Pastels and Chalks
Preparing the binder
Making the  gum solutions
Pastels are the odd man out here as they are not paint. However, most artists who grind their own paints inevitably decide they would like some drawing materials of their own manufacture and pastels and chalks are the easiest to make in the studio. The only difference between Pastels and Chalks is the degree of hardness or softness. Generally pastels are made with precipitated chalk for softness and chalks are made with whiting which makes a harder stick. A little experimentation with slightly stronger gum solutions can also help if very hard chalks are required.

Add a little Methylated Spirits or Grain Alcohol to 1 volume of powdered Gum Tragacanth. To this add about 30 parts of distilled water. Shake the jar with the lid on and then let sit for 24 hours. It will now be a gel. Warm by placing the jar with the gel into a larger container of hot  (but not boiling) water. Strain the warmed gum solution through cheesecloth into a clean jar.

Divide this solution in half and label one #1.
To the remainder add 2 parts of distilled water and stir well. Divide this in 2 and label one #2.
To the remainder add 2 parts of distilled water and stir well. Divide this in 2 and label one #3.
To the remainder add 2 parts of distilled water and stir well. Divide this in 2 and label one #4.
To the remainder add 2 parts of distilled water and stir well. Label it #5

Different pigments will require different strengths of gum solution which will be referred to by the above numbers. Tragacanth solution keeps well if made with distilled water and in well stoppered glass jars.

Grinding  Also called dispersal
It is easiest to grind the pigment mixture in a medium-to-large sized mortar and pestle as the mixture is thick and can behave more like bread dough than liquid paint. many artist's who collect their own colored Earths as pigment make Pastels. If this is the case make certain that the pigment is finely ground at this stage in the mortar.
  1. Place ground, dry precipitated chalk in the mortar and add sufficient of the required strength gum solution to make a doughy mixture. Make certain it is well mixed. Ideally it should not adhere to the skin when handled.
  2. Put the 'dough' on the slab and cut it in half putting one half into a bowl covered with a damp cheesecloth to keep it moist. You will make the tints from this mixture.
  3. Divide the other half into small portions about the right volume to make a Pastel stick. Take one and roll it into a short thin stick shape with the palm of the hand. Set this one on a piece of paper in the sun to speed drying. This will be the test Pastel to see if the mixture is right. It will likely crack in the forced drying which is why force drying is not recommended for most Pastel sticks for normal use.
  4. If this is a new pigment (when making colors) and you are uncertain of formulation it is possible to put this first half of the dough in a bowl covered in damp cloth to keep it moist for several hours and it will be possible to remix in the mortar to add a little  ground talc or kaolin (china clay) (Both can make it softer) or more binder if it is too crumbly. Or if you are confident of formulation and the tester is 'just in case' then proceed to the next step.
  5. Roll out the remainder of the small lumps of dough with your hand. If you have troubles with sticking to the hand the mixture is too wet and should be remixed. However for minor sticking a small amount of precipitated chalk rubbed on the hand can help. If you want the sticks to be more perfectly shaped use a small piece of wood to finish the shaping. A very sharp scalpel blade can get the ends cut off nicely if you prefer.
  6. Place the rolled out sticks onto clean cartridge paper and allow to dry naturally. They are likely to sag a bit during drying. This is normal and part of the charm of home made Pastels. The big manufacturers have rounded grooves that the sticks dry in to help retain shape.
  7. These are the full strength sticks you have just made. The pure chalk is all that is needed for the white sticks, although some artist's like to make a white from Titanium Dioxide as well. It seems a lot of work for little benefit to me but this is a personal call for you to make. The Titanium is stronger and a more pure white. It is also common to mix  Titanium White and  precipitated chalk together  to arrive at a personally preferred degree of whiteness and softness. Experimentation is to be encouraged when making paints and the recipes on these pages should be seen as starting points rather than unvarying instructions.
  8. Now you need to repeat these steps with the first colored dry pigment you are using. Don't be surprised if some pigments will naturally make harder Pastel sticks (and perhaps benefit from small additions of kaolin or talc). Organic red pigments are particularly prone to this and will often end up with a harder outside crust. Sandpaper can remove this. At the end of this step you should have a collection of drying white and colored Pastel sticks and two bowls covered in a moist cloth. This can be repeated for as many colors as you like or proceed to the next step to start making the tints
  9. TINTS Now to make the tints. Take the dough mix that has been set aside under damp cloth and mix equal portions of the white and colored mixes. Return to the mortar and thoroughly mix the two until there are no streaks. Return to the slab and divide in two as before, covering one half with damp cloth in a clean bowl. Now roll out these half strength tints and set to dry on cartridge paper.
  10. Now take the reserved portion from step 9 and the reserved pure white from step 4 and mix together in equal portions. This tint will be a quarter strength. Again divide in two and set aside one half under damp cloth while rolling the new Pastel sticks.
  11. Repeat this halving process until the lightest tint you desire is made. For most colors this will be 4 to 6 tints for any given color.
  12. TONES Some artist's like to make darker tones by mixing with black. I personally do not like this as I think the mixes with black look dead and lack the vibrancy I expect from art materials. As I have no experience with these mixtures with black I can only offer some general thoughts. Firstly I suspect that the ideal portion to do this would vary considerably from pigment to pigment, some needing a half mixture and others needing a quarter or less. Some pigments such as yellows do not darken so much as change color when mixed with black. Yellow becomes green. For yellows I would recommend adding a dark brown as the darkener instead, although in that case why not just use a brown pastel in the art work?
  13. GRAYS  &  NEUTRALS  Pastel manufacturers make some beautiful colors but they rarely produce perfect grays preferring instead to make mixtures with black and white with minor additions of ochre or blue or green or violet. You can do much better than this. The first gray you make should actually be a mixture of Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. This makes a beautiful soft gray like the grays on tree trunks. From there experiment. Generally any combination of complementaries will produce a gray, and by varying the mix it can be a gray that leans toward one color or another. You need never again have the sort of uninspiring grays that are found in most Pastel boxes.
  14. SAFETY  Never forget that Pastels produce dust that can be inhaled easily. Only use pigments of low toxicity, and always use a fixative on finished Pastel artworks.

