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Pastel

[pa-stel; especially Brit. pas-tl]

Pastel is an art medium in the form of a stick, consisting of pure powdered pigment and a binder. The pigments used in pastels are the same as those used to produce all colored art media, including oil paints; the binder is of a neutral hue and low saturation.

The noun "pastel" gives rise to:

  • another noun, for an artwork whose medium is pastels
  • a verb, meaning to produce an artwork with pastels
  • an adjective, meaning pale in color

Pastel media

Pastel sticks or crayons consist of pure powdered pigment combined with an inert binder. The exact composition and characteristics of an individual pastel stick depends on the type of pastel and the type and amount of binder used. It also varies by individual manufacturer.

Dry pastels have historically used binders such as gum arabic, gum tragacanth. Methyl cellulose was introduced as a binder in the twentieth century. Often a chalk or gypsum component is present. They are available in varying degrees of hardness, the softer varieties being wrapped in paper.

Dry pastel media can be subdivided as follows:

  • Soft pastels — This is the most widely used form of pastel. The sticks have a higher portion of pigment and less binder, resulting in brighter colors. The drawing can be readily smudged and blended, but it results in a higher proportion of dust. Drawings made with soft pastels require a fixative to prevent smudging.
  • Hard pastels — These have a higher portion of binder and less pigment, producing a sharp drawing material that is useful for fine details. These can be used with other pastels for drawing outlines and adding accents. However the colors are less brilliant than with, say, soft pastels.
  • Pastel pencils — These are pencils with a pastel lead. They are useful for adding fine details.

In addition, pastels using a different approach to manufacture have been developed:

  • Oil pastels — These have a soft, buttery consistency and intense colors. They are slightly more difficult to blend than soft pastels, but do not require a fixative.
  • Water-soluble pastels — These are similar to soft pastels, but contain a water-soluble component, such as glycol. This allows the colors to be thinned out using a water wash.

There has been some debate within art societies as to what exactly counts as a pastel. The Pastel Society within the UK (ie the oldest pastel society) states the following are acceptable media for its exhibitions "Pastels, including Oil Pastels, Charcoal, Pencil, Conte, Sanguine, or any dry media" The emphasis appears to be on 'dry media' but the debate continues.

Manufacture

In order to create hard and soft pastels, pigments are ground into a paste with water and a gum binder and then rolled or pressed into sticks. The name "pastel" comes from the Italian pastello, meaning "little bread roll". The French word pastel first appeared in 1675.

Most brands produce gradations of a color, the original pigment of which tends to be dark, from pure pigment to near-white by mixing in differing quantities of chalk. This mixing of pigments with chalks is the origin of the word "pastel" in reference to "pale color" as it is commonly used in cosmetic and fashion venues.

A pastel is made by letting the sticks move over an abrasive ground, leaving color on the grain of the paper, sandboard, canvas etc. When fully covered with pastel, the work is called a pastel painting; when not, a pastel sketch or drawing. Pastel paintings, being made with a medium that has the highest pigment concentration of all, reflect light without darkening refraction, allowing for very saturated colors.

Recently, soft pastels have been launched in a pan format so they can be used like paint.

Pastel supports

Pastel supports need to provide a "tooth" for the pastel to adhere and hold the pigment in place. Supports include:

  • laid paper (eg Ingres; Canson Mi Teintes)
  • abrasive supports (eg with a surface of finely ground pumice or marble dust)

Protection of pastel artworks

Pastels can be used to produce a very permanent form of art if the artist has given appropriate consideration to archival considerations. This means:

  • pastels use only lightfast pigments. Pastels which have used pigments which change color or tone when exposed to light have suffered the same problems as can be seen in some oil paintings using the same pigment.
  • works are done on an acid free archival quality support. Historically some works have been executed on supports which are now extremely fragile and the support rather than the pigment needs to be protected under glass and away from light
  • works are properly mounted and framed under glass in a way which means that the glass does not touch the artwork. This avoids the deterioration which is associated with environmental hazards such as air quality, humidity, mildew problems associated with condensation and smudging.
  • Fixatives — Some artists protect their finished pieces by spraying them with a fixative. Abrasive supports avoid or minimize the need to apply fixative. A pastel fixative is an aerosol varnish which can be used to help stabilize the small charcoal or pastel particles on a painting or drawing. However, fixative will dull and darken pastel's beautiful colors. It is also toxic, therefore it requires careful use. It cannot prevent smearing entirely without dulling and darkening the beautiful colors of pastels. For this reason, some pastelists avoid its use except in cases where the pastel has been overworked so much that the surface will no longer hold any more pastel. The fixative will restore the "tooth" and more pastel can be applied on top. It is the tooth of the painting surface that holds the pastels, not a fixative. Pastels must be framed under glass to prevent damage.

Glassine (paper) is used by artists to protect artwork which is being stored or transported. Some good quality books of pastel papers also include glassine to separate pages.

Pastel societies

There are a number of pastel societies around the world.

The Pastel Society in the UK was founded in 1898 and founder members and early exhibitors included Brangwyn, Degas, Rodin, Rothenstein, Whistler and G.F. Watts. Current members are typically professional pastel artists. Admission to membership is via jury selection of artwork for the annual exhibition and agreement of existing members. Signature status is designated by the initials PS.

By way of contrast the oldest pastel society in the USA is the Pastel Society of America - founded in 1972 by Flora Giffuni to promote pastel art and its development. Membership is by jury selection and signature status is designated by the initials PSA.

The International Association of Pastel Societies was founded in 1994 by Urania Christy Tarbet with the aim of promoting pastel art. Its membership is limited to existing pastel societies.

Pastel art in art history

The pastel medium was first mentioned by Leonardo da Vinci in 1495.

During the 18th century the medium became fashionable for portrait painting, used in a mixed technique with gouache.

In the United States, initially pastels only had occasional use in portraiture. However in the late nineteenth century, pastel (like watercolor) became more popular]. The Society of Painters in Pastel was founded in 1885.

Pastels have become popular in modern art because of the medium's broad range of bright colors.

Pastel artists

The 18th-century painters Maurice Quentin de La Tour (see above portrait) and Rosalba Carriera are especially well known for their pastel technique. Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin's 1699-1779 pastel portraiture and still paintings are much admired.

The 19th-century French painter Edgar Degas was a most prolific user of pastel and its champion.

Mary Cassatt, introduced the impressionists and pastel to her friends in Philadelphia and Washington, and thus to the USA.

By far the most graphic and, at the same time, most painterly wielding of pastel was Cassatt's in Europe, where she had worked closely in the medium with her mentor Edgar Degas and vigorously captured familial moments such as the one revealed in Mother Playing with Child (22.16.23). (Metropolitan Museum of Art - Time Line of Art History / Nineteenth Century American Drawings)
Whistler produced a quantity of pastels around 1880, including a body of work relating to Venice, and this probably contributed to the growing enthusiasm for the medium. In particular, he demonstrated how few strokes were required to evoke a place or an atmosphere (example Note in Pink and Brown (17.97.5)

Modern notable artists using pastels - with art in museum collections - include:

See also

References

The Revival of Pastels in Nineteenth-Century America: The Society of Painters in Pastel Dianne H. Pilgrim American Art Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Nov., 1978), pp. 43-62 doi:10.2307/1594084

Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of pastellists before 1800, London, Unicorn Press, 2006

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