About Pastels


Pastel must never be confused with chalk. Chalk is a limestone substance impregnated with dyes, whereas pastel is pure pigment, the same pigment used in making all fine art paints. Pastel is the most permanent of all media when applied to conservation ground and properly framed. It has no liquid binder that may cause other media to darken, fade, yellow, crack or peel with time. Pastels from the 16th century exist today, as fresh as the day they were painted – no restoration needed, ever!

Pastel does not at all refer to pale colors, as the word is commonly used in cosmetic and fashion terminology. The name “pastel” comes from the French word “pastische” because the pure, powdered pigment is ground into a paste, with a small amount of gum binder, and then rolled into sticks. The almost infinite variety of colors in the pastel palette range from soft and subtle to bold and brilliant.

An artwork is created by stroking the sticks of dry pigment across an abrasive ground, embedding the color in the tooth of the paper, sandboard or canvas. My preference is acid-free, rag museum board for my pastel paintings. If the ground is completely covered with pastel, the work is considered a pastel painting; leaving much of the ground unexposed produces a pastel sketch. Pastel is sometimes combined with watercolor, gouache, acrylic, charcoal, colored pencil or graphite (pencil) in a “mixed-media” painting, but it is incompatible with oil paint.

The medium is favored by many artists because it allows a spontaneous approach. It is easy to manipulate, requiring only your hands and the paper (though there are a few applicators that are available for use). There is no mixing of colors on a palette, no drying time and no  allowances to be made for a change in color due to drying. Techniques vary with individual artists. Any mixing of colors must be done directly on the art surface, either by blending or by laying strokes of color side by side. Pastels can be made to look  bold or subtle, rough or smooth, high contrast or low, detailed or abstract. They are also easy to correct, with a few exceptions.

For this reason, pastels do need to be framed under glass. Non-glare and anti-reflective glass is available if you need to cut down on glare, although many people still prefer to use clear glass. It is also important to separate the surface of the artwork from the glass, either by framing with double or triple matting, or using a linen liner or an invisible spacer to keep it from the glass. (It is never advisable to use plastic, as static fields build up and attract the pigment off the surface of the art.)

Historically, pastel can be traced back to the 16th century. Its invention is attributed to the German painter Johann Thiele. A Venetian woman artist, Rosalba Carriera, was the first to make consistent use of pastel. Chardin did portraits with an open stroke, while LaTour preferred the blended finish. Thereafter a galaxy of famous artists – Watteau, Copley, Delacroix, Millet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, Bonnard, Glackens, Whistler, Hassam, William Merritt Chase – just to list the more familiar names, used pastel as finished work rather than preliminary sketches.

Edgar Degas was the most prolific user of pastel and was its champion. His protege, Mary Cassatt, introduced the Impressionists and pastel to her friends in Philadelphia and Washington D. C. and thus to the United States. In the spring of 1983, Sotheby’s sold at auction two Degas pastels for more than $3,000,000 each! Both pastels were painted around 1880. Pastels continue to bring high prices at auction.

Today, pastel paintings have the stature of oil and watercolor as a major fine art medium. Many of our most renowned living artists have distinguished themselves in pastel, and enriched the art world with this beautiful medium.  Please see the video demonstration of a pastel artwork by Cassidy Alexander in a sped up form:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TX7BhpiUzE&feature=youtu.be