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The Lazy Man's Art?

Portrait of Les

Portrait of Les
(In pastel, of course.)

If the aristocrats of artists are portrait painters, then the landed gentry are the pastelists. And like the true genteel gentry, the pastel artists had their beginnings in the early 18th century. This was the era in which artists began to buy their supplies - brushes, paints, and such stuff - rather than make them in their workshop.

Pastels, though, should not be confused with chalk drawings. Chalk originally was a generic term for natural minerals that are soft enough to leave marks when dragged across a surface but have enough cohension so they can be sawn into sticks for easy use. Red chalks - mostly different types of iron colored minerals - were particularly popular in the Renaissance for making preliminary drawings. Michelangelo also drew in black chalk which tended to have better adhesion to the paper than charcoal.

Pastels, though, are manufactured products. They are simply the powdered pigments rolled together as sticks and held together with a binder. But the binder is such a small percentage of the stick that what you have is for all practical purposes undiluted pigment. Need a color? Just grab the right stick. Simple, no?

Well, no. Because the stick is essentially pure pigment, it takes practice to control how much gets onto the surface. And the beginner soon finds that attempts to use his knowledge of color theory to produce new colors often ends up producing a drawing that looks like it was drawn with mud. So it's not a surprise that pastels got off to a bit of a slow start.

The first great pastelist was a lady, Rosalba Carriera. Rosalba was born in Venice on January 12, 1673 - exactly 279 years before a particularly interesting date - and worked in other European localities. Rosalba became known in Venice for her miniature oil portraits on ivory for decorations on snuff boxes. Evidently she was the first artist to use ivory for minatures, and she was given a special membership in the Academy of St. Luke which was an early artists organization based in Rome.

Soon Rosalba switched to using pastels for larger more traditional size drawings (although true pastelists prefer the term pastel "painting" rather than [ptui] "drawing). She spent time in Paris and Venice where she received commissions from the nobility and even kings and queens. One of her most famous pastel portraits was of the young Louis XV when he was a kid. It was Louis's son, Louis XVI, who married Marie Antoinette.

Singing Giraffes


Giraffes drawn with pastel pencils.

Background was filled in with a ridiculously expensive and extremely soft stick.

Rosalba lived in what was the late baroque period - termed rococo by the cognoscenti. Rococo art was characterized by pictures with flamboyant curves, complicated figures and backgrounds, and people decked out in fancy costumes. The colors of the paintings tended to be of light tones, and so pastels fit well into the era.

Portraits in Rosalba's time often look just a bit off to modern eyes. This is largely a matter of the proportions being not quite right. The eyes are often a bit large, the mouth a little small, and the position of the features a little displaced from where they should be. So portraits before the middle 18th century often lack the realism of those of later portrait masters like Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent, and Thomas Eakins. (For some elaboration on what makes portraits look like portraits, you can open a brief essay on the subject - in another window - if you click here.)

Before Rosalba's time, pastels were used mostly for preliminary drawings for oil paintings. Not having to mix up oils and colors but just grab a stick was a practice well suited for skilled artists to work out what they wanted for a painting. You could also work directly on untreated paper - drawing techniques like silver point required coated paper. But Rosalba showed everyone that pastel was a medium in its own right and one advantage - then as now - is that pastel art tends to be cheaper than oil. A disadvantage is it isn't suited for monumental art although some pastels can be pretty big.

In the second half of the 17th century, pastels maintained their popularity. Jean-Baptiste Chardin was one of the best pastel artists of the 18th century. But his greatest fame was as a genre and still life painter in oil.

Maurice Quentin de La Tour was a particularly popular pastel artist and worked mostly in that medium. By his time the study of anatomy was also producing a more realistic look to the art and Maurice's style produced an oil-painterly look.

Alas, in the early 19th century oil paints were more in vogue - they were now becoming available in tubes - but some artists still worked in pastels. Jean-Francois Millet is famous for his painting of the ladies picking up wheat stems, but he also used pastels. Experts who've looked at his paintings think he also used mixed media - pastel and paints - for some of his art.



Pastels weren't the medium of choice of the late 19th century, but Mary Cassatt, the sole American impressionist, did a fair amount of work in the medium and in her later years she worked more in pastels than in oil. She also created mixed media art, which involved pastels and paints.

That pastels weren't (and aren't) as widespread as paints mostly boils down to two reasons. First, with paints, you can work with relatively few colors since you can mix new ones on a palette. And although you can blend pastels on the paper (still the primary surface used), most of the time you just pick the stick of the color you need. So most expert pastelists have hundreds of separate colors. By the time you get a good collection - the colors plus duplicates - you can have a thousand sticks or more. Toting them around ain't easy.

Another practical problem is simply finding replacements sticks. Go to any art or craft store and you can generally find individual tubes of high quality paints, be they oil, watercolor, or acrylic. But pastels are something else again and many art stores simply have them in limited colors as kits. So if you need one color you sometimes end up buying a pack of 15 other colors you didn't need. True, with today's on-line buying you can purchase individual sticks, but paying $1 for the stick and then $15 for shipping is a scandal and disgrace to the service.

So the pastel fanatics sometimes turn to buying the pigments, blending their colors, and making their own sticks. In principle a simple process - mix the pigment with a binder and let it dry. Today the binder most touted a solution of gum tragacanth, but gum arabic is a close second. However, a variety of alternatives - generally considered inferior - are things like egg-white, various pastes or glues, and even condensed milk. You make a small pile of pigment, and gradually add the binder solution until you get a mud like consistency. Then you roll the mud into a stick and let it dry. Simple in principle, but in practice getting the right consistency can be a challenge.

