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Frequently Asked Questions
What is pastel?
Pastel is pure pigment, the same pigment used in all art media. When properly framed, it is the most permanent of all when applied to archival ground. Pastel has no liquid binder that may cause the surface to darken, fade, yellow, crack or blister with time. No other medium has the power of colour or stability of pastel. It does not oxidize with the passage of time.
A particle of pastel pigment seen under a microscope looks like a diamond with many facets; therefore, pastel paintings reflect light like a prism. Pastel does not refer to pale colours, as the work is commonly used in cosmetic and fashion terminology. The name “pastel” comes fro the French word “pastiche” because the pure powdered pigment is ground into a paste with a binder and then rolled into sticks.
An artwork is created by striking the sticks of dry pigment across an abrasive ground, embedding the colour in the “tooth” of the paper, sanded board, canvas, etc. If the ground is completely covered with pastel, the work is considered a 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 favoured by many artists because it allows a spontaneous approach. There is no drying time, and no allowances have to be made for a colour change due to drying.
The presence of pastel has been identified in works of art from about 1500 AD. The practice of drawing became enormously popular in the 15th century. Leonardo, the most prominent proponent of this art form. is credited with the first known use of pastel in his portrait of Isabella D’Este (1499), a preparatory drawing in black and red chalk with traces of yellow pastel in the sitter’s hair and necklace. A century later it was recoded that Leonardo practiced “a pastello”.
Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera (1664-1754) transformed pastel painting into an autonomous independent art form. She created compelling portraits of the aristocracy, whose penchant for powdered accouterments and make-up suited the dry friable nature of the medium.
Degas was the most prolific user of pastel, and its champion, for he raised it to the full brilliance of oil. His protégé, Mary Cassatt, introduced the Impressionists and pastel to her wealthy friends in Philadelphia and Washington, and thus to the United States. Today, many of our most renowned living artists have distinguished themselves in pastels, and have enriched the world with this glorious medium.
Today, pastel paintings enjoy the stature of oil and watercolour as a major art medium. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent acquisition of “Gustavus Ham, Hon. Viscount Boyne in Masquerade Costume” (1710-1746), a stunning portrait by Rosalba Carriera, hangs amidst the splendor of period furniture and decorative artist. One of Degas’ most fascinating pastels, “Au Musée Du Louvre (Miss Cassatt),” was sold at Sotheby’s for $16.5 million.
Note: Pastel has sometimes been referred to as a chalk. In fact, the use of chalk predated the use of pastel as a medium. The range of colours (from soft and subtle to strong and brilliant) and the smoothness of application of manufactured pastels are vastly different fro the dyes and binders characteristic of fabricated synthetic chalks.
-Pastel Society of America