What is Pastel?

Pastel is a stick of coloured material made of pigments mixed with a bonding agent such as chalk or talc then added to a sticky material such as gum Arabic or tragacanth  gum. The mixture is poured into a mould and dried to produce the pastel stick.

The artist will typically use the stick either using it like a pencil to make a drawing, or like a painting by using the pastel’s colouring property to cover part, or all of the surface of the picture.

The physical sensation experienced by applying the pastel directly with the fingers onto the picture with the stick provides an agreeable soft  and tactile experience. It is a very rich medium in which to work.

Different qualities of pastels are available with various characteristics. Soft ones allow the artist to apply successive layers of thick colour. Hard or semi-hard ones are suitable for the drawing approach. The colours can be used on their own, or mixed with successive applications of the pastel.

It is a relatively fragile technique requiring a layer of fixative to be sprayed onto the art work, either at various stages of making the picture, or when it is finished, so the powder sediment resulting from application of the pastel is bonded to the work.

Ideally the picture should be framed under protective glass.

The picture surface material

The advantage of pastel lies in its adaptability. It can be used on a whole range of materials such as drawing paper, Ingres type paper or textured papers of the “Pastelcard” type made by Sennelier, or on “Art Spectrum” material. These surfaces allow you to apply significant qualities of pastels without the support material becoming saturated.  You can also use water-absorbent papers if you are looking for a special effect in relation to the chosen subject. The use of watercolour paper or Clairefontaine “Pastelmat” is suitable.

There is another more personal approach in which the artist prepares the support him or herself,  by covering or soaking the surface with a varnish or undercoat, such as acrylic gesso, pumice stone powder, or directly with a special pastel primer.

History of Pastel

Pastel first appeared 20,000 years ago in cave art. In fact we know that the composition of the colours used by the prehistoric painters is very similar to pastel, containing pure pigments mixed with vegetable extracts.
References quoted by Leonardo de Vinci indicate that it was a French invention.  In 1499 Jean Pérréal  is said to have taught him the “dry painting method.” Unfortunately there are no known surviving works by Pérréal. The oldest use of pastel is believed to be in a portrait made by Jean Fouquet in about 1465, representing the wife of Louis de Jouvenel.
The first manufacturing instructions, on how to make pastel, date from 1574. We find them in Gregorius’s “Sintaxeon Artis Mirabilis” . By the XVI century, certain of the few coloured pastels available at that time were being used to apply highlights to drawings in the “three pencils” style.
Over time, the range of available colours expanded and techniques evolved. The graphic method tended to give way to a more painterly approach through a blurred outline effect.
By the XVII century, several great pastellists had emerged including Joseph Vivien, Jean Marc Nattier and Charles Antoine Copeyl who transformed the technique of pastel into a recognized way of painting which would soon rival tradition oil paint as a medium.
It was in the XVIII century that pastel reached its golden age. Kings, princes and members of the bourgeoisie all wanted their portraits in pastel.  Maurice Quentin de La Tour, Jean-Baptiste Perroneau, Chardin, Francois Boucher, Greuze, Mesdames Labille-Guiard and Vigée Lebrun were among those who brought the art of pastel to prominence all over the world. In Paris alone there were at least 200 great artists. In addition many foreign artists became known for pastel work including the Italian Rosalba Carriera, Gustave Lundberg, Roslin and Hall from Sweden and Liotard from Switzerland.
Contemporary pastel art reveals a considerable evolution. Pastellists are applying the pastel much like paint. Pastel is no longer limited mostly to portraiture. Instead it shines across the range of disciplines – floral pictures, landscapes, still life, nudes and pictures of animals.
Today the different schools from America, England, Canada, Russia, Spain and France each reveal in their own way some huge talents capable of producing powerful yet sensitive works of art which are worthy of comparison with the great pastellists of the past.

(Quoted from “Pastel in France in the XVIII century” by Paul  Ratouis de Limay. Editions Baudinières, Paris).