Commercial pastels

Pastel is an art medium in the form of a stick, consisting of pure powdered pigment and a binder. The pigments used in pastels are the same as those used to produce all colored art media, including oil paints; the binder is of a neutral hue and low saturation.

The color effect of pastels is closer to the natural dry pigments than that of any other process.[1]

The noun "pastel" gives rise to:

  • another noun, for an artwork whose medium is pastels
  • a verb, meaning to produce an artwork with pastels
  • an adjective, meaning pale in color


Pastel media

Pastel sticks or crayons consist of pure powdered pigment combined with a binder. The exact composition and characteristics of an individual pastel stick depends on the type of pastel and the type and amount of binder used. It also varies by individual manufacturer.

Dry pastels have historically used binders such as gum arabic and gum tragacanth. Methyl cellulose was introduced as a binder in the twentieth century. Often a chalk or gypsum component is present. They are available in varying degrees of hardness, the softer varieties being wrapped in paper.

Dry pastel media can be subdivided as follows:

  • Soft pastels: This is the most widely used form of pastel. The sticks have a higher portion of pigment and less binder, resulting in brighter colors. The drawing can be readily smudged and blended, but it results in a higher proportion of dust. Finished drawings made with soft pastels require protecting, either framing under glass or spraying with a fixative to prevent smudging.
  • Hard pastels: These have a higher portion of binder and less pigment, producing a sharp drawing material that is useful for fine details. These can be used with other pastels for drawing outlines and adding accents. However the colors are less brilliant than with soft pastels.
  • Pastel pencils: These are pencils with a pastel lead. They are useful for adding fine details.

In addition, pastels using a different approach to manufacture have been developed:

  • Oil pastels: These have a soft, buttery consistency and intense colors. They are slightly more difficult to blend than soft pastels, but do not require a fixative.
  • Water-soluble pastels: These are similar to soft pastels, but contain a water-soluble component, such as glycol. This allows the colors to be thinned out using a water wash.

There has been some debate within art societies as to what exactly counts as a pastel. The Pastel Society within the UK (the oldest pastel society) states the following are acceptable media for its exhibitions: "Pastels, including Oil pastel, Charcoal, Pencil, Conté, Sanguine, or any dry media". The emphasis appears to be on "dry media" but the debate continues.


In order to create hard and soft pastels, pigments are ground into a paste with water and a gum binder and then rolled or pressed into sticks. The name "pastel" comes from ML pastellum (neut.) woad (orig. woad paste), for LL pastellus (masc.), dim. of pasta: paste. The French word pastel first appeared in 1662.

Most brands produce gradations of a color, the original pigment of which tends to be dark, from pure pigment to near-white by mixing in differing quantities of chalk. This mixing of pigments with chalks is the origin of the word "pastel" in reference to "pale color" as it is commonly used in cosmetic and fashion venues.

A pastel is made by letting the sticks move over an abrasive ground, leaving color on the grain of the paper, sandboard, canvas etc. When fully covered with pastel, the work is called a pastel painting; when not, a pastel sketch or drawing. Pastel paintings, being made with a medium that has the highest pigment concentration of all, reflect light without darkening refraction, allowing for very saturated colors.

Recently, soft pastels have been launched in a pan format so they can be used like paint.[citation needed]

Pastel supports

Pastel supports need to provide a "tooth" for the pastel to adhere and hold the pigment in place. Supports include:

  • laid paper (e.g. Ingres; Canson Mi Teintes)
  • abrasive supports (e.g. with a surface of finely ground pumice or marble dust)

Protection of pastel artworks

Scenery painter in Schlosspark Charlottenburg, Berlin

Pastels can be used to produce a permanent work of art if the artist meets appropriate archival considerations. This means:

  • Use only pastels with lightfast pigments. Pastels which have used pigments which change color or tone when exposed to light have suffered the same problems as can be seen in some oil paintings using the same pigment.
  • Works are done on an acid free archival quality support. Historically some works have been executed on supports which are now extremely fragile and the support rather than the pigment needs to be protected under glass and away from light
  • Works are properly mounted and framed under glass in a way which means that the glass does not touch the artwork. This avoids the deterioration which is associated with environmental hazards such as air quality, humidity, mildew problems associated with condensation and smudging.
  • Some artists protect their finished pieces by spraying them with a fixative. A pastel fixative is an aerosol varnish which can be used to help stabilize the small charcoal or pastel particles on a painting or drawing. It cannot prevent smearing entirely without dulling and darkening the bright and fresh colors of pastels. It is also toxic, therefore it requires careful use.

For these reasons, some pastelists avoid its use except in cases where the pastel has been overworked so much that the surface will no longer hold any more pastel. The fixative will restore the "tooth" and more pastel can be applied on top. It is the tooth of the painting surface that holds the pastels, not a fixative. Abrasive supports avoid or minimize the need to apply further fixative in this way.

Glassine (paper) is used by artists to protect artwork which is being stored or transported. Some good quality books of pastel papers also include glassine to separate pages.

Health and safety hazards

Pastels are a dry medium and produce a great deal of dust, which can cause respiratory irritation. More seriously, pastels use the same pigments as artists' paints, many of which are toxic. For example, exposure to cadmium pigments, which are common and popular bright yellows, oranges, and reds, can lead to cadmium poisoning. Pastel artists, who use the pigments without a strong painting binder, are especially susceptible to such poisoning.

Pastel art in art history

The pastel medium was first mentioned by Leonardo da Vinci in 1495.

