Pastel Palette for en Plein Air Painting

Choosing a pastel palette for en plein air painting can be a challenge for novices and well seasoned studio painters.  How do you know what you need?  How do you whittle down your palette from hundreds or even thousands of colors to a single box?

Getting Started with Pastels

I started painting in pastel while taking classes at a local atelier.  My very first pastel purchase was a set of 60 half sticks by Rembrandt  followed by 36 Nupastels (as recommended by my instructor).  While I found that many of them were too hard, making layering a challenge, they were also too high in chroma.  To solve the problem, I slowly added a handful of Unison and Schminke pastels.  Then, while working on a studio painting,  I discovered Terry Ludwig Pastels and his set of Intense Darks which were perfect for deep, dark shades.

A few months later, when I started painting en plein air, I began the arduous task of researching pastel boxes, plein air pastel sets, and easel setups.  Deciding where to plop down $500 to $1000 (or more!) was rather stressful.  How would I know what to buy?  Would it hold up?  Everything would be shipped to me and returns really weren’t an option.  Choosing which pastel palette for en plein air painting was overwhelming.  There were so many options to choose from.  So, I started with the few pieces I already had.

Painting en Plein Air with Pastels – Phase 1

Here’s a picture of my very fist plein air palette with the Double Sketchbox from Heilman Designs.  Notice how clean and perfect my box is?

My very first plein air pastels.
My very first plein air setup with a mini set of pastels. Mostly Rembrandt, Unison and a couple of Schminkes.
Choosing A Pastel Palette for En Plein Air Painting – Phase 2

After a few outings with my miniature set of pastels, I needed something more.  I decided to go with the Terry Ludwig Plein Air set of 60 pastels.  It was a good starting point but lacked sufficient greens, neutrals and accents. When I attended a plein air workshop at Terry Ludwig’s shop, the instructor (Aaron Schuerr) helped me add some essential greens.  Over the next 2 years, I added more neutrals as well as softer high chroma yellows and oranges for fall and fushcia/pink for flowers. I also made a few purchases of Great American pastels along with a few more Unison, Sennelier and Schminkes for snow and other subject specific colors.

The box is becoming more and more loved as time goes by.

Version 2 of my plein air pastels. How quickly Stage 2 of my plein are setup. I've run out of room. Can you see what's missing?
Version 2 of my plein air pastels. How quickly I’ve run out of room. Can you see what’s missing?


In this version, you can see that I’m missing light greens.  I have too many light pinks and not enough middle value yellows.  Neutrals area all but non-existent. And, the palette isn’t organized by warm and cool, just color family.  And, I’ve run out of room which makes organizing and choosing pastels a little challenging.

Adding More Neutrals

This past year, I added 30 Shades of Nature and 30 Umber Shadows and Shades by Terry Ludwig.  While I find those sets a little redundant, several of the colors have become invaluable neutrals.  You can see a recent painting, using just this set, here.

Here’s a picture of the Umber Shadows and Shades and color chart.

Terry Ludwig 30 Umber Shadows and Shades
Terry Ludwig 30 Umber Shadows and Shades


As a temporary fix to a full palette box,  I broke the sticks in half and carried the box into the field with me.  I clipped the box to my Heilman with binder clips.  While I wasn’t able to see how these related to my other pastels, it was a good short-term solution.

Developing a Working Palette for En Plein Air Painting – Phase 3

To make room for new pastels and to prepare for the summer plein air season, I pulled out the ‘little bits’ of pastel. You know, the ones that wore down to little slivers.  They are now so small I can hardly hold them.  I pulled out 35 pastels that have been so well-loved, they are all but gone. From those bits, I made a replacement order.  Today, as I replaced those bits and cleaned out my pastel box, I found about 35 more pastels to replace. Here is my current palette.  All cleaned up and more or less organized.

My current box of pastels for plein air painting.
My current box of pastels for plein air painting.

