Pastel Society of New Mexico

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About Pastels

A particle of pastel pigment seen under a microscope looks like a diamond with many facets. Therefore, pastel paintings reflect light like a prism. No other medium has the same power of color or stability. Properly framed, pastel paintings are among the most permanent of art works.

Pastels are created from the same pigments as those used in watercolor and oil paints; only the binder, the material which holds the pigment together, is different. Gum tragacanth is used to bind the pigments of pastels, while gum arabic binds the pigment for watercolors and linseed oil is the binder for oil paints. Soft pastels are a different medium from oil pastels, which essentially are oil paint in stick form (the word pastel comes from the Italian word pastello, meaning “paste”, and therefore refers to the physical form of the painting medium, not to its unique aesthetic properties). For this reason, paintings done with oil pastels are generally excluded from pastel competitions and exhibitions.

Pastels have been used for centuries as a sketching medium, but in the last hundred or so years many fine artists began using pastels for finished work. The broken color that can be achieved by layering and hatching made pastels a logical and exciting medium for the Impressionists. Cassatt’s exquisitely sensitive mother-and-child portraits gain much of their immediacy from her mastery of the medium’s unique layering capabilities. Degas used pastels for many of his famous studies of ballerinas, as well as for landscapes. Renoir, Redon, Manet, Delacroix, Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, and the American Impressionists such as Whistler, Hassam, Prendergast, and Chase, are other examples of artists who used pastels for finished work. In our own time, Wolf Kahn, Daniel Greene, and Janet Fish are among the internationally known artists who have worked extensively in pastel.

Soft pastels are available in various shapes and degrees of softness. The softest pastels have only enough binder to hold them together, while harder pastels and pastel pencils have considerably more binder. Pastels may be applied to a multitude of surfaces, including various types of paper, cloth, and canvas. Two popular surfaces are sanded paper and rough-surface rag paper, which come in a variety of colors to augment or contrast with the painted image. Some surfaces may be undercoated with a mixture of gesso and marble dust or pumice, and may be underpainted with acrylic, oil, or watercolor. In recent years, the products available to pastel artists have increased dramatically in number and quality, making pastel one of the most versatile and exciting of artistic media.


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