(updated November 2018)
What is Soft Pastel?
Pastel is one of the loveliest art materials out there. It is immediate, uncomplicated and can be incredibly soft and delicate as well as bold and expressive. I fell in love with pastel as a child and have never stopped using them. I learned to paint while using pastel. It taught me how to mix colours and how to draw.
Although I mainly work in oils nowadays I still love pastel and promise myself to do at least a few pastel paintings a year. That might not seem like a lot but I am a slow painter (in any medium) and a painting easily takes a few months to finish. Every time it is like coming home.
This Ain’t no Chalk!
Pastel is not coloured chalk even though many people call them that. Most pastels do not even contain any chalk at all. Pastel is pigment, made into a paste with some sort of filler (sometimes kaolin, a type of fine clay, or else gum arabic). Many manufacturers are actually a little bit secretive about what fillers they use. But the most important thing about pastel is that it is, basically, a rolled up stick of nearly pure pigment. The fillers are only added to hold the pigment together, making pastel one of the purest materials to use as an artist.
Because of the lack of additives (such as oil in oil paint) pastel paintings do not yellow or crack and can last a very long time indeed. Manufacterers can help improve the image of pastel by providing more information about the pigments and fillers used and the lightfastness of their colours. This way artists and collectors can make more informed decisions about its value and collectability.
Pastel paintings are like charcoal drawings in that they remain fragile to the touch forever. Pastel is like paint that never dries: when you touch it, the colour comes off. Because of this you have to store and frame pastels in specific ways, to make sure the painting does not smear or smudge. Unframed pastel paintings should be stored flat, with some sheets of glassine (or other smooth and shiny paper that won’t take up pastel particles) on top. Make sure the sheets of glassine are taped to the painting so it won’t move. If you want to frame a pastel painting you have to frame it behind glass and use a mount or mat to keep the painting away from the glass.
Pastel comes in many shapes, sizes and types.
Oil pastel is made from pigment and resin or wax to create a stick. I have found them fairly tricky to use and requiring lots of layering to get good effects. But there are no doubt others who swear by them. They feel a bit like kids crayons because of their waxiness.
Pastel pencils are soft pastels in a pencil. They are very useful, often a tad harder than pastel sticks so that they can be sharpened. Great for detail, hatching, drawing and keeping your hands clean. But they are also hard to sharpen (as the pastel is so fragile) and expensive to use (as a pencil will last a lot less long compared to a pastel stick).
Soft pastel, is the main product on this list. These are the round sticks that look so yummy in the art shop. The material Degas used for his expressive ballet paintings. The crumbling, dusty, dirty fingers making colour sticks that are very hard to resist indeed.
There are lots of pastel brands out there and although I have tried a few, I have not tried many. I keep on coming back to my favourite brand Talens Rembrandt which I started with as a kid. But there are many more.Most brands have around 400-500 colours in their range. Sennelier has 522, Schmincke 400, Unison nearly 400, and Rembrandt 218 colours.
Super Soft: The softest brands are Sennelier and Schmincke. I find Sennelier too soft to work with, but their colours are truly sumptious and creamy. The pastels are so fragile that it is easy to end up with a pile of crumbs instead of a stick.
Soft: Schmincke pastel is still beautifully soft but the stick stays together a little better. I like these pastels for their beautiful rich colours. The sticks make beautiful wide marks but it is hard to get detail in with them unless you layer carefully. Schmincke provides a helpful chart about the lightfastness of its pastels.
Medium: Unison is a pastel that sits in between the hard and soft. Because of that they are incredibly useful for more expressive marks as well as detail. Their colours are very earthy with stunning greys, greens and ochres.
Medium Hard: Talens Rembrandt is a harder soft pastel. It is therefore very suitable to paint or draw lines and details. The colour range is great and they can be layered endlessly with the right paper support. Talens is one of the few brands that clearly states it uses kaolin as a filler, while most other brands keep their recipes to themselves.
Short Video Comparing Pastel Types
Ancient colour makers like Talens and Schmincke know their pigments inside out and I believe we can rely on their expertise for the longevity of their products. A pastel painting from the 18th century still looks as fresh and colourful as if it was painted yesterday and can be considered proof the longevity of pastel in general. It should very much be put within the same rank as oil paint and no longer considered just a sketching tool or medium for amateurs (for example the BP Portrait Award still does not allow pastel into the competition). Why some people think that pastel paintings are worth less than oil paintings remains a mystery to me.
