What is Pastel?

It is dry pigment, the same pigments used in the wet painting media, but without oil, water or acrylic binders. It contains a minimum of binder and is basically pure pigment. The pigment is worked into a paste and rolled into sticks, like crayons or sticks of chalk. However, the similarity with chalk stops with the shape. Because the finer makes of pastel are usually hand-rolled, and because they are in the range of 95-99% pure pigments, they are expensive.

Historic dry pastels should not be confused with oil pastels. Dry pastel is no more like oil pastel than watercolor is like oil paint. Pastels are both “soft” and “hard”, so if necessary to distinguish them from oil pastels, it is more to the point to call them “dry” pastels, since they are oil and wax free.

Why do artists choose to paint in pastel?
It is extremely permanent. Pastel is a time-tested medium, in use for four hundred years. It is true that it can be smeared if not protected under glass, and sometimes a little will flake off if the work is mishandled. But if applied over a durable, acid-free surface, a pastel painting will remain fresh and virtually unchanged for several hundred years. I’ve seen pastels in various collections that are 250-300 years old but look as though they had been completed in the last five years. Because there is virtually nothing in the sticks but pure pigment, nothing to degrade or fade color as oil and water do, and because the dry pigment is so densely packed, the paintings will remain unchanged for many generations.

It is extremely versatile. Visit a large exhibit of pastels and you will see an astonishing range of expression. If handled properly, it can be combined with other media such as oil, acrylic and watercolor paint. It can be worked in exquisite detail if the artist chooses.

It is direct. The artist can work right in the medium, almost like handling clay. There is no brush between the artist and the work. It requires no drying time, and the artist can continue working on the painting as long as concentration allows.

And most important to artists,it is delicious. Pastel artists often refer to it as a “seductive” medium. It vibrates, it refracts; it  does not stop with just reflecting light. It is capable of exquisite subtleties and gloriously brilliant color as well as exciting textures. The microscopic flecks of pigment, the dust, act something like prisms. Because they either imbed or sit on the surface, rather than sinking into it as with the wet painting media, they bounce reflected light and color in a hundred directions at once.

The following is from the Pastel Society of America in New York:
Pastel does NOT refer to pale colors. The name pastel comes from the French word “pastiche” because the pure, powdered pigment is ground into a paste with a small amount of gum binder, and then rolled into sticks. The 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. If the ground is completely covered with pastel, the work is considered a pastel painting; leaving much of the ground exposed produces a pastel sketch. Techniques vary with individual artists. Pastel can be blended or used with visible strokes. The medium is favored by many artists because it allows a spontaneous approach. There is no drying time and no allowances to be made for a change in color due to drying.

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. Edgar Degas was the most prolific user of pastel and its champion. His protege, Mary Cassatt, introduced the Impressionists and pastel to her friends in Philadelphia and Washington, and thus to the United States. In the spring of 1983, Sotheby Parke Bernet sold at auction two Degas pastels for more than $3,000,000 each. Both pastels were painted about 1880.

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.

© 2009 Margot Schulzke, PSWC founder