The Art Medium Pastel

Unlike other artistic media, pastel offers the experience of painting with dry colors. Pastel is made from pure pigment in powdered form, which is bound together into sticks, similar to chalk. However, unlike colored chalks, pastel is composed of the same pigments found in oil paints. As pastel colors are applied dry, artists know immediately what effect a color will have on a composition. With techniques, like blending and scruffing, artists control tones and shading. One disadvantage of pastel is that the image is never secure, and the slightest touch can compromise the composition. Liquid fixatives, such as those used for charcoal, are apt to reduce the brilliance of the color. Therefore, the protection of glass and gentle handling are often the best means of preservation.

By the 15th century, pastel was used in studies for paintings or murals. Da Vinci is believed to have used it in his “The Last Supper” studies. Through the ages, many artists have created in pastel. From the 17th century, as artists used it to further their own crafts, their work contributed to the development of the medium. Venetian artist, Rosalba Carriera popularized pastel in the late-1600s. Her works possess a delicate feeling and soft look, which results from her rubbing and blending techniques. In her 1721 work, “Young Girl Holding a Crown of Laurel,” pastel produces a gently refined image with discreetly elegant effects.

A century later, Maurice Quentin de La Tour, strongly influenced by Carriera, took pastel in new directions with brilliant color, crisp detail and clarity never before seen in pastel works. One of his celebrated portraits, “Henry Dawkins,” illustrates the artist’s agile hand in capturing the subject with remarkable clarity, such as the chromatic effects of the golden buttons and the soft sheen of the velvet coat. La Tour’s work provided pastel with a new range and respect equal to that of oil painting.

Edgar Degas’s work with pastel also contributed greatly to the medium. Experimenting with combinations of pastel and other media, such as gouache and watercolor, he created luminescent colors. Using a variety of surfaces, such as paper, canvas and cardboard, he created a range of effects. With a variety of tools and techniques, such as wet brushes and hatching, he manipulated pastel colors with expressive grace. His 1888, pastel-on-wood, “Race Horses” captures a moment frozen in time, with the racehorse’s raised leg, while still evoking the vibrancy of swaying grass with his hatching technique. Pastel is a delicate craft, and its colors are easily swept off the page. However, with the major developments made by the pastelists of the past, its significance is firmly affixed in history of art.