Friday, 6 June 2008

Getting started with pastel

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – May 2008.

Soft pastels (not to be confused with oil pastels) are powdered pigments formed into square or round sticks with a non-greasy binder. Pastel is an immediate and versatile medium. One of the joys of pastel is the brilliance of the colours and the way pastel catches the light, like in the luminous ballerinas in Degas’ pastel paintings.

Pastel can convey a large array of emotions and serves any subject or style, from realistic still life to colourful impressionist landscapes. Look at works by various artists and you will see pastels built with watercolour-like glazes on one hand and rich painterly effects borrowed from oil painting on the other hand. With pastels, you have both a drawing and a painting medium.

Children at the river - Pastel (55 cm X 41 cm ) by Benoit Philippe

How to get started with pastel? Pastels come in a variety of forms and hardness (hard, medium or soft), but they fall into three broad categories:

  • You can buy pastel pencils which are suited for sketching, small formats and fine details in larger works. They are ideal for lines and crisp details.

  • You will also find square chalk pastel sticks, which are quite hard and are good to lay the foundation of a work in pastel. As they have a hard edge, they can be used to sketch and draw. Instead of using the tip of the stick, you can also sweep the side of the pastel stick on the surface of the paper to leave large marks, as you would with a flat brush in oil painting.

  • The last form of pastels is the round sticks of soft pastel. Their hardness varies from one brand to another and depends on the colour. Light colours are in general softer with a creamy consistency (some of them tend to crumble if you press too hard on the paper). Always choose artist quality pastels from reputable brands as cheap pastels contain less pigments and will not give you the brilliance you can expect from pastels.

You should get a good selection of colours to start with. I recommend buying a box of square chalk pastels and an assortment of twenty to thirty round artists’ soft pastels. You can buy a starter set, but it is better to compose your own palette from pastel sticks sold individually in art shops, making sure you include very light as well as very dark values. After some time, as you become more acquainted with the medium, you can add more colours or shades to your selection.

The next thing you need is a good surface to draw or paint on. Go for pastel papers or pastel cards. They come with a good tooth (from rough to sandpaper like surface) that is essential to hold several layers of pastel. These papers and cards are often toned and many background colours are available.

A spay can of fixative is recommended to bond the surface of the work because of the powdery composition of pastel. However, works in pastel should be lightly spayed because colours become dull and darken with too much fixative. For this reason, some artists don’t use fixative at all or use it only at an early stage in the process. Fixative can indeed be used in the course of drawing with pastels to “freeze” parts of the work and avoid smudges when a new layer is applied.

It is advisable to frame pastels under glass in order to protect your work from smudging, scratches and dust. A gap should always be left between the work and the glass pane to avoid rubbing and damage to the work.

If you need to store your works in pastel until you frame them, put them in a shallow archival box and make sure that, if you stack them, each pastel is protected by a sheet of non fibrous paper. You can use crystal paper or buy at the supermarket some unbleached non-stick baking paper that is treated with silicones and will not stick to the pastel. Cut a sheet to size and maintain it in place by sticking its edges to the back of the pastel paper with masking tape. Make sure you store your pastel works flat.

Now, you are ready to go and express yourself with pastels.

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