Pastel FAQs 

Unison, Sennelier and Terry Ludwig pastels on LaCarte paper

1. What is pastel? Pastel is a dry drawing medium, created by mixing pure powdered pigments with a minimal amount of binder and water, rolling it into a stick form, and allowing it to dry. The pigments used are the same pigments used to create all painting media, but the pastel form allows the pigments to appear closest to their original color. There is an enormous variety of pastel available on the market today, ranging from inexpensive, student-grade, chalk-like pastels to handmade, buttery, pigment-rich---and expensive---professional lines.

2. Is pastel chalk? No. It is similar only in that it is in the form of a dry stick. Chalk is composed of calcium carbonate mixed with silt and clay. It is white or generally light in color and much harder than pastel. Some chalk may, however, be used together with pigment to create paler tints of pastel.

3. Doesn't "pastel" mean light colors? The term pastel in reference to light colors is derived from the mixing of chalk with pigment. However, this does a terrible injustice to the pastel medium, which produces the purest and most intense colors---including rich, velvety darks---of all mediums, due to the lack of binders in manufacture.

4. What is the difference between pastel and oil pastel? Oil pastel is also a stick-format drawing medium, but in contrast to pastel, it combines pigment with non-drying oil and wax binder. It is more difficult to blend,  lending itself to some artistic styles more than others, and is not readily available in the wide spectrum that traditional pastels are. Perhaps for these reasons, oil pastels are not as widely used as traditional pastels.

The traditional pastel medium was first mentioned by Leonardo da Vinci in 1495, and the French term "pastel" appeared in 1662. Masterpieces in pastel exist from as far back as the early 1700s. Oil pastel, by contrast, is a much newer medium. It was first conceived by the Sakura company in 1921 as a drawing tool for school children. The first professional oil pastels, much softer and more pigmented than the first oil pastels, were created by Sennelier in 1949 at the request of Pablo Picasso.

There is an ongoing debate as to whether oil pastel should be called pastel, as the mediums are actually  quite different, making the terminology confusing.

5. What is the difference between "soft pastels," "hard pastels," and "dry pastels"? All of these terms refer to the same basic medium. "Soft pastel" and "dry pastel" are terms often used to describe the pastel medium as a whole, often to combat the confusion arising between traditional and oil pastels. Within the medium itself, there is often a distinction made between "soft," or buttery, nearly binder-free pastels, and "hard" pastels which contain a higher ratio of binder to pigment. These are frequently used for creating first layers and sharp lines when drawing.

6. What is the difference between a pastel drawing and a pastel painting? These terms are used by pastellists to differentiate between a work in pastel that consists mostly of line work or does not fill the entire paper, like a vignette (a drawing), and a work which fills the entire support, leaving little or no paper visible (a painting).

7. Is pastel permanent? Yes. As mentioned above, pastel paintings have survived intact for hundreds of years, with colors still vivid. In fact, pastel can potentially be the most permanent of mediums, since the lack of binders adds nothing to degrade the work. However, the permanence of any artwork is largely dependent on its substrate, framing and care. Pastels created on and framed with archival (acid-free) materials will last the longest.

8a. Does pastel have to be framed behind glass? Yes. Paradoxically, as a dry medium, a pastel is like a painting that is permanently wet. It can be smudged or damaged by water. Plus, works in pastel are almost always created on paper, which is delicate and susceptible to humidity, etc. Even in the most protected area, a pastel not conserved with glass will accumulate dust, and there is no way that I know to selectively clean dust off of other dust.

8b. Even if you use fixative? Given the many layers of medium typically employed in pastel painting, fixative only provides the slightest adhesion, and in the process, dampens the vivid colors. Many pastelists, myself included, don't use fixative for these reasons. However, there are many types of glass available today which virtually disappear under most conditions, minimizing the distraction of glare. These types of glass are known as anti-reflective (AR) and museum glass, and while they are significantly more expensive than regular glass, they are generally well worth the cost.

9. What do you mean by "sanded paper"? I use this term to describe the texture of the paper I use. Although softer, it is much like sandpaper in feel. However, the paper I use is archival, professional art paper created specifically for work in pastel. I use the term "sanded paper" to differentiate between this and the non-p.h.-neutral variety of paper sold in hardware stores. Sanded paper was created to allow pastellists to use more layers of pastel in a piece. It does this by providing more "tooth," or roughness, to the surface of the paper, taking the place of fixative by helping adhere the pastel.

10. Is pastel hazardous to the artist? Pastel is pigment and many pigments are by nature hazardous, although many of the most dangerous pigments are being replaced today by safer synthetics. That said, none of the pigment molecules are small enough to be absorbed through the skin. The biggest hazard to pastel painters is from airborne dust. Many pastellists employ a mask and/or an air filtration system to deal with this issue.

11. Why am I seeing more pastel artists now than ever? There has been a huge rise in pastel's popularity among American artists in the last few decades. Between the establishment of the Pastel Society of America in 1972, many regional pastel societies after that, and the subsequent introduction of countless new pastel products and lines, there are more resources available to pastellists than ever before. Plus, the dry nature of the medium allows the artist to leave and return to a painting at any time---a good fit with hectic modern life.