So, what are pastels anyway?

Yellow Series 14

Yellow Series 14

I paint with both watercolor and pastel and I get a lot of questions about pastels when I am exhibiting at the outdoor fine art shows in New England and Florida. Many people ask me if they are chalk or crayon, and I’ve even been asked if they are like charcoal; none of these are correct, so I thought I’d start my first blog post with a little bit of history and information about the pastel medium.

Pastel is an art medium in the form of a stick. It consists of pure powdered pigment and a binder – generally gum arabic or gum trabacanth. Pastels have no chalk component. The pigments (color) used in pastels are the same as those used to produce oil paints, acrylics and watercolor. However, as this medium has the highest pigment concentration of all painting media they allow for very intense saturated colors.

When properly protected behind glass, pastel is THE most permanent of all media, for it never cracks, darkens or yellows; on the contrary, a pastel painting will maintain its original brilliance and vibrancy.

Pastel is a dry medium and is available in varying degrees of hardness and softness; it is quite distinct from oil pastel, which is an entirely different medium.

I use both soft and hard pastel sticks. Soft pastels have a higher portion of pigment and less binder, resulting in brighter, purer and more vibrant colors. Hard pastels have a higher portion of binder and less pigment, producing a sharp drawing material that is useful for fine details, for drawing outlines and adding accents.

My favorite brands include Sennelier, Schminke, Mount Vision, and Nu-Pastel.

A pastel painting is created by moving the sticks over an abrasive ground, leaving color on the grain of the surface. A pastel support/ground needs to provide a “tooth” (often finely ground pumice or marble dust or vegetable fiber) to which the pastel will adhere, holding the pigment in place.

My preferred abrasive supports/grounds are Sennelier La Carte, which is a high quality, acid-free, heavyweight paper with a surface of slightly abrasive vegetable fiber; and Kitty Wallis paper, which is also a Museum Grade high quality, acid-free, paper using a 100% cotton base with a surface of white aluminum oxide abrasive.

Historically, 19th Century French painter Edgar Degas was a prolific user of pastel. Mary Cassatt first introduced pastel to the USA and became its strongest proponent of her era.

Pastels have undergone resurgence in recent years and are now popular in modern art due to the medium’s broad range of bright colors, durability and versatility.

If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me or comment on the post!


Jennifer Gardner, PSA