Sorting A New Box of Soft Pastels: How I Do It!

Hello my Creative Friends!!  

Today I would like to show you what I do with a new box of soft pastels before I incorporate them into my working palette.

Both my studio and plein air pastel boxes are sorted by color and value; however, my plein air box is much smaller and carries fewer choices, so I like to be doubly sure I have exactly the values I need in that box.

How do I do that?  Well, I am glad you asked!!

I call the process “Testing the Sort”.  I have to give credit for this idea to Gail Sibley, a wonderful pastel artist who did a video on this process (here).


The set I will be sorting for this blog post is the “Brenda Boylan Northwest Plein Air” set of 80 Handrolled Richeson Soft Pastels.


Before I begin the sorting process, I first make a 9×12 color chart of the pastels which I will use for future reference when I need to replace certain colors.  This also helps me get a feel for the color and value range of the set BEFORE I break it up!  

Plus, it’s just fun to play with the new colors! 🙂  

I sometimes will use this time to remove wrappers…not so fun, but necessary.

I make a simple grid using a Micron Pigma pen on a middle value gray piece of Canson Mi-Teintes.

Here is the completed color chart with each box labeled with the color’s code for reordering purposes.  I will store this chart in a 9×12 self-laminating sheet to protect it.  I DO NOT spray the paper with fixative before storage, as that would darken the colors and make it more difficult to find a match when I need to reorder a pastel!



Okay, let’s start sorting!!!

The first step is to pull out a piece of neutral colored, mid-valued paper such as Canson Mi-Teintes.  It is important to use a middle value paper for the sorting, as it will help you spot very light and very dark values more easily!  I chose a neutral gray so that the paper color would be less distracting as I sorted.

Next, use a pencil or pen to draw 4 columns down your paper.  
Label each of these columns from left to right, respectively, “Lights / Mid-Lights / Mid-Darks / Darks”.

Now, the next part is relatively easy!  (You might want to use an old hand towel laid out on a table or even a cookie sheet tray with rims to keep any pastels from rolling away!) 😉

  • Pull out all of your lightest valued colors and set them to one side of your work space or tray.
  • Pull out your darkest valued colors and set those aside on the opposite side of your tray.

At this point, you should have only middle values left in the original box.


Now that you have the lightest lights and darkest darks pulled out of the set,

  •  take each of the light pastels and make a mark on the Lights column,
  •  and make a mark on the Darks column with each of the darks.


This next bit can be a little harder if you are inexperienced, but hang in there because even if you get it wrong, you can change your mind in the next pass!

Squinting your eyes down to see the values better, take a look at the all of the middle value pastels left in the box and determine whether each falls closer to a middle light OR a middle dark value, and 

  • then make marks in their corresponding columns.

Phew!!  You should have marks in all four columns now.

***It’s OKAY at this point if you are unsure about where you placed some of your marks.***

That’s actually normal—especially for the middle values, as they are often trickier to classify!


Here is my first pass through the Brenda Boylan set using this method.  

The beauty of this method is that with each pass, you get closer and closer to properly sorting the values.


First pass




Now, draw a line under the bottom row of test marks because you are going to refine your first choices!

This time, squint your eyes down and look at the middle two columns.

Chances are that you will see a few colors that don’t seem to “fit in” value-wise with their neighbors in that column.  
They might need to be relocated!  If so, make a little line under the color and then an arrow in the direction you think they might fit better.  

Here is my example:

Second pass

As you can see above, I had quite a few colors in the mid-lights column that I wanted to try out in the lights or
mid-darks sections.  And there were two I thought might need moving in the mid-darks….but oops, I actually forgot and moved only one! (You can see that bright yellow-orange is still in its original column after the 2nd pass…)


After the second pass, if you are still unsure about some of your choices, do a 3rd pass!

Third pass

 Here is my 4th and final sort:

Fourth sort


If you are still unsure about your final pass, take a photo of your chart and convert it to monotone using your phone’s photo editor.

Like this:



You will likely see some choices that you might want to change.  I saw a few in the monotone image above; however, I felt this last pass was sufficient for my needs.

The last step you will take is to either put them back in the original box, sorted, of course!  
Or you might need to sort them into a larger box that already has pastels in it.  In that case, you would add your lights to your light valued section, your mid-lights to your middle light value section, and so on, paying attention to the color families as you add. 

In my case, I used this set as the foundation for my plein air box which had 4 dividers, hence, the need for 4 values.

This is what the pastels themselves looked like on my towel after sorting.

In black and white:

And in color:

Well, I hope this post takes some of the mystery out of sorting a new box of soft pastels.
It’s actually a lot of fun!

Let me know in the comments if you try it out or if you sort another way.

Till next time, thanks for reading. 🙂

And stay creative!


Pastel ColorPlay Project #8: Colorful Grays

Hello Creative Friends! 🙂  It’s time for a new ColorPlay AND an announcement!

I have a new YouTube channel!!!  


My hope is that I can periodically post about my paintings in progress and the techniques I use.

However, since I have just begun learning how to document via video, AND I tend toward perfectionism in things like editing, 😉 I am not planning on posting videos with any regularity yet.  Thanks for your understanding!