Artists such as Maurice Quentin de La Tour and Rosalba Carriera have been using pastels to create masterpieces as far back as 1703.

During the 18th century the medium became fashionable for portrait painting, used in a mixed technique with gouache.

In the United States, initially pastels only had occasional use in portraiture. However in the late nineteenth century, pastel (like watercolor) became more popular.[2] The Society of Painters in Pastel was founded in 1885. The Pastellists, led by Leon Dabo, organized in New York in 1910.

Pastels have become popular in modern art because of the medium's broad range of bright colors.

Pastel artists

The 18th-century painters Maurice Quentin de La Tour (see above portrait) and Rosalba Carriera are especially well known for their pastel technique. Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin's 1699-1779 pastel portraiture and still life paintings are much admired.

The 19th-century French painter Edgar Degas was a most prolific user of pastel and its champion.

Mary Cassatt, introduced the Impressionists and pastel to her friends in Philadelphia and Washington, and helped popularize both in the USA.

By far the most graphic and, at the same time, most painterly wielding of pastel was Cassatt's in Europe, where she had worked closely in the medium with her mentor Edgar Degas and vigorously captured familial moments such as the one revealed in Mother Playing with Child (22.16.23).
(Metropolitan Museum of Art - Time Line of Art History / Nineteenth Century American Drawings)

Whistler produced a quantity of pastels around 1880, including a body of work relating to Venice, and this probably contributed to the growing enthusiasm for the medium. In particular, he demonstrated how few strokes were required to evoke a place or an atmosphere (example Note in Pink and Brown (17.97.5).

Modern notable artists who have worked extensively in pastels include Fernando Botero, Francesco Clemente, Daniel Greene, Wolf Kahn, and R. B. Kitaj.

See also


  1. ^ Mayer, Ralph. The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques. Viking Adult; 5th revised and updated edition, 1991. ISBN 0-670-83701-6
  2. ^ "Nineteenth-Century American Drawings". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 27 August 2010. 

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • pastel — 1. (pa stèl) s. m. 1°   Nom donné à des crayons composés de différentes couleurs broyées et réduites en pâte avec de l eau de gomme ; peindre en pastel, c est peindre avec ces couleurs, qu on mêle suivant les diverses teintes qu on veut faire.… …   Dictionnaire de la Langue Française d'Émile Littré

  • pastel — PASTÉL, pasteluri, s.n., adj. invar. 1. s.n. Creion colorat, moale, pentru desen, făcut din pigmenţi pulverizaţi, amestecaţi cu talc şi cu gumă arabică. ♦ Desen executat cu acest fel de creioane. 2. s.n. Poezie cu conţinut liric, în care se… …   Dicționar Român

  • pastel — sustantivo masculino 1. Pieza dulce y esponjosa, de masa de harina, huevo, mantequilla y otros ingredientes, cocida al horno y recubierta de chocolate u otro ingrediente dulce: un pastel de cumpleaños. Papá nos trajo una bandeja de pasteles. 2.… …   Diccionario Salamanca de la Lengua Española

  • pastel — (Del fr. ant. pastel). 1. adj. Dicho de un color: De tono suave. Una falda de muselina en tonos pastel. 2. m. Masa de harina y manteca, cocida al horno, en que ordinariamente se envuelve crema o dulce, y a veces carne, fruta o pescado. 3.… …   Diccionario de la lengua española

  • pastel — pastel, descubrir(se) el pastel expr. descubrir el secreto, el engaño, el timo. ❙ «El problema viene después, cuando tienes que descubrir el pastel.» Juanma Iturriaga, Con chandal y a lo loco. ❙ «El pastel se descubrió cuando la Cruz Roja… …   Diccionario del Argot "El Sohez"

  • Pastel — Pas tel, n. [F.; cf. It. pastello. Cf. {Pastil}.] 1. A crayon made of a paste composed of a color ground with gum water. [Sometimes incorrectly written {pastil}.] Charming heads in pastel. W. Black. [1913 Webster] 2. (Bot.) A plant affording a… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • pastel — s. m. 1. Tipo de lápis de cor. 2.  [Pintura] Técnica de pintura em que se usam esses lápis de cor. 3.  [Pintura] Desenho ou quadro feito com lápis de cores.   ‣ Etimologia: italiano pastello pastel s. m. 1.  [Culinária] Iguaria de massa de… …   Dicionário da Língua Portuguesa

  • pastel — (n.) 1660s, crayons, chalk like pigment used in crayons, from Fr. pastel crayon, from It. pastello a pastel, lit. material reduced to a paste, from L.L. pastellus dye from the leaves of the woad plant, dim. of pasta (see PASTA (Cf. pasta)).… …   Etymology dictionary

  • pastel — pastel, pastille A pastel is an artist s crayon or a light shade of a colour, whereas a pastille is a small sweet or lozenge …   Modern English usage

  • pastel — I {{/stl 13}}{{stl 8}}rz. mnż III, D. u; lm D. i || ów {{/stl 8}}{{stl 20}} {{/stl 20}}{{stl 12}}1. {{/stl 12}}{{stl 7}} rodzaj farby artystycznej w postaci miękkiej kredki, pałeczki, zrobionej z drobno zmielonego pyłu w określonym kolorze z… …   Langenscheidt Polski wyjaśnień

  • pastel — [pas tel′] n. [Fr < It pastello < VL * pastellum, dim. of LL pasta,PASTE] 1. a) ground coloring matter mixed with gum and formed into a crayon b) such a crayon 2. a picture drawn with such crayons 3. drawing with pastels as an art form or… …   English World dictionary

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