About Pastel Paintings

Because so many friends and clients ask about pastel paintings, Joseph felt that this article would provide some valuable information on their quality and longevity.

“The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques”, by Ralph Mayer:

The art of painting in pastel dates back about two hundred years. If outline drawings in colored chalks or earths are included, the technique may be said to be prehistoric; pastels in our present sense of the term, however, begin with the eighteenth-century portraits in this medium.


The process, so far as materials and the chemical characteristics of the results are concerned, is one of the simplest and purest, being a method of painting with pure color without medium, and for this reason it is preferred by some artists who do not want their paintings to suffer those effects of age that are caused by the changes that mediums of other methods undergo. The disadvantages of pastel are its relative fragility under mechanical wear and tear, its color or tonal limitations, and the impossibility of glazing it. When pure, highest-quality paper and only the absolutely permanent colors are used, pastel is among the most permanent forms of paintings. Framed under glass and given the care that any work of art normally receives, portraits of the 1750 period have come down to us as bright and fresh as the day there were painted.

Although pastel painting is uncomplicated by any fluid vehicle or medium, and the binding medium used to mold the pigments into sticks or crayons is a very weak solution just sufficient for that purpose, still it is not quite correct to say that this binder has no effect on the pictures. One of the charms of the finished panting is its texture; manipulations of the crayons will produce a varied effect – thin or thick, smooth or rough, level or impasto – and without the presence of the binder the pigment particles alone would not be cohesive enough to have this versatility. Then too, the balance of properties of the binder is important; the crayons must be strong enough to withstand a reasonable amount of handling without breaking, crumbling, or splintering too readily, and soft enough to deposit the desirable pastel effect on the paper.

Pastel pictures also sometimes require a fixative to prevent the colors from dusting off. This fixative, when properly made and applied, does not alter the appearance of the picture to any great extent, the main change being a slight lessening of the softness of the borders. This change is usually very much less than the drying change which occurs in the other painting methods.

Prepared artists’ pastels are usually sold in three grades, soft, medium, and hard. The soft is universally used, the other two for only special effects and purposes. The soft texture of pastels allows them to be easily manipulated; the common chalk crayons intended principally for blackboard use are unsuited for the purpose. There is no reason why reputable makers of artists’ pastels should not state on the pastel label the specific pigments used; when this is not done there is always some doubt as to whether the crayons contain only permanent pigments, since pastels which contain dyes and fugitive lakes of great brilliance have often been placed on the market.

From the Connecticut Pastel Society:

"Pastel does not at all refer to pale colors, as the word is commonly used in cosmetic and fashion terminology. The name Pastel comes from the French word "pastiche" 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."

Pastel Society of America:

Pastel is not colored chalk, which is a limestone substance. Pastel is pure pigment-the same pigment used in making all fine art paints. It is the most permanent of all media when applied to a permanent ground and properly framed. There is no oil to cause darkening or cracking, nor other substance or medium to cause fading or blistering. Pastels from the 16th Century exist today, as fresh and alive as the day they were painted!

Its invention is attributed to the German painter Johaim Thiele. Historically, its origin can be traced back to the Sixteenth Century, when Guido Reni, Jacopo Bassano, and Federigo Barocci were notable practitioners. Rosalba Carriera, 1675-1750, a Venetian lady artist, was the first to make consistent use of Pastel. Chardin, 1699-1779, did portraits with a hatching stroke, while Quentin de la Tour, 1704-1788, preferred the blended, velvety finish. Thereafter, a galaxy of artists, Mengs, Nattier, Copley, Delacroix, Millet, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Redon, Vuillard, Bonnard, Glackens, Whistler and Hassam, just to list the more familiar names, used Pastel as finished work, rather than for preliminary sketches.

Edgar Degas was the most prolific user of Pastel, and its champion. His protege, Mary Cassatt, introduced the impressionist 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.

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.

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 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.

Care of Pastel Paintings:

As with any fine work of art or fine furniture, it is advised not to place a Pastel painting in direct sunlight. When under glass, the heat of the sun can create humidity, which could cause moisture damage to develop. Whenever transported or not in a hanging position, a Pastel painting should always be face up.

Sharon Cross 2014