I WILL be embedding the videos I create on this blog, though, so please check them out and let me know what you think.  And if you have ideas for videos, let me know that too!   Just click on the picture at the bottom of today’s post to watch the video.

Now, on to today’s ColorPlay…. 🙂



For today’s painting I chose a Triadic color scheme of red-violet, blue-green, and yellow-orange in a variety of values.

Triad of red-violet, blue-green, and yellow-orange

The reason for my choices were two-fold.

First, I don’t typically like working with triads.  I could never explain exactly why, but I think I may have figured it out!

We’ve all seen preschool rooms painted in bright, primary colors of red, blue, and yellow.  
Well, I never liked that color scheme…it seemed garish to me.  BUT….

Take those same primary colors and gray them down, and voila!  You have a completely different look!

So that’s the approach I took with today’s painting, only instead of using Primary colors (red/blue/yellow), I used versions of violet/green/orange, aka Secondary colors.


The second reason for choosing a Triadic color scheme is to create Colorful Grays!  This is the technique I show in the video at the bottom of this post.

Most people think of “gray” as a non-color somewhere between black and white.

But that can be pretty boring and dull-looking in an otherwise colorful painting. That’s where triads come in.

Any time you mix three colors which are approximately equidistant on the color wheel, you will get what is called “muddy” color.  

Most of the time, painters try to avoid making mud!  

But there are times when we want our colors to be muddy (grayed down or neutralized).  (Note: You can also achieve neutral colors by mixing opposite colors on the color wheel, but they are not as colorful.)

Here is an example of what I am talking about.

Secondary (left); Primary (right)

You can see the individual colors which make up the swatches above.  The more times I apply each layer, the more the pastels will mix themselves and the more “gray” they become.  

It’s easier to see this with the swatches on the right using primary colors in different values.

Here is another example:  I LOVE the gray achieved with the bottom swatch…. 🙂



Using Canson Touch sanded pastel paper in mid-tone gray




Colorful grays were used in this painting—especially in the background trees and sky.


Check out the video below to see how I created different grays.

Phew!!  Well, that’s it for now.  

Thanks so much to you all for taking time to read my blog!  It means a lot!!!

Please feel free to comment with your thoughts and ideas about this or other posts, or my YouTube endeavor.

And until next time….stay creative and colorful!


Plein Air Gear For Painting With Pastels!

Hello my Art Friends!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, so I better get moving 🙂

As promised, I am going to share with you the gear that I have found essential for my plein air painting with pastels.

One caveat: the following list is always evolving!  As I grow and change artistically, so do my equipment needs.  But for now, this is what I am using when I go off on my painting adventures….

Everything packed up!

All of my gear packs into an inexpensive Eastport backpack.  This particular model has lots of zippered compartments to keep things separated.  It is big enough to hold my 9×12 backing board, two paper portfolios, a Heilman Sketchbox Double, and various other supplies.  It even came with a lightweight nylon bag (seen on the right) which I use to hold used wet wipes, hand towels, and my roll of tp to clean my pastels on.

I have a bad back, so I have to watch how much I carry.  Since at this time I am painting closer to home, I thankfully don’t have to carry things too far.  I would probably downsize some if I was hiking to a painting location.

MeFoto Classic Aluminum Roadtrip Travel Tripod

The system I use for painting includes a Heilman box mounted on a tripod.  But UGGH!!!  I went through several iterations of tripods before I found this MeFoto Roadtrip tripod.  It was recommended by pastel artist Alain Picard on his blog.  And I have to say that I have been very happy with its ease of use, sturdy construction, and stability.

It even has a setting where I can spread the legs out really wide for extra stability, but so far I have not needed that option.


Heilman Sketchbox Double, easel, and side tray

The other half of my system is the pastel box I use.  I can’t say enough good things about Heilman pastel boxes!  I own the Backpacker box and the Sketchbox Double (see the sketchbox double above and below).

For plein air, the lighter weight of the Sketchbox Double is a must for me, but as you can see in the photo below, I don’t lack for much color!


My plein air palette so far…
Hat, iPhone, Viewfinder

One of the first things I do when I am looking around for a scene to paint is to look at it through a viewfinder.
I keep mine handy by wearing it on a chain around my neck.  If I like what I see, I will shoot a few reference photos.


The next thing I do when I am drawn to a scene is a thumbnail sketch.

My sketching kit includes unlined 3×5 notecards; Pitt Artist pens in a light, mid, and dark value; a Pigma Micron pen; ruler; kneadable eraser, a bit of foam pipe insulation, a bristle brush; key to my pastel box; extra vine charcoal; Derwent XL Charcoal (Ochre–for toning paper); and a chamois.

Sometimes I don’t want to use my sketchbook for thumbnails, so I use unlined notecards.
A side benefit is that I can clip the notecards right onto my backing board when I start painting my scene!

Thumbnail Sketching Kit & Thumbnail Examples


The final items in my plein air gear include two paper portfolios (one holds 8×10 paper and the other holds 5×7); artist tape and various clips; and 9×12 backing board.

The backing board is actually a dry erase board I purchased from Hobby Lobby and then sprayed with matte black paint to limit reflection into my eyes.

Well, that’s it for the gear!  I hope this is helpful to any of you interested in going out and trying plein air for yourself.

Till next time,

Stay Creative!!