Pastel is pure pigment, the same pigment used in making all fine art paints. It is the most permanent of all media, when applied to conservation ground and properly framed. Pastel has no liquid binder that may cause other media to darken, fade, yellow, crack or blister 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 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. It can either be blended with finger and stump, or left with visible strokes and lines. 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 Venitian woman artist, Rosalba Carriera was the first to make consistent use of Pastel. Chardin did portraits of famous artists…Watteau, Copley, Delacroix, Millet, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, Bonnard, Glackens, Whistler, Hassam, William Merritt Chase…just to list the more familiar names, used Pastel as finished work rather that preliminary sketches.
Edgar Degas was the most prolific user of Pastel, and its champion. His protégé, 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 the beautiful medium.
NOTE: Pastel must never be confused with colored chalks. Chalk is a limestone substance impregnated with dyes.
Pastel is sometimes combined with watercolor, gouache, acrylic, charcoal or pencil in a “mixed media” painting, but it is incompatible with oil paint.
©Pastel Society of America