Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Value of Organization

Posted by Maggie
Yesterday I cleaned and reorganized my travel set of pastels. I do this every now and then, but they really need it after a series of workshops in a short time.

I’m picky about the system which I use to organize them, and like to have each stick in its proper section. But in the rush of doing demonstrations, sometimes I put them back in wrong places, and later that will bother me, so I need to rearrange. This time I was surprised at how many sticks had been worn down to little nubs and needed to be replaced.

For travel, I use the backpack size of the pastel box made by Heilman Designs. I like the way it protects my pastels from breakage, and the fact that skinny little sticks can go next to fat ones and both are embraced by the memory foam and held in place. At home, I have a large box divided into the same six-section format.

Some people arrange their pastels by type (hardness or softness), some by brand, and some by hue. I arrange mine by value and temperature. The divisions are as follows, left to right: darkest dark, middle dark, lightest dark, darkest light, middle light, lightest light. Each value section is arranged with warm colors at one end and cool at the other.

Whatever system you use, I think it’s important to be consistent. When you’re painting, you don’t want to spend a lot of time searching for the right stick of pastel. Rather, you want to know where it is, just as you know where the keys are on your computer keyboard, or as a pianist knows where the keys are on the piano.

The reason I like this system is that, when selecting a pastel, I want to think value first, temperature second, and hue last. Getting the proper value and temperature of a pastel is critically important. When those are right, almost any hue will do.

Most beginning artists have some understanding of value—the relative lightness or darkness of a color—but many have trouble with temperature, the perception of a color as warm or cool. Basically, you can analyze the temperature of a color by breaking it down into components. In the three primary colors, red and yellow are warm and blue is cool. So, you put blue at the cool end of the arrangement and yellow and red at the other. Orange is composed of yellow and red, so is warm.

The difficulty comes with colors that are made from both cool and warm components. Purple is made of red and blue, so you have to look at the color and decide whether it’s more red than blue or vice versa. I put the red-purples towards the warm end and the blue-purples to the cool end. Greens are quite ambiguous, so they go in the middle.

I’ll write more about color temperature and simultaneous contrast in another blog.

Organizing your pastels by this system will take a couple of hours. It’s important to remove all the wrappers and break the pastels into pieces an inch or an inch and a half long, so that you can use them on their sides as well as using the tips.

Once they are organized, you’ll begin noticing immediately when a stick is in the wrong place, especially if it’s off by more than a little. The daily exercise of putting the sticks back in the right place and learning to reach to the right section for appropriate value and temperature will improve your perception of both. As your perception of value, particularly, improves, you’ll see it more quickly in the arrangement of pastels, in nature and in photographs, and place it more accurately in your painting.


  1. Thank you Maggie, great information! I totally need to do a clean and reorg on my pastels.

  2. I have been organizing by hue, value and temperature within the hues. Like one side of the blues are warm, the other side are cool. Problem is that when I moved I hadn't finished it and they got all messed up. I've been using the boxes(for studio) with a friend who is not so great abut putting them back in the proper box. right now they are a mess. It will take more than a few hours to sort them the way I want them. i'm finding it takes so much longer to find the right color when they are so messed up! Thanks for your tips. I like the way you organize your palette!


  3. I am a pastel hue organizer myself, yet I am so drawn to your method, and I know I am not a meticulous in placing them back in the proper place,so that's probably why I use my method. Your arrangement itself in the photo looks like a mosaic or lovely work of art.

  4. I do believe that whatever system works for you is best. However, I've found that my value structures in my paintings have become stronger since using this system. Thinking about value first also has led me to using unexpected color that works, rather than relying on my "knowledge" of hue.
    It does take a while to organize by value, but once you get a baseline of values to compare to it starts going faster and faster. I find it's the easiest system to maintain, too, at least for me.

  5. Thank you so much for posting this. Interesting.