What is Pastel?

Pastels - Original Photo of PastelsPastel 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 (such as acid-free paper) 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.

Pastel does not 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. Note: Pastel must never be confused with colored chalk. Chalk is a mineral substance impregnated with dyes.

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 the individual artists. Pastel can be blended or used with visible strokes. Many artists favor the medium 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. Chardin did portraits with an open stroke, while LaTour preferred the blended finish. Thereafter a galaxy 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 than preliminary sketches.

Edgar Degas was a 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.

Pastel is sometimes combined with watercolor, gouache, acrylic, charcoal or pencil in a mixed-media painting, but it is incompatible with oil paint. 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.

Article copy-written and used with permission from the Pastel Society of America.

Pastel Society of America
15 Gramercy Park South
New York, NY 10003