98 – Choosing Materials for Lessons

I really believe anyone can learn to paint if you can hold a brush or a pastel and you can learn to see sensitively. It’s not about talent and it’s definitely not about having all the right stuff!

Fact: your results are going to be affected by the quality of the materials you choose. If you start with very inferior materials you are going to struggle more. Just know that going in. I recommend that you buy the very best materials you can afford. Cost is a barrier for many people especially beginners and it’s reasonable to try out the inexpensive materials thinking that you may not even like pastel painting, however the conundrum is that the inferior materials may lead to frustration and then giving up on the whole thing! So I encourage you to buy fewer pastels, start with a limited palette and then add on. The very inexpensive pastels have a high talc content rather than being pure pigment with a binder. This results in poor layering properties and dusting off the paper surface rather than adhering or grabbing onto the paper surface. They also will fade over time.

Use any good quality sanded pastel paper. I recommend that even absolute beginners use sanded paper rather than sketch paper or Canson. It’s simply like a whole different medium when you don’t use a sanded paper. It’s just too frustrating. Sanded papers grab onto the small, faceted particles of pastel allowing for multiple layers to be applied and a wide variety of strokes and marks to be achieved.


As you find yourself wanting to expand your palette, try out different brands, both hard and soft to see what you can do with them. I’d try to buy individual sticks rather than sets after you have a starter set going, so you don’t wind up with sticks that are too similar. If I was starting out and had a budget, I would buy a set of 96 Nupastels first, right now these run around $75.00 Then if I could afford it, a 30 half stick set of Unison which currently costs around $92.00. Then I would keep adding when I could. This is still a hefty investment!


The different brands of paper have different qualities that you may or may not enjoy using. Pastelmat has a very smooth surface that tends to grab onto a stroke and hold it, while Colorfix has much more texture and lends itself to more blending. Uart is great for watercolor underpaintings, but doesn’t have a very thick backing so will buckle if it’s not mounted first. It’s good to try everything out and get a feel for your options. Dakota Pastel has sampler packs that you can buy. My other advice is that if you don’t like a paper at first, tuck a piece away and come back to it another time. You might find that you just weren’t ready for something. When I first used Wallis paper, I really disliked it, but it later became my “go to” paper for many years.

Do I Need to Have Exactly the Same Paper Marla is Using for Each Lesson?

No, you don’t! The paper brands and colors (if they are toned), are suggestions. I choose papers for different reasons. Sometimes I choose something that I think will help me to complete a piece with more ease such as using Leaf Green Colorfix for a summer landscape with lots of green foliage. Sometimes I’ll choose a complementary surface because I’d like a more vibrant interplay of color. At other times, I simply am using what I have available and will make that work or choose to paint something else. Most of the time, the outcome, good or bad is not because of the paper choice, so go ahead and use what you have. I’d rather have you get started painting when you’re excited about it rather than struggle with having exactly what I used!

Do I Need to Have the Same Pastels as Marla?

No you don’t! Remember that more pastels or the “right” colors are not the key to becoming a better painter. I have students that come to a workshop with a very small selection of 24 to 30 pastels that have great success and others that bring much, much more than I have and are frustrated! I’ve been a pastelist for over 25 years and collected my pastels over that time. I have many different brands and a range of hues, values and intensities in those brands. Each brand of pastel has unique characteristics that a pastelist can use to create different effects and marks. I have a lot, but I’ve seen pastelists with much more than I have too! It takes time and patience to cultivate a unique set of pastels that suits your workspace, style and budget.

The key is to have a range of hues, values and intensities first, then a range of hard and soft pastels. Start small, add slowly.  See what you can do with what you have first. You’ll be surprised by how much you can do with 15 sticks! 

What are Marla’s Favorite Pastels?

Each brand I use have different qualities that I can employ in my pieces but I’m very fond of Unison and Terry Ludwig pastels.These two brands make up a large percentage of my current palette. I also use Nupastels, Giraults, Blue Earth, Mount Vision and some Sennelier.

Does Marla Use Pan Pastels?

I have some and very occasionally use them for underpainting. My style of painting just doesn’t lend itself to them.

What are Marla’s Favorite Papers?

I love Pastelmat and Uart. I buy the Uart 400, 500 or 800 grit boards when I’m planning on doing underpainting. I also use Colorfix. I use Wallis when it’s available to me.

Are There Any Pastel Brands Marla Does Not Use?

I do not use Prang pastels or any oil pastels.

Are There Any Paper Brands That Marla Does Not Use?

I do not use Canson Touch. It doesn’t hold layers of pastel well.

I hope this helps you to make choices about materials. Most important, is to get to the easel and paint. Don’t let perfect get in the way of good!

Happy Painting!



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