As you can see, I have slowly filled in the gaps by adding warmer yellow greens, a few more bright yellows, a variety of blues and greens and a larger section of neutrals.  There are plenty of light accents in a range of temperatures.  And, just enough darkest darks in blue, violet, orange/red and green.  I may consider adding a couple more from my dark set.  Maybe a few more reds too.

Here it is in black and white. Notice how the values are weighted in the greens and neutrals.

Plein air pastel box in black and white.
Plein air pastel box in black and white.

You’ll also notice that the box has changed from the little Heilman Double Sketchbox.  I’ll share more about that in a future post.

Select A Mix of Hard and Soft Pastels.

Harder pastels are great for massing in the large shapes for an alcohol wash or underpainting.  Being firm, they and can handle the tooth of sanded paper and not get ‘eaten up’.  A small number of NuPastels also work for laying in the shapes, but they are my least favorite.

The majority of my pastels are Terry Ludwig and Unison.  Unison pastels are a little harder than Terry Ludwig.   They are good for solid mark making and layering, but not as easy to apply in light layers, partly because of their rounded shape and harder texture.

Great American pastels are very soft and go on like ‘butter’.  There are a couple of Schminkes and Sennelier pastels which are very soft.  I often leave them wrapped as they tend to crumble.

Suggestions for Choosing Pastels
  1. Have a value range of at least 4 values – lightest light (almost white but slight hue for clouds/highlights), mid-light, middle darks and darks . You want warm and cool in each hue (color).   Keep in mind that how they look in the store, is not always what you need in the field.
  2. Choose a few hard pastels ( such as Art Spectrum, Rembrandt, Caran d’Ache, Cretacolor, Faber-Castell, Nupastell) for blocking in a painting.
  3. Choose soft pastels for layering in a range of values and temperature (warm & cool greens, reds, violets, blues, greys, & yellow). Examples of softer pastels include, Blue Earth Pastels, Daler-Rowney, Diane Townsend Soft, Girault, Great American, Holbein, Mount Vision, Sennelier, Schmincke, Terry Ludwig and Unison
  4. Start with a ‘starter’ set.  I suggest starting with the Terry Ludwig Maggie Price 60 Basic Values and adding to it with either individual colors or a plein air set by artist in your areas.  The Terry Ludwig Plein Air Landscape set is a good starting point too.
  5. There are pastel sets by artists from all over the country/world that are available from pastel manufacturers.  You can always start with one of those sets and then expand as you develop your palette.  For example, here is Michael Chesley Johnsons’ plein air set by GiraultRichard McKinley has a number of plein air sets from a variety of manufacturers too.
Getting to Know you Pastels
  1. The best way to develop a good palette is to paint, paint, and paint some more!  Painting throughout the year at various local locations will quickly help you get to know your palette and help uncover the missing pieces.
  2. Talk with a local painter, and look in their box of pastels.  They will be happy to share with you.  You can always contact your local plein air painting group or local pastel society for people to help you.
  3. Starting with a basic set of pastels, take a workshop from a master pastelist, and learn from the instructor and the other students.
  4. Periodically, photograph your palette and convert the photo to black and white.  It quickly shows the missing values.
  5. Arrange your palette by color family and value to show what is missing and for easy selection.
  6. Use/make color charts of your pastels with their code.  This made re-ordering so much easier!  Keep them grouped by manufacturer.

Learning about your options is probably one of the greatest challenges of getting started en plein air.  Then, deciding which one to buy as a starting point is the second challenge.  One of the resources that I find most helpful  is Dakota Pastels. They offer a variety of sets and descriptions of pastels available on the market. Many companies also offer 1/2 sets – a collection of pastels in a half stick.  This is a great way to get to know a brand and your colors.  Choosing a pastel palette for en plein air painting is exciting. As you learn, experiment and paint, you will begin to create a set that works beautifully for all seasons.

I hope this helps.  If you have questions, feel free to ask questions in the comments below or contact me.  I’m happy to share from my experiences.

Happy Painting!

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