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!


7 thoughts on “Sorting A New Box of Soft Pastels: How I Do It!

    1. You’re welcome! I’m so glad you found this info helpful. You can do it!! And don’t worry, about the time you have them all out of their boxes and sorted, you’ll be purchasing more! 😉 Just a note: I still keep my Richard McKinley landscape set of Terry Ludwig pastels in its box because it just “works” for me as its own set when I am using it. So I get the best of both worlds…


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