Working with pastels is so enjoyable in part because of their immediate vivid color spectrum and luminosity of light as well as their range of use and technique. Pastel is the ultimate in color – pure pigment, the same pigment used in other fine art paints but ground into a paste with a small amount of binder mixed in and then rolled into round or square sticks to be used by hand, blended with fingers, stumps, or left with visible strokes and lines. They are not colored chalk so don’t confuse the two. Pastel paintings will hold their pure color and brilliance longer than oil paintings. Pastels are archival and, if kept out of direct sunlight and properly framed, they will enchant the viewer for centuries to come without cracking, darkening or yellowing. There are pastel paintings in the national galleries that were created centuries ago and their colors are just as bright and vivid today as the day they were painted.
Edgar Degas is probably the most famous pastel artist we know of today. Other pastel artists you may be familiar with are Mary Cassat, Edouard Manet, James McNeill Whistler and Odilon Redon.
Pastel is the medium closest to pure color and is very versatile. You can use them dry, or with a wet wash of water or turpentine put on over them for more of a watercolor look. Pastels can be used on top of a watercolor or pastel wash and can also be steamed and sealed on a canvas similar to an oil painting. I normally create my pastel paintings on pastel paper, sanded paper or pastel boards. The sanded paper and pastel boards allow me, if desired, to apply washes beneath the pastel (for “underpaintings”) while pastel paper requires a dry application. More interesting information on pastel paintings can be found here.
Because of the time and amount of detail involved, most of my pastel paintings are done in the studio. They normally begin with a drawing done on a sketch pad. Once I have the compositional drawing complete I then transfer it onto the painting surface. Sometimes I draw the image directly onto a pastel board or sanded paper with a pastel stick and then brush water over the drawing both to set it and also to give it a more painterly loose feeling. The rest of the painting is done by applying pastel directly to the surface in layers, building up the depth of color until the fine details are added as the final step. I use hard pastels, medium to very soft buttery pastels and also pastel pencils.