flowing medium on an even or glassy surface the very thought of producing a pastel miniature may propel your nerves to a breakdown. Pastels are deceptive. Most often we visualize soft, dreamy, Impressionist images, flooded by light and suggestive of detail. These are the larger pastel paintings we see from both the Masters‘ and contemporary artists‘ hands. There are also portraits smoothed by rubbing and blending to almost photo realist quality and wildlife studies with thousands of meticulously placed strokes creating fur and feathers.

Working in pastel on a large scale can be fun as you imitate the transparency of watercolours or the hard edge of acrylics or the brushstrokes of oils or simply allow the pastels to be themselves.

Pastel colours blend on your working surface and you need to know which combinations create each new colour or hue. With decisive strokes you can apply the true colour of each pastel stick to your work but unlike paints you cannot pre-mix your colours. Layering produces other subtle colour effects. Pastels may be extremely soft or very hard but either way your finished painting is just millions of particles, some embedded in the paper and other clinging precariously to the surface. It‘s fragile! Fixative will seal it to a degree but it can dull the highlights and details.

In short you are working on a rough, sandpaper-like surface with a chalky, crumbling material so how can this be applied to miniatures? Like most art processes when miniaturized some compromises must be made since you don‘t have the scale to use many of the techniques and you need to invent others that are more suitable.

Heavy Load

Miniature Pastel by Edward Dyas

(c) 2001, Marion Winter

With miniature pastel paintings I use commercially produced primed paper. It is available in about one dozen colours and the primer is applied far more evenly than I could paint with a brush or roller. Its rough surface makes detailing very difficult but it ensures greater adhesion and a spare piece is very useful for sharpening pastel points to a needle point. ‘Conte‘ pastel pencils are a hard pastel. They have a tendancy to chrystalize and can sometimes scratch. The sharpened pastel points will often only last for one drawn line on the primed paper so sharpening is continuous.

I use a surgical scalpel as Stanley knives are too heavy and harshon the pastel. Scalpel blades dull very quickly when sharpening the pastel so I use two scalpels, one for the wood of the pencil and the other for the pastel point. Small dry paint-brush is also useful for removing excess pastel from the paper.

All materials must be dry as any moisture will affect both the paper and the pencils. For example, a slightly greasy fingerprint on the paper could destroy any chances of a perfect finish.

I always draw my subject on a piece of tracing paper and lightly transfer it in pastel to the paper with the minimum amount of guidelines. The backgrounds are often the only areas large enough to get my ‘pinky‘ finger into and blend the pastels for a soft, mottled effect. A neutral coloured pastel such as French Grey is used to blend other areas. So-called ‘pastel blending tools‘ tend to remove too much pastel or produce flat spots, which are extremely difficult to cover with new pastel. I try to have two pencils of each colour, one rather blunt for large areas and one sharpened for detailing. This can mean a lot of pencils as I use up to twelve colours to produce flesh tones alone.

Silk Scarf

Miniature Pastel by Edward Dyas

(c) 2018, Arturi Phillips Collection

Small amounts of pastel are applied, sometimes in a Pointilist fashion, and very fine lines for human hair, cats‘ whiskers etc need to be placed thicker than required and slowly reduced by surrounding colours. With hard pastels it pays to work from light to dark colours with extra strong highlights applied last. I may use fixative at various stages of the painting, sometimes to deliberately dull an area, but never on the finished work.

Troubleshooting is learned with experience and with almost twenty-eight years practice with pastels there are few surprises now. Of course Murphy‘s Law applies to pastelling like any other medium. A point will always snap at a critical time, a bug will always land in the very centre of your work and tap dance its way to the outer edge, lighting will alter and a sneeze always threatens because of the pastel dust.

Pastels are always best produced and viewed in natural light as it enhances the effect of the pastel particles and their ability to change so much in differing lights.

Because of the slow processes involved a detailed pastel miniature may take weeks to complete. A simple Impressionist landscape could be finished in a day or less but it may not comply with the criteria of miniatures. Still Life can be executed in a few days but portraits and wildlife will always take far longer especially if wrinkles, hair, fur etc are involved.

The cost, though not enormous, is far greater than using coloured drawing pencils and probably on a par with most good quality paints. It can be messy and definately nerve racking and your first hundred or so attempts may end up as fridge magnets but if you‘re game for a real challenge, pastels are it!


Miniature Pastel by Edward Dyas

(c) 2018, Arturi Phillips Collection

© The Hilliard Society

Text written for the Hilliard Society 2002. Published on this website by courtesy of The Hilliard Society, UK.

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