Although there are no official lightfastness codes for soft pastel, It is admirable that some brands such as Talens Rembrandt gives us some idea of the lightfastness of their colours through their +++ rating system. The system is based on tests in accordance with ASTM Standard D4303 (for 'colorants used in artists materials'). The vast majority of their line gets a 100+ years, while some a 25-100 years rating. They list the pigments used. Unison give no specific information about lightfastness but they are generally rated as superbly lightfast.
Rembrandt soft pastels do not contain any harmful pigments such as cadmium, lead or cobalt. They use alternative pigments instead. Unison does use toxic materials such as cadmiums and cobalts (which might be the reason many people love their amazing colours so much) but I cannot find the specific pigments used in each pastel.
Pastel is dusty and crumbly and it needs something to ‘grab’ or else it will fall of the painting. When you use a powdery medium like pastel or charcoal you will notice particles coming off. Because of that you might want to consider working on an easel or drawing board so that the dust can fall down and away from your painting. If you work flat, the dust will gather on top of your drawing, making stains. It would be tempting to blow at it but you would only fill the air with the dust and breathe it in. Most pastels are not toxic (Talens Rembrandt, for example, states they do not use metals, lead, or cadmiums) but breathing in lots of dust is never a good idea.
For a loose pigment to adhere to a painting support you need tooth. Tooth is a slight texture in the support which will hold the pastel and keep it in place. A smooth paper has no tooth at all. Sandpaper has a lot of tooth. The more tooth a paper has, the more pastel it will hold and the more you can either layer thin pastel or apply thick fat strokes. When the tooth is filled you will not be able to apply any more pastel to the picture and so, contrary to oil and acrylic paint, you cannot endlessly paint over things.
There are lots of pastel papers out there and you can invent even more yourself. Pastel paper is sold in many different colours, textures and qualities. Some examples of pastel paper with a little tooth and therefore most suitable for light drawings and sketches are the Hahnemuhle papers (Bugra, Durer), Ingres paper, and Canson Mi-Teintes. Pastel paper with a lot of tooth often feel a bit more like sandpaper. Popular ones are Sennelier La Carte, Art Spectrum Colourfix, and Ampersand Pastelbord. On these surfaces you can create full blown paintings and layer a lot of pastel. I work mainly on Colourfix paper as it comes in great colours and takes a lot of layering.
How to Apply
Most pastel brands have a huge range of colours, intended for people who work expressively and without layering. If you work like that you will need a lot of colours to choose from as you cannot mix pastel on a palette. For artist who work in layers and with details, like I do, you don’t need an awful lot of colours (but you still end up getting them as they are too hard to resist). Even though you cannot mix the perfect colour on your palette, you can mix on your painting by hatching and layering your strokes. You can adjust any colour by adding others and create subtle varieties in hue, value and chroma. With the right support (like Art Spectrum Colourfix) you can wet pastels and use them in multi-media work. They can be applied over acrylics, gouache or watercolour.
Of course a pastel stick can be used on its side, to create big broad strokes, or at the point of the stick, to create lines or hatching lines. Some people even sharpen the harder types of pastels in order to draw neat details.
I often get asked whether we should use fixative. Of course that is totally up to you. A fixative is not a varnish and will not protect a pastel painting from smudging or smearing. All it tries to do is ‘stick’ the pastel particles a little bit better to the support. But while it does do that, it also darkens and dramatically changes the colours of a painting. This causes the painting to look completely different than it did before a fixative was applied. I therefore do not use a fixative at all and with a good toothy paper my many layers of pastel will hold on perfectly fine. There are many artists that do not like fixative and there is truly no real need for it. But if you do want to use it, it is a good idea to apply it in between layers so that you can overpaint the darkened and changed image.
Great Pastel Artists
A few historic masters: Rosalba Carriera, Jean Etienne Liotard, Maurice Quentin de la Tour, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Toulouse Lautrec.
Henri Roche has been making pastels since the 18th century. Their website is worth a browse with interesting videos and history.
My blog post reviewing the Jean Etienne Liotard exhibition at the Royal Academy
Read about organising pastels