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:
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:
In addition, pastels using a different approach to manufacture have been developed:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of pastellists before 1800, London, Unicorn Press, 2006