What is Pastel?
Pastel is pure pigment, the same pigment used in all art media. No other medium has its power of color or stability. It is the most permanent of all media, when applied to conservation ground and properly framed, because it has no liquid binder that may cause the surface to darken, yellow, or crack with time. Pastels from the 16th century exist today, as fresh as the day they were painted.
Pastel does not refer to pale colors, as the word is commonly used in cosmetic and fashion terminology. The name “pastel” comes from the French word “pastiche”. Pure, powdered pigment is ground into a paste with a binder, and then rolled into sticks. A particle of pastel pigment seen under a microscope looks like a crystal with many facets; therefore, a pastel painting reflects light like a prism. The infinite variety of colors in the pastel palette ranges from soft and subtle to strong and brilliant. Pastel should not be confused with colored chalk, which is a limestone substance impregnated with dyes.
An artwork is created by striking the sticks of dry pigment across an abrasive ground, embedding the color in the “tooth” of the paper, sand board, canvas, etc. If the ground is completely covered with pastel, the work is considered a pastel painting. Leaving much of the ground exposed produces a pastel sketch. Pastel can be blended, or used with visible strokes. Techniques vary among artists.
Historically, pastel can be traced back to the 16th century. Thereafter, a galaxy of famous artists such as Delacroix, Millet, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, Bonnard, Whistler, William Merrit Chase, and Mary Cassatt used pastel for finished work, rather than for preliminary sketches. Edgar Degas was the most prolific user of pastel as well as its champion. Today, pastel paintings enjoy the stature of oil and watercolor as a major fine art medium.