Pastel that has not been sprayed with fixative contains no liquid binder that may cause other media to darken, yellow, crack or blister with time. Pastels from the 16th Century exist today as fresh as the day they were painted.
The pure, powdered pigment, is ground into a paste with a small amount of gum binder then rolled into sticks. The infinite variety of colors in pastel range from soft and subtle to strong and brilliant. The word Pastel in this case does not refer to "pale colors" as it is commonly used in cosmetic and fashion venues.
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, canvas etc. If the ground is completely covered with Pastel, the work is considered a Pastel painting; a work with much of the ground left exposed is termed a Pastel sketch or drawing. Pastel is sometimes combined with water color, gouache, acrylic, charcoal or pencil in a mixed-media painting, but it is not compatible with oil paint. Pastel paintings reflect light like a prism. No other medium has the same color power.
Edgar Degas was the most prolific user of Pastel and its champion. His prot'g'e, Mary Cassatt, introduced the Impressionists and Pastel to her friends in Philadelphia and Washington, and thus to the USA.
Today, Pastel has the same stature of oil and water color as a major fine art medium. Many of our most renowned living artists have distinguished themselves in Pastel, enriching the art world with this beautiful medium.
Useful Tip and Tricks for Pastel Artists of all levels.
Artist safety issues:
- When working in soft pastel, never blow at the dust. It is not good for your lungs. Take the work out side or hold over a newspaper and tap the back to get rid of excess pigment.
- Try to get used to wearing disposable gloves. The pigment can be absorbed through the skin. Gloves also help keep the work clean. It is much easier to clean the pigment off the gloves before changing colors than off your hands.
- If you are using this medium daily, an air filter in your working space is better for your health.
- When using fixatives, spray in a well-ventilated area, preferably outside.
Working clean to keep colors vibrant:
- Frantic because you have just reframed your work again and you still see pastel pigment on the matt... where you definitely don't want it?! Try using anti-static eyeglass cleaner on the inside of the glass.
- Be organized. Baby wipes or a damp paper towel kept in a small plastic bag attached by a push pin to the side of your easel makes keeping your pastels a snap. You can easily reach in to clean your working hand or glove and the bag keeps the wipes from drying out quickly. A spray of water will refresh the moisture if needed and you can take this along on your paint outs as well. (Donna Aldridge, PSA)
- Keep pastels clean while working to avoid unwanted smears of other colors. Place a clean paper towel near your easel to drag a pastel across to clean the tip. Try to clean the stick 'automatically' before putting it back, that way you won't get a nasty surprise. (Donna Aldridge, PSA)
- To keep dark colors clean some artists work from the top down and slant their easels forward. If you need to work all over the surface, (sometimes even working from top to bottom), light particles of dust attach themselves to the dark areas which are situated below. Always do a final cleaning to keep the colors brilliant. Go over every dark area with the same colors and wipe the light dust off the pastel stick before reapplying to the area, vice versa for the light areas.
- Working from the top of the paper down, having the paper on an easel rather than flat will allow excess pigment to drop down and out of the way.
- To catch excess dust, always stand on a carpet piece that can be vacuumed or washed and, eventually, thrown out.
- An old mail tube cut down the middle or a wallpaper tray can be attached to the bottom of your easel, making an excellent dust catcher. It can also be a stand for your pastel board. Make sure the opening is wide enough to catch the pastel dust...then just empty.
- Keeping clean in the studio. To make clean up easier, place a damp cloth on the ledge of the easel to capture the falling particles. You can protect your easel by making a wider ledge of foam core board wrap with aluminum foil or plastic wrap and securing it to the easel ledge. Place folded layers of paper towel to fit. Keep a spray bottle of water handy to keep the toweling moist. Gather up the towel when you are through. To keep your painting board off the damp toweling, make 'feet' with several pushpins across the bottom of the board. (Donna Aldridge, PSA)
- "Hold it" is excellent for using as a pick up for pastel particles in unwanted places (i.e. on your nice clean mats). Put a little on the end of a pencil or a straw to use for blending instead of a stump. "Hold It", is much more workable and flexible, I have found, than a kneaded eraser. (Ursula Reese)
- When travelling by car, keep a margarine tub filled with small bits of pastel in cornmeal. You can do quick sketches along the way when the moment hits. The cornmeal keeps the pastels clean and safe. (Ann Kelly Walsh)
- As an alternative to cornmeal in the tip above, try using rice. Rice cleans pastels beautifully and keeps them safe when travelling. Reuse clean meat trays to keep basic colors in use separate when working. (Normand Brail)
- The best material to photograph your finished work against is black velveteen. It doesn't show wrinkles and marks can be covered with black magic marker.
- Scumbling or spreading the pigment: The most frequently used tool to do this is the Stump; however, it can take more pigment off than it pushes in. Use a pointed object (it can be a pencil or the tip of a brush handle) wrap a little kneaded eraser around it (actually 'Hold-It' it works better), shape it to a point and work one color at a time. When you want to change color, just knead it to a new clean point.
- Try using super-fine, grade 0000 steel wool pads when glass cleaning before framing a pastel. A PAO member tried this tip and it worked beautifully! The glass came out sparkling with very little effort - only the fingerprints needed to be removed with a light glass cleaner. This method works especially well on the icky, filmy residue often found on your glass!
- Tired of dry skin, breaking nails or sweaty hands in gloves? A member found "Artguard Barrier Cream by Winsor & Newton". It's perfect! Just put it on before you touch a pastel stick.
- Value painting is very important for pastel painters because pastels can easily get muddy and gray. If you have trouble understanding values, simply Xerox your painting, or scan/photograph your work in black and white. The result will show if you have lost your dark colors (and your punch). It will also indicate if you have distributed your dark and light colors properly to make an interesting painting.
- Coming from watercolor: In watercolor you work from light to dark, but in pastel, you are building from dark to light. If you have trouble reversing your thinking, try applying your light color area first and 'save' empty spaces for your dark colors. However, you must make all your decisions from the start because once you have applied light colors, you cannot go over it with a darker value without risking the clarity of your colors.