About Pastel

Excerpt from Genevieve Monnier’s book
Pastels From the 16th to the 20th Century

Pastel, known to Leonardo da Vinci as the “dry coloring method”, is thought to have originated in France. It is the simplest and purest of all painting techniques.

Unrivaled for the freshness and luminosity of its colors and the delicacy of its nuances, pastel in the hands of artists like Rosalba Carriera and Maurice Quentin de La Tour was used as a virtuoso medium for rendering the texture of fabrics, the luster of the eyes, the lavishness of a background.

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 conservation ground and properly framed. Pastel has no liquid binder that may cause other media to darken, fade, yellow, crack or blister with time. Pastels from the 16th century still exist today, as fresh as the day they were painted. No restoration needed, ever.

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

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. The medium is favored by many artists 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.

Edgar Degas was the most prolific user of Pastel. His protégé, Mary Cassatt introduced the impressionists and Pastel to her friends in Philadelphia and Washington, and thus to the United States. Famous Pastel artists include Chardin, Watteau, Copley, Delacroix, Millet, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, Bonnard, Glackens, Whistler, Hassam, William Merrit Chase.

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.

Pastel must never be confused with colored chalk.
Chalk is a limestone substance impregnated with dyes.

Pastel is sometimes combined with watercolor, gouache, acrylic, charcoal
or pencil in a “mixed-media” painting, but it is incompatible with oil paint.