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Pastels Oil & Chalk

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18 X 14 “Emier” 1998
Dry Pastel
Maurice Garson

In reflection of past comments made concerning archive quality art, rest assured that when applied to the proper ground that pastels are a lasting and beautiful fine art medium.

When the dry pigment is stroked across an abrasive ground, embedding the color into the “tooth” of the ground, the pigment particles  that reflect under the light.

Most  “soft” or “French” pastel sticks are dry and can be used directly to a paper surface where it is sketched, blended or removed similar to graphite pencils.

Often a fixative is used to stabilize layers or as a top coat to reduce smudging but it is not always required. Whether acrylic fixative is used or not, it is recommended that they always be matted and then framed under glass as soon as possible.Pastels are often confused with chalk.  Pigments used in making pastels are the same pigments that are ground for use in making oil and watercolor paints. They are pure powdered pigment in an infinite variety of colors, ground into a paste with a small amount of a gum or methyl cellulose binder then rolled into sticks.

Pastel has been traced back to the 16th century. Its invention is attributed to  German painter, Johann Thiele. Most Renaissance Artists used pastel crayons to color their sketches or create studies for big canvases. However, the first to be acknowledged for painting with pastels is Venetian Artist Rosalba Giovanna Carriera,1665-1757. Best known for her work in pastels, she began painting large pastel portraits, and her reputation granted her admittance to the Academy of St. Luke at Rome in 1705. After being accepted to the  Royal Academy in Paris she is better known in Europe for painting royal portraits.

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Portrait of a Woman
Wearing a Laurel Wreath
1665-1757          Pastel
Rosalba Giovanna Carriera

Oil Pastels consist of pigment mixed with a non-drying mineral or linseed oil and wax binder. It has similar characteristics to pastels but oil pastel paint is less powdery and when dry needs no fixative. Unlike “dry” soft pigmented pastels oil pastels require a special ground if your intent is to paint on any form of paper since the oil will penetrate your support and eventually cause paper decomposition. A safe preparation would use a pH neutral PVA (poly vinyl acetate glue) such as Gamblin PVA Sizing diluted with distilled water. This is an important step especially if any solvent blending techniques are used.

Although you can purchase some great ready to use pastel papers and panels you can also prep your own as previously described in Cotton paper  and  Wood & Masonite creating texture to work on a sanded surface . The main consideration is protecting your surface from oils or acid migration and exposure from the elements once your project is completed as described by the Library of Congress Guide to Preservation Matting and Framing.

Safety (exposure to pigments) & cleanliness are important issues for the serious pastel artist. Although manufactures have struggled in awareness to produce colors and strong pigments that will not fade with materials that are not toxic, you should familiarize yourself about the hazards and Personal Safety Percautions  you should associate with this medium.

In respect of cleanliness, managing your work area is similar to working with graphite except you must avoid allowing absorption of pigments in your skin and breathing the dust you create with your work.  Some people enjoy the use of their fingers to smudge and blend. This is an unhealthy habit without gloves. Avoid the habit and touching of the paper with your bare hands. Everyone’s hands will release oils as they perspire which in turn will pick up the small particles of dust as well as transfer the oil from your hands to the paper.

The most enjoyable part of pastel painting is that there are literally hundreds of techniques used for this medium. Let me review a few.

  • First you have the option to quickly establish your overall tonal values with a choice of colored  pastel papers and panels. This cuts down a considerable amount of time even if you are planning to cover your entire canvas. This can also be achieved starting with an under-painting of acrylic, gouache, watercolor or oil. This should only be a done as a light wash since any paint build up or smooth texture will reduce the surface “tooth” causing pastel adhesion problems later.

  • You can also blend during any layer washing or dry brushing over the pastel with a brush loaded with denatured or isopropyl alcohol with dry pastel (some use water) or odorless turpentine with oil pastel depending on the desired effect. Many artists use this method as an under painting to create a variable color tone, where the detailed drawing with an opaque pastel will cover most of it, leaving the “wash” underneath to assure total coverage and to establish the tonal outline of the composition. You can also use acrylic paint washes for this or to create a wax resist method.

  • You can obtain different values from hard or soft pressure using the tip of the stick for linear strokes or the side of the stick to cover large areas. You can draw making different textures such stippling with dots and/ or dashes, layering, rubbing out, crosshatched strokes or building up layer on top of layer of color.

  • Blending Stumps or  Tortillons are generally used (rolled paper stumps) to rub or blend colors or edges. Other items are used such as tissue and sponge to get similar results.

  • For softer blending details. you can you apply layers of the blended pastel dust with Q-Tips, cotton balls or tissue. (great for portraits)

  • Faber Castel and Stabilo CarbOthello  Pastel Pencils are great to finish the fine detail where a fine line is desired . You can also drag a Striper brush dipped in water, denatured alcohol, or odorless turpentine over the pigment for a clean fine line.

  • Workable Fixatives are often used binding pigment between layers. Final Fixatives are used to seal the painting from harm. Expect a change in brilliance after using these finishes especially with lighter tones. NOTE: do not use acrylic fixatives or finishes over “OIL” pastels.


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