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 20 -25 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.
TIPS FOR BEGINNERS
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.
NOTE: Casual use of all art media, including pastel has been the rule. Toxic metals such as chrome, cobalt, manganese, nickel and cadmium have been used in art pigments for many years.. So far as I have been able to determine the only modern brands of pastels which use toxic heavy metals are Dianne Townsend, Great American and Unison. However, older pastels or other brands may contain them. Over time these toxic metals can be absorbed and accumulate in the body by inhalation of the inevitable fine pastel dust or even direct contact and cause health issues including cancer. Preferably pastels should be used in a studio setting outside the home but never in an area where food is prepared. However, very often pastels are inadequately labeled and pastel warning lables are often removed so caution is advised.
This next section was written by Sheri Ramsey, PSA of Omaha Nebraska.
Pastel safety is a complicated issue, partly because it’s a continually evolving one. Artists have been using pastels—generally without much concern—for about 250 years now, but recently we’ve begun to learn about the effects of breathing the dust created by pastel sticks, and it turns out there’s good reason for concern. In fact, the health risks are strong enough that every pastel artist should be made aware of them, and I’d advise that regularly working in a pastel studio without some level of safety precaution is simply too big a risk for you to take. I’ll discuss the precautions shortly, but first I’ll explain some of the dangers.
Essentially, there are two fundamental characteristics of the pastel medium that make it dangerous to inhale: the small particle size of the dust and the toxicity of the pigments. Pastel dust consists of extremely fine particles of both pigments and binders. When the dust is inhaled, some particles will deposit in the upper respiratory system, where they’re raised on the lungs’ mucous and swallowed along with other dust. But more harmfully, a significant portion of the pastel dust particles, especially those from pigments, are small enough to get deep into the lungs’ air sacs (alveoli), where they may remain indefinitely.
The pigments used in art materials fall into two groups: inorganic and organic. Inorganic pigments contain metals that are often toxic, such as chrome, cobalt, manganese, nickel and cadmium. Most organic pigments, which are complex hydrocarbons, haven’t been studied for their long-term hazards, but many of them—such as the anthra-quinones (alizarin crimson, for example) or benzidines (diarylide yellow, for example)—are members of chemical classes suspected to cause cancer. Unfortunately, finding out whether the pigments you’re using are toxic is difficult because many manufacturers don’t identify them precisely, and current labeling laws allow untested chemicals in art materials to be labeled “nontoxic.”
Practically speaking, you can reduce your exposure to the pastel dust in your studio, but you can’t adequately control it in the home setting. The particles are essentially invisible, they’re carried throughout the house on clothing and shoes, they go right through common vacuum cleaner filters, and they become airborne on even the smallest air current. If, the studio is indoors, then you and your family will inevitably be exposed to some level of potentially toxic pastel dust. The only exception to this condition would be if you work with only black, white and a few other low-toxicity colors such as those with iron-based pigments or ultramarine pigments.
Reducing the health risk in your studio basically consists of minimizing the amount of pastel dust floating in the air and clinging to the objects and surfaces in the room. To do this, keep your studio clean and well-ventilated. Make sure it has floors and surfaces that are sealed and easily wet-cleaned, and if you prefer vacuuming, you should get a high-efficiency, particulate air (HEPA) vacuum to capture fine pastel dust. While you’re working, wear gloves, a smock, hair covering and work shoes, and don’t wear them outside your studio. In addition, launder the clothing separately from your family’s other clothes. Wash up thoroughly after your work sessions, and don’t eat, drink, apply cosmetics or do other tasks of hygiene in the studio. Also, small children should be kept out of a studio in which professional art materials are used.
Respirators and breathing masks are often recommended for pastelists, but they can provide a false sense of security and even be harmful in some cases. The physical stress caused by breathing through a respirator may be dangerous for people with certain heart and lung diseases, or for women who are pregnant. Plus, respirators are made to fit the average face, and many people can’t find one that sufficiently conforms to their own face. If the device doesn’t fit, it doesn’t work. To wear a mask or respirator, consult your doctor about the breathing stress, then get yourself professionally fit, tested and trained in the use and limitations of the gear.
If you really want to make your studio as safe as possible, the first thing I’d recommend is to move your studio outside the home. Second, your studio would be safest with a specially made ventilation system that captures dust right at the easel. This can be expensive, though, and it requires an engineer to configure a system for your studio and the way you work.
Finally, pastelists working at home might consider using oil pastels. The look and feel of this medium is somewhat different from dry pastels, but oil pastels don’t create dust. They may be the biggest improvement in safety you can make with the smallest sacrifice.
While these measures may sound a bit excessive, any steps you take to reduce your exposure to toxic particles will be worth the effort. You may not notice the benefits right away, but it’s the long run that counts.
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.