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The Pastel Medium

(or more than you probably want to know about pastels)
plus Tips for Beginners

by James Few, PSA, KA


Pastel has suffered from a poor reputation largely because of a lack of knowledge about the medium. At times even the so called experts perpetuate this ignorance: I recently saw a general art book published in 1989 and written by an artist with an MA, which not only classified pastels merely as a drawing medium, but also described it as chalk. This characterization, is patently inaccurate. However, in the past 10 -15 years interest in pastel has increased as indicated by the number of newly formed art organizations devoted to the medium.

First, it is true that pastel is a drawing medium. Traditionally it was used for making sketches preliminary to a larger work. Few people realize that it is also can be used as a painting medium. Finished works of art can be rendered in pastels which are comparable to those done in other media.

Second, pastel is not chalk. There is an obvious similarity in appearance with the colored blackboard chalk that some of us may have used in grammar school. Colored chalk is a limestone substance impregnated with fugitive dyes. Though some pastels contain a small amount of chalk to make them abrade more easily, pastel must never be confused with colored chalk.

What are pastels then?

Another misconception is connected with the name - "pastel." In the past, so many pastels were done with a weak, delicate appearance that pastel has become synonymous with light, delicate tints. This was a matter of choice of colors by the artists rather than a necessity. Pastel does not, at all, refer to pale colors, as the word is commonly used in the fashion and cosmetic industry. They are made with exactly the same pigment used in making all fine art paints. Powdered pigment, mixed with a little water and a special binder is ground into a paste, rolled into sticks and allowed to dry. The name pastel comes from a French word pastiche, meaning mixture or jumble. It is a painting medium with a full range of artistic possibilities. In the hands of a skillful painter with a knowledge of pastel's working properties, a complete range of colors, values, textures and techniques is possible.


It is also a myth that pastels are impermanent because of the lack of light fastness. In the 1870's - synthetic dyes of brilliant hues were in wide use by prominent artists. Most of these dyes fade quickly when exposed to ultraviolet light. These fugitive dyes were still popular even as late as the 1940's. They were not only used in the making of pastels but also in the papers that were used as the painting surface. These dyes are no longer used in making pastels, but the reputation of impermanence still lingers.

Modern pastel is the most permanent of all media. When applied to a conservation ground and properly framed there is no danger of yellowing or cracking as in oils, they never require restoration, and they can last much longer. The cave paintings of prehistoric man in France and Spain which were painted using earth colors mixed with water, are considered the precursors of pastel painting. Some of these are more than 15,000 years old. A work done in pastel is fragile and can be smeared or damaged by rough handling, therefore it must be framed under glass, however, the painted surface is surprisingly sturdy.


Pastels 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 known artist 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, Courbet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Whistler, Cassatt, Bonnard, Glackens, Hassam, William Merritt Chase, Vuillard, .... just to list the more familiar names, used pastel in
finished works rather than only preliminary sketches.

The French Impressionist, Edgar Degas was the most prolific user of pastel, and its champion. In 1988, Sotheby's sold at auction a Degas pastel, for $7,500,000!

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 using pastel. A swing back to traditionalist art and a renaissance of the pastel medium is in the making.


It is most efficient and less frustrating to find a good teacher who uses pastel as a primary medium. There are a number of good workshops conducted around the country that you will find beneficial. You will also find many workshops in the classified ads of The Pastel Journal, The Artist's Magazine and American Artist magazine.

PASTELS are made with the same pigment that is used in other fine art paints. There are hard and soft pastels. The hard ones like Yarka, Nupastels, etc., have more binder and less pigment than the softer ones like Rembrandt, Schimincke, Great American, Sennilier, Unison, Grumbacher, etc., etc., which have varying amounts. The main difference is price. The more pigment, the less binder the more expensive (and softer) the pastel.

Rembrandts are fine quality moderately priced pastels. Among the higher-priced premium-quality pastels are Sennelier and Schimincke. I would suggest you test several brands to find ones you like the best then acquire a set of about 90 colors and supplement them as needed. At this writing, a full set of about 258 Rembrandts cost under $300, mail order, while a full set of more than 500 Sennelier pastels can cost about $800 or more. A large number of different colors and tints is required because pastels cannot be mixed like liquid paints. No one can honestly prescribe a pallet of colors because the range of available colors is so vast, and color names vary widely between brands. Generally for portraits, more of the earth colors and reds are needed, while landscapes calls for more blues and greens. It is best to have as many different pastels as you can afford but if you just want to experiment, a starter set of 30 color half-sticks made by Grumbacher can be had for less than $40.

FIXATIVES darken and dull the beautiful pastel colors and are not recommended as a general rule.It is the tooth of the painting surface that holds pastel after it is applied, not fixatives. A matte workable fixative can be applied when an area needs to be reworked or to restore the tooth when too much pastel has saturated the surface. Then pastel can be applied over the fixative after it has dried. Fixatives can also be used to darken or tone down an area of a painting. Hard pastels go on first because they do not fill up the "tooth" of the painting surface as much as the soft buttery pastels. If too much pastel is applied then any additional pastel will just fall off. It is normally best to apply dark valued colors first and lighter colors on top.

SUPPORTS: There are a number of good commercial pastel painting surfaces. For a beginner, none is more economical than Canson Mi-Tientes pastel paper, which comes in a lot of colors. Other papers and boards with sanded surfaces especially made for pastels are more expensive but are excellent. The tooth of the sanded surface holds much more pastel than the regular pastel papers and a pastel painting done on these supports can be rendered so that it is difficult to distinguish from an oil painting.

More and more great surfaces are coming out every year and are advertised in supply catalogs. Personally I often use a product made by Golden Acrylics: Acrylic Ground for Pastels which can be applied to many different archival supports. I have used it on cold pressed watercolor paper (140# or heavier), gessoed Masonite, and also use it on my life time supply of archival print paper from an unsucessful print venture. The Golden product is an acrylic base with a fine silica suspension, and is quite sturdy. It can be mixed with acrylic colors or toned with an acrylic or watercolor wash after drying - which is the way I use it. It could also be used on hot pressed watercolor paper or board or even on canvas. Golden also makes other products with a coarser grain that could be used. Before I discovered the Golden product I made my own on 1/8" gessoed Masonite using fine pumice added to the final coats. A thin coat of gesso on the back of all the home prepared surfaces mentioned above serves to prevent warping.

(I have no financial interest in any manufacturer or brand name product).

OIL "PASTELS" - The so called "oil pastels" are pigment, oil, and wax crayons and more properly named oil bars or oil crayons. They can be mixed with oil paints and diluted with mineral spirits. A fairly recent invention, oil bars are more like a child's wax crayons. They are incompatible with true pastels but can be used with oils or on top of acrylic or watercolor underpainting. In my opinion, a painting done with oil bars cannot compare, in color and beauty, with works done using traditional pastels.

Questions about pastels? Answered by Email:

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