What’s in those colourful pastels?
A pastel stick consists of powdered pigment ground into water. This formula is held together by a gum binder and pressed into sticks. Because of their powdery nature, pastels need to be applied to a rough surface that will hold the pigment, such as special types of drawing paper. When applied to a shiny surface the pigment will basically slide off. Soft pastels are the most widely used as they have a higher proportion of pigment, as opposed to hard pastel sticks that contain more binder and less pigment.
One of the other benefits of using pastels is they’re much quicker to apply than paint, making them highly suitable for capturing fleeting light in landscapes. If you’re doing a portrait, the sitter will also appreciate the fact they don’t have to pose for an extended length of time!
Pastels in history
The use of pastels is not a modern trend. While we tend to think of paint as the historic medium of choice, many of our greatest artists also used pastels to striking effect including Leonardo, Renoir, Degas and Whistler. Degas used pastels to create his celebrated Ballerina series while Leonardo was one of the first artists to mention the use of pastels in his work, including his commissioned portrait of the Duchess of Mantina in the late 15th century.
Selecting perfect pastels
When it’s time for you to create your own pastel masterpiece, the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ comes into play. A cheaper set of pastels will save you money but you will lose out on colour – the more you pay, the greater the concentration of pigment, and colour, you get. As colour is a pastel’s outstanding feature, it’s worth paying a little more. Ask your art supplier for a set that has an equal representation of light, mids and dark colours. This will allow you to undertake a broad range of work: once you develop your style or settle on a preferred topic, you can choose individual colours to suit.
Handy hints for using pastels
Pastels may be beautiful but they are dusty – remember, you’re working with powdered pigment. Don’t blow away excess dust as chances are you’ll end up inhaling a good deal of it! Take your work outside and gently tap off the dust. To keep your pastels in top condition, store them in rice. Seriously! And when you’re choosing a surface, always tell your art supplier you’re working with pastels. They’ll help you find the papers and surfaces that will best hold the pigment for many years to come.