Color Spree

Color Spree
My favorite color is "all of them." What's yours?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cretacolor Pastel Pencils

Cretacolor pastel pencils

These pencils have a soft core exactly the same as Cretacolor Pastel Carre hard pastels, inside a varnished wood pencil. Ends are dipped for ease of recognizing colors and the color name and number are printed fairly close to the dipped end. They come presharpened in ranges of 12, 24, 36 and 72 from Dick Blick and other art supply companies. Currently the 12 color set is $14.99 and the full range 72 color tin $84.60, an excellent price for a big range of pastel pencils.

Cretacolor pastel pencils were my choice for a new set to replace the sixty Carb-Othello pastel pencils that I left behind when I moved away from New Orleans. I looked up and down the list of brands, found two that specifically said they were watersoluble and Cretacolor had a larger range by a dozen colors. So that's why I chose them.

What I didn't realize when I did was that these are less likely to crumble inside the wood! My old Carb-Othello (the other watersoluble brand) crumbled a lot, though I'd bought them all on sale from open stock in a store. So I really don't know how battered they were before I got them. Like soft core colored pencils, pastel pencils are subject to internal breakage.

The solution to reduce the problem is twofold. Always sharpen with a new sharp blade in your pencil sharpener or by hand with a razor blade or Exacto knife. Also store pastel pencils in an elastic band pencil case. Inexpensive easel cases from ASW work as well as the nice leather Global Classic case I've got my set in. I just like the leather ones more because I'm fond of leather. But either way, a padded elastic-band case will keep delicate pencils from banging into each other, breaking the soft cores so the points drop off when you sharpen them.

That said, I think all pastel pencils are subject to it and should be handled carefully. Other than that, they last a long time and wear down slowly depending on the technique you're using and the surface -- naturally anything pastel wears down fastest on sanded surfaces.

Cretacolor's range is well balanced between a full spectrum of brights and some nice browns, grays and muted hues. I'm completely happy with them. The manufacturer claims lightfastness for them, which is good enough for me for a sketching and detail medium.

What they're good for -- quick sketches, details in larger paintings, underpainting if you wash the sketch, anything where you want linear marks. Pastel pencils are also fantastic for doing pastel ATC or ACEO paintings.

ATC means Artist Trading Card, which must be only 2 1/2" x 3 1/2" and can only be traded with other artists. ACEO was invented on eBay and it's the same thing -- a 2 1/2" x 3 1/2" trading card sized artwork that can be sold. It means Art Cards Originals and Editions, so you can make limited edition prints in that size and sell them as ACEOs.

Pastel being such a broad medium, it's tricky to get enough detail onto a trading card sized artwork. I found that using hard pastels or pastel pencils, I could scale down all the techniques I use on larger pastel paintings to get an entire composition into that miniature space.

Pastel pencils are also very handy for doing preliminary small studies for larger paintings too, you can always trade or sell them after doing the big painting or keep them as a memento once it's sold.

Pastel pencils are also useful for a particular style of gorgeous pastel realism. Dianna Ponting creates some amazing realist paintings entirely with pastel pencils, working in many layers. A number of good wildlife and animal painters also love pastel pencils for fur and feather texturing and may use them exclusively to get a gorgeous realistic effect.

Pastel pencils handle like the hardest of pastels. This brand, my Cretacolor ones, are exactly the same as Cretacolor Pastel Carre hard pastels. Naturally they'll work best on fine-grained toothy surfaces but they're also good on regular tooth paper. Dianna Ponting even experimented on newspaper with them to gorgeous effects.

They're a lot of fun on unsanded pastel papers like Canson Mi-Tientes or Fabriano Tiziano, also good for sketchbook use. My favorite surface with them is the super fine grain ClaireFontaine PastelMat because its smooth but grabby surface will allow me as much detail as they can give me plus many more layers.

Why bother with pastel pencils if you have hard pastels? They keep your hands clean. The wooden barrels allow you to handle them and switch colors easily without smudging, also it helps to get used to blending with the tips instead of finger blending because you can stay clean. They're very portable, especially in an easel case, and fairly compact.

If you like plein air painting (painting outdoors from life), pastel pencils may become a great convenience. They're also good for undersketching even when you're going to use softer pastels. You can choose colors to contrast with the surface that still relate to the colors and values you're going to cover them with.

For sketchbook drawing, pastel pencils give a strong bold effect, especially in dark colors. You can use stumps, tortillons, chamois, Sofft tools or assorted fingers to blend them easily, once the color's down it's very much like a hard pastel and easily smudged. Workable fixative helps to allow more layers, especially on smooth papers, or to protect a sketch from rubbing into the back of the sketch ahead of it.

Because pastel pencils are so linear, the best color mixing methods are blending by layering, hatching, crosshatching and pointillism. In that, they handle more like pencils or colored pencils, so learning various fill textures to cover broad areas smoothly takes a little practice.

Of course you can always follow Dianna Ponting's example and not bother filling in large flat areas but shade them carefully to follow nature. It's possible to get a textureless smooth covering, it just takes patience and a light hand with multiple layers to create the soft-edged transitions.

What pastel pencils aren't good for is blocking in large areas with the side of a stick or scumbling. That takes a light hand to do it at all, or shaving off the wood and then breaking off a bit of core to make a hard pastel -- and if you're going to do that, you might as well also get the Pastel Carre for blocking in. Pastel pencils are best for linear effects, details and shading delicately in small areas.

I love these for their price, portability and cleanliness. If I'm having a bad day and don't feel like I want to do something that needs a lot of cleanup, I'll reach for a sketchbook and my Cretacolor pastel pencils. When it's done, it's done! Below is a sketch I did today with them on Canson mi-Tientes, smooth side.

Misty Trees
6" x 9"
Cretacolor Pastel Pencils
"Moonstone" Canson Mi-Tientes tinted pastel paper


  1. So Hello Robert! I didn't know you had this blog? Where have i been? It looks great, and i'll be visiting!

    Keep up the great work! ~~carolynn

  2. Hi Robert, I just came across a drawing of pecan tree you drew back in 2005 (I think)and was posted on under 70184 border_tree.
    I really got my attention and was wondering if I could acquire the image from you. I'm interested in using it as a logo for my father's inlaw pecan farm. I'm an artist myself and had worked on some tree designs already but your border tree really hit home.
    Pls contact me at
    Thank you! And I was looking at your blogs and your work is great.
    Maria Borowik

  3. Wow, thank you!

    Glad to see you again, Carolynn! I just started it recently, that's why, but I'll post the link on Facebook when I've got new reviews.

    Maria, I answered you in email and yes, you can use that painting. It was from life from the living room window and I remember the bright day I did it last summer, it was so much fun.

  4. Hello Robert! I am a pastel artist and was surfing the net looking at pastel pencils when I came across the link for this blog which is so informative about pastel pencils that I will definately buy some. I am so sick of my Carbothellos breaking when I try to sharpen them. Looking for ward to following your blog too!

  5. Hi Robert, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog post. I was looking for reviews before purchasing a cretacolor pencil set, and came across your blog. You just convinced me! thanks, Myka

  6. i hope you reply to this message. I'm still new to art so i would just ask you for any suggestions on what kind of rendering material is best for landscaping.