Which is probably why John Singleton Copley, the most famous American artist to work in pastel, ordered most of his pastel sticks from England. Of course, when the American Revolution came along and John and his wife moved to England, getting art supplies was a lot easier. But almost all of his pastel art works were made when he lived in America and by 1775, he had abandoned using pastels.


(Pastel on Cold Press Watercolor Paper)

Fifty-five of John's pastel portraits survive but he may have painted more. Pastels, being on paper, can deteriorate easier than oil paintings, and they also can easily be smudged. For some reason in the 18th century pastel artists thought pastels were more durable than oil paintings. At first glance this seems strange given that one of the points of using pastels is that they blend so easily. How could they have thought that?

Well, one possibility is that when they were blending pastels, the first pastel artists did so with vigor. This would have pushed the colors more deeply into the fibers of the paper than is now customary. This would certainly produce a nice smooth texture and the final pictures wouldn't smudge too much. However, too much pigment in the paper also makes it difficult to add more pastel. Eventually someone finally realized that pigment powders on paper were more fragile than a well-dried oil painting.

One modern approach to preserve the pastel is to mount the drawing behind special static resistant glass. This prevents the particles from jumping from the paper to the glass. If you don't want to display the drawing right away, there are also various ways to store the drawings to prevent smudging. Most of the methods are based on making containers or boxes that keep the paper from sliding around.

Of course, you can always use fixative. Often just a little puff is enough to give sufficient stability so the picture can be handled. But like all vanishes - which is what a fixative is - it changes the colors of the image. On a pastel drawing, fixative will darken the image, not just with time but right away. So true connoisseurs avoid fixative altogether. The artist and illustrator of uses fixative.

African Male Lions

African Lion

A pastel (ptui) illustration.

Sort of like you'd see on the old Wild Kingdom episodes. ("Jim, the members of the pride can count on the male lions to protect the lionesses and their cubs, just like we can count on protection from Mutual of Omaha.")

One the other hand, one famous artist who used fixative with élan was Edgar Degas. He would lay down some some colors and let the fixative dry. Then he would add more color on top of the first layer. You can get a nice impressionist effect this way as the colors are actually kept separate and only blend together by the eye.

You'll read that Edgar's fixative formula was a secret, but the consensus is it was a solution of casein - a milk protein. Exactly how Edgar applied the fixative isn't clear. His technique may have been simply to dip his pastel stick into the fixative and then draw. When the solvent evaporated the pigments would have been fixed to the paper. He might also have been able to apply it with a soft brush. And of course he may have used an aspirator and sprayed the liquid onto the paper. In Edgar's time there were no aerosol cans but he could have used either a blow aspirator or (less likely) an aspirator with a rubber bulb like what ladies used to spray on their perfumes.

Today art schools require (or should require) that fixative be sprayed in a special fume hood -sometimes room-sized - which keeps the fumes away from the student. Or sometimes you just take the drawing outside and spray it there.

There is no "best" paper although most pastel artists have their favorites. Certainly 100 % cotton "acid free" content is recommended for all artworks on paper. Such paper can last hundreds of years. Toned paper is also popular with pastelists as the background color is supplied by the paper itself.

Today a particularly popular paper for pastels is "sanded" paper. This is paper that has a coating of fine sand held in place by an adhesive. The advantage of a sanded surface is that it really holds onto the pastel particles and you can layer one color over another without significant smudging. The drawback is if you do want to blend you should use a paper stump since if you use your fingers, you'll end up sanding your skin.

Impressionistic Cowgirl

Impressionistic Cowgirl on Sanded Paper

On this less than satisfactory rendering (from an artistic standpoint) the sanded paper allows for the layering of the colors without smudging.

Another drawback is the sanded paper tends to be expensive. The aspiring artist can be a bit dismayed to read how a vendor boasts his 9 X 12 paper starts at "only" $4 a sheet. True, less expensive varieties are available, and the artist may be tempted just to go their local hardware store for fine sand or emery paper. This, though, isn't really a good alternative since the paper itself is not of high quality and will deteriorate quickly.

The obvious way out is make your own sanded paper, which isn't really that hard although you might have to prevent wrinkling by stretching the paper as do some watercolorists. Of course, the sand has to be fine with a narrow particle size distribution. But such sands can be be purchased from art or craft suppliers and a little goes a long way.

Perhaps the biggest drawback is that sanded paper really gobbles up the pastels. On a large work you can end up going through several sticks of a single color. The suspicious might wonder if the big push for sanded paper might be from the pastel stick manufactures themselves, although - heaven forfend! - the author and illustrator - like the Marquis of Queensbury - makes no such charge.


References and Further Reading

"Rosalba Carriera: 1675-1757", National Museum of Women in Art.

"Rosalba Carriera", Encyclopedia Britannica.

"The Eighteenth-Century Pastel Portrait", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitian Museum of Art.

"Painting in Crayon: The Pastels of John Singleton Copley", Marjorie Shelly, John Singleton Copley in America, Carrie Rebora and Paul Staiti, Erica Hirshler, Theodore Stebbins Jr., and Carol Troyen with contributions by Morrison Heckscher, Aileen Ribeiro, and Marjorie Shelly, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995

"A Technical Investigation of Odilon Redon's Pastels and Noirs", Harriet Stratis, Book and Paper Specialty Group Session, American Institute for Conservation of Historical and Artistic Works, 23th Annual Meeting, June 1 - 4, 1995, St. Paul, Minnesota.

"Historical Foundations of Pastel",