Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Chalk pastels

I don't know about you, but if I don't feel comfortable with a art media then I tend not to use it while teaching. For example I dread using chalk pastels. I never learned how to use them.

During my collage figure drawing class we sketched with vine charcoal and thin sticks of hard pastels and I could figure that out, I pretended they were thick pencils. Then we were asked to replicate a photo using chalk pastels. My professor was puzzled by my lack of pastel skill wondering how I got to a 400 level life drawing class without having previous pastel experience. I didn't know what to tell him, I had taken all the pre-reqs for the class and had never been presented with a pastel project before. I muddled through the project ending up with a smudgy, color distorted, disappointment.

So I guess it is not too surprising that when I choose mediums for my students I pass over the chalk pastels. We have the cheap sets from the school district. The kind that are 48 colors for $5. I know the low quality is part of the problem. The kids don't like their smudgy, dusty, thick lined nature. They seem to crumble in my hands and the feeling of the chalk on my fingers makes my skin crawl.

I bring out the pastels when we study Degas and to fill in black glue line drawings. We (the kids and I) can deal with the messy nature of chalk when it is contained in glue lines. But in my heart I know I am creating a new generation of art students who avoid the media. I worry about sending my middle school students to high school with little pastel experience.

With that in mind I have decided this will be the year I use chalk pastel with my middle school students. I have been stalling but I can hold out no longer. We have been sketching stuffed animals and beanie babies and the kids are ready to do their final drawings. My first thought was to have them paint their drawings, but I know that pastels will capture the soft feeling of the stuffies much better. I have been practicing after school so I can at least demo without grimacing at the feel of the chalk but I still am not feeling confident in my own skills, let alone my ability to help the kids learn how to use them.

Any suggestions? We are going to use (cheap) watercolor paper for texture, and I have some Q-tips for blending, I shook the pastels in rice to clean them and I have a can of Aqua-net for when we are done. Should we be blending with our fingers? Do you work light to dark or dark to light? Do I need to break down and buy better pastels (out of my own pocket) or can we make this work with cheep stuff? Does anyone know of a good book or online video to show me how to better use these little buggers?


  1. Have you tried looking at You Tube videos? I sometimes have luck there.

  2. I've been lurking around your blog for a while now... I love it! Great ideas and posts.

    I teach kids grades 4-6 and I use chalk pastels a few times a year. In fact I just used them this past quarter! In my experience, the kids really enjoy how soft the colors are and how they blend so well together. They're especially effective and beautiful if used on dark paper.

    I feel the same way as you, though, about cringing at the feeling of chalk on my hands. You will find that a few kids who are particularly sensitive won't want to use them either, so you might want to have an alternate material available just in case.

    Good luck and have fun!

  3. I do have quite a bit of experience with oil and hard chalk pastels though I have to admit I'm not fond of soft chalk pastels unless it is being used on the sidewalk. I do have some tips for you.

    No blowing. The chalk dust will go everywhere and mix with the other colors on the drawing. Plus, you don't want kids inhaling the dust.

    No black. That was the first thing I learned when I worked with hard chalk pastels in college. It muddies color. To create darker values use dark browns, dark blues, dark greens or dark purples. Mixing dark colors works well.

    If you can spray some kind of fixative while they work that will eliminate some of the loose dust.

    Keep some baby wipes on the table so kids can wipe their hands periodically.

    That is all my suggestions. Good luck!

  4. I was taught to NEVER use your fingers to blend because it muddies the work. We use Q-tips on our VanGogh sunflowers and they work just fine.

    The last time I tried to use AquaNet to fix the drawings, it left black dots all over the paper where it sprayed. You might want to do a trial spray first.

    Have fun!

  5. I took a class in pastels and learned that you move from dark to light. It's helpful to put a red transparency over what you will copy and it will bring out all the dark areas. I use my fingers, but you can tear small pieces of paper towels for them to wrap around their fingers. Remind them not to blow the chalk dust, as it's not good to breathe. Have fun with it.

  6. I use cheap dollar hairspray for fixative. (You go through a lot with so many students). I go from light to dark, teaching them they can always add more color into something but it's hard to take dark out of light. Better chalk pastels would help a lot. The cheaper ones are often to hard and tear my paper. I use my finger to blend (I thrive on messy) so I just have the kids use their fingers. We have baby wipes at each table so they can wipe their fingers as much as they need to. Kids with sensory issues use blending stubs or paper towels. I like your Q-tip idea but I wonder if the cotton would smoosh too much. Brittany is very right when she says no blowing and no black. I have the kids shake their drawings over the garbage if they have too much dust on their paper. (After I show them how to carefully roll up the sides so chalk isn't all over the floor!)

  7. I also say no blowing and we shake extra dust in the garbage too.

    I have a couple of unique ways to use pastel chalks, one which I'll be doing in about a week and will post. I soak bogus paper (the heavy ugly grey blotter-type paper) and then we draw on it w/the pastels. They liquify like paint -it's messy and fun and the kids love it. When dry, we seal them with ModPodge or something similar. You'll see when I post!

    Another fun idea is "chalk dips". Use colored construction paper and little dishes of white tempera. Have the student dip the end of the chalk into the white, and then make a stroke on their paper. It's really cool.

    1. i'd love to see these "chalk dip" works - have you got any images to share? :)