Here are some common pigments listed with the appropriate gum strength for that pigment. All of these colors are absolutely permanent. The Tragacanth solution numbers refer to the strengths prepared at the top of this page. Pigments that require variations to the basic proportion of one to one are noted. Some pigments require additions of chalk or kaolin to keep the consistent with the other pastels being made. This is also noted.

Tragacanth solution # 1
  • Mars Yellow PY 42
Tragacanth solution # 2
  • Precipitated Chalk PW 18
  • Ultramarine Blue PB 29 (+ a half volume whiting)  (Half volume #2)
  • Burnt Umber PBr 7 (+ one volume whiting)
Tragacanth solution # 3
  • Mars Red PR 101
  • Mars Black PBk 11
  • Pthalo Green PG 7 (+ a third volume Kaolin)  (third volume # 3)
  • Chromium Oxide Green PG 17
Tragacanth solution # 4
  • Ivory Black PBk 9
  • Burnt Sienna PBr 7 (+ one volume kaolin)
  • Raw Sienna PBr 7
  • Pthalo Blue PB 15 (+ a third volume kaolin)  (third volume # 4)
  • Mars Violet
Tragacanth solution # 5
  • Yellow Ochre PY 43
  • Light Red Earths PY 102
  • Venetian Red PR 101
  • Raw Umber PBr 7
  • Viridian PG 18

Boxes Storing pastels
If you want to use the empty wooden boxes sold in the larger artist's supply stores then you will need to make your pastels to a standard length and thickness to fit the inserts in these boxes. Most artist's however use the little cardboard boxes that paint tubes are sold in. They usually have convenient dividers that help with separating colors and are usually discarded by the stores so they are readily available. Traditionally a little dry rice grains in the box helps keep the sticks clean.

[ Go to  Testing Colors page  ]

Related Links:

Studio notes

Basic Ingredients

Detailed Ingredients

Testing paint

Starting to make paint

Making Oil Paints

Making Acrylic Paints

Making Watercolors and Gouaches

Making Egg Tempera

Making Hide Glue Chalk Gesso

Making Encaustic Paint

Making Fresco Colors

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