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It's Not Colored Chalk!

Sticks of soft pastel

My primary painting medium is pastel. The term ‘pastel’ is unknown to some and just plain causes confusion for others. This is not due to ignorance, but due to the way the term has been used to mean very different things. First, I am not referring to the word ‘pastel’ being used to reference the pale colors of a baby’s room or the outfit you wear at Easter. That is an adjective and has absolutely no correlation to the art medium that I use to create my paintings. If you are familiar with my art, you can see that my colors and values are anything but pale.

The next part of the confusion is that there are two very different art materials on the market that unfortunately both carry the name 'pastel'. Soft Pastel and Oil Pastel. Although both come in stick form, these materials are quite different in their composition and working characteristics. Oil pastel is more like a crayon, but unfortunately was given the ‘pastel’ name, leading to much confusion. I have tried oil pastels, and am not much of a fan of working with them, so I will not be discussing them here.

'Soft pastel' is what I use to create my paintings. It comes in stick form and looks a lot like colored chalk, but that is where the similarity ends.

Pastel palette detail

It is not colored chalk! Chalk is primarily limestone whereas soft pastel is pure pigment, the same pigment used in making all fine art paints. All artist paints are made of ‘pigment’ – the dry substance that is the color - plus a vehicle for applying the color. For example, oil paints are pigment suspended in oil, acrylic paints are pigment suspended in a liquid polymer, crayons are pigment combined with wax. For pastels, the pure, powdered pigment is ground into a paste with a small amount of gum binder - just enough to hold it together in a tangible form - then rolled into sticks. Some brands are made by machine, but some of my favorite brands are rolled by hand! It is the most direct way for an artist to apply pigment to a surface. Nothing else. No water, no oil, no polymer, no wax – just pigment.

Detail, "Island Reflection, Guana Cay"

And that is what gives pastel its unique appearance. The artist works by dragging the pastel stick across the surface of the paper or board. The small pigment particles are deposited on the surface, and reflect the light, creating a subtle shimmer not found in other artist paints. When using pastel, one must use a surface that has a texture, known as tooth. The tooth is what grabs the pastel particles and helps them to sit on the surface. I use what is known as a sanded paper. Think of a very ultra fine sandpaper, and you'll get the idea. Since the pigment sits on the surface of the paper, pastels are almost always framed under glass. The glass is needed to protect the surface from being inadvertently smeared.

Without going into a long history lesson – I was a teacher, so trust me, I could give the history lesson – pastels as we know them today, have been around since about the 16th century and used by a number of artists but most likely reached a pinnacle of success in the works of Edgar Degas in the late 19th century. Today, pastel has reached a new level of popularity with state, national and international organizations to promote artists working in pastel. I am happy to be a member of quite a few of those organizations and will discuss that in another post. Stay tuned.

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