Drawing Basics: Is Pastel a Drawing Medium?

20 Jan 2009

Many pastelists consider their pieces to be paintings. Here at American Artist, we have tried to steer clear of the debate on whether pastel is a drawing medium or a painting medium, although when put against the wall and poked in the chest, we'll call them paintings. (Don't mess with pastelists!)

There are interesting arguments from both sides of the issue. On one hand, for the painting argument, pastel is pure pigment. Vibrant color--not something you associate with drawings, colored pencil pieces notwithstanding. And a pastelist usually thinks in terms of planes instead of lines. Edges in drawing are lines, while the edges in pastels are simply the place where two colors meet. Additionally, glazing of sorts often occurs in a pastel work, in which one color shows through the light application of another color to suggest a third color, just as in oil painting.

On the other hand, paint is generally understood to be liquid--or at least to be in a liquid form when it is applied. Also, paint is usually applied with a brush. And some people's definition of drawing centers on the very immediate and tactile scenario of putting marks on a surface with your hand. For them, a paintbrush puts too much distance between the surface and the artist's hand.

Drawing magazine features pastels now and again, but most of our pastel articles stay in American Artist.

I don't really think it matters how pastel is categorized, and I don't think that pastel is insulted either way, but exploring this topic is perhaps useful because it makes one consider the properties of the medium and how to use it whether you are sketching or making more formal works. Often, the more the nature of the medium is taken into account, the more successful the resulting piece is. Consider watercolor pieces that capitalize on that medium's fluidity, or charcoal pieces that make good use of that material's dark darks.

So, what do you think? Does the distinction matter? And if it does, is pastel a painting medium or a drawing medium?


Christmas Field by Liz Haywood-Sullivan, 2003, pastel drawing

Christmas Field
by Liz Haywood-Sullivan, 2003, pastel drawing on black paper,
24 x 50. Private collection.

Note how the sky is drawn in with white marks that almost suggests hatching. The sprigs of grass and the branches of the bushes and trees are linear. So is this a drawing?


Attitude by Patricia A. Hannaway, 2006, pastel drawing

by Patricia A. Hannaway, 2006, pastel drawing on toned paper,
21 x 12. All artwork this article collection the artist.

Is this a gesture drawing made with color, or simply a painting quickly suggested with pastel pigment.


Six Friends at Dieppe by Edgar Degas, 1885, pastel drawing

Six Friends at Dieppe
by Edgar Degas, 1885, pastel drawing, 45¼ x 28. Collection the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island.

Degas seemed to have drawn outlines and then added local color, with little modeling.


Silver Cluster by Janet Monafo, 2007, pastel drawing

Silver Cluster
by Janet Monafo, 2007, pastel drawing, 50 x 38. Private collection.

This looks painterly, but it's tightness could have been executed in colored pencil, and it's nearly monochromatic feel suggests graphite. You could also convince me that it's an oil painting based on this reproduction.


Roman Bridge, Le Quercy by Judith Carducci, 2006, pastel drawing

Roman Bridge,
Le Quercy

by Judith Carducci, 2006, pastel drawing, 12 x 9. Private collection.

This, on the other hand, seems far from being a drawing.

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Robin11 wrote
on 22 Jan 2009 4:21 PM

This argument applies to colored pencil as well for exactly the reasons mentioned.  Is it the way pigment is transported to the support or is it the result that defines?  

Most serious colored pencil artists totally cover their support with heavy layers of pigment.  We glaze.  Color tells the story, not line.  That our pigment is encased in wood and can be sharpened to a razor point ... sometimes...is not relevant...or is it?

To confuse the issue further, many of us are getting away from paper as a support.  Pastelboard, canvas, wood are all gaining popularity.  So it's not support that defines.

And if it's liquidity that defines a painting, then those who use solvents to liquify colored pencil pigment and a brush to move that pigment around, are producing a painting.

And all liquid paint eventually dries, the liquidity is temporary no matter what medium.  

Brushes don't define it.  It's only one tool liquid painters use.  I.e., palette knives, rags, fingers, sticks, gravity, etc.

On the other hand, entering a colored pencil piece at a show always goes in the drawing category.  Other artists, especially formally trained ones, nearly alwyas will define them as drawings.  There's a feeling that calling them paintings is dishonest and misleading.

It's awkward what to call it.  Most non artists call them paintings.  It's what they look like.  So who's right?

I've gone back and forth.  I feel pretentious calling it a painting, but drawing doesn't do the trick either.  I have a harder time producing a drawing with graphite than a painting in acrylic or oils, I don't see in lines at all.

But really, the bottom line is...does it really matter?

Bob Bahr wrote
on 26 Jan 2009 6:48 AM

I think it probably matters more that there be some consistency in how CP or pastel is characterized, only because we would want to make it as easy as possible for CP and pastel fans and collectors to find the pieces, wherever they may be however they are categorized. Not that anyone is asking me.

The Colored Pencil Society of America seems to carefully use the term "artwork" on its site.

Robin11 wrote
on 26 Jan 2009 9:29 AM

Nobody's asking me, either!

I've done that careful avoidance of terms, too, like you see in the cpsa site.  I usually say, "piece".  :D

The tickler is when describing yourself, am I a portrait painter, a portrait drawer?  

steen3 wrote
on 27 Jan 2009 4:30 PM

I like pastels because I like to draw :-) I think some like to call the results  paintings because paintings [in particular oil paintings] sell for more money than a similar piece that is done in a drawing medium. I tend to talk about myself as an artist, e.g., a portrait artist instead of a portrait painter.  

RebeccaV8 wrote
on 29 Jan 2009 10:48 AM

I've never understood why art done is pastel  is called "painting." Your discussion is helpful. As many of you have stated, it probably doesn't matter what we call it. For the record, however, despite glazing and blending and working in shapes vs. line, or even with the addition of a  liquid (such as water with pencils), pastels seem more like drawing than paining in my opinion. Maybe it needs its own descriptive term such as pastelling, or something ...

on 29 Jan 2009 10:51 AM

I think Steen hit the nail on the head.  Oil paintings have long been the top sellers in the art market - why - who knows - who cares.  The net result being a creation of a piece of art - painting-drawing-pencil-pastel-oil-water based - beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

Pat Hansen wrote
on 29 Jan 2009 11:10 AM

If it's done with a pencil, it's a drawing.  If done with a brush, it's a painting.  If done with chalk, it's a drawing.

on 29 Jan 2009 11:17 AM

I love pastel because it is an extension of my arm and because I love drawing. Yet, when I am using my pastels, I really am using them in a "painterly way".

I find myself using techniques that I would not use with "other" drawing media. I find myself using them much more like an oil painter applies paint, building up a layers of pigment. I know that colored penceils can be applied in this way also. Pastels are sort in a shared land between painting and drawing.

Personally, I don't get upset by them being referred to as drawing or as painting. However, I think there was a time, not so long ago when pastel artists felt like "second class" citizens of Art Land and that their products were not taken seriously by the public.

RRodgers2 wrote
on 29 Jan 2009 11:24 AM

In many art books and magazines I have read, the distinction is made on the basis of the emphasis of the artist: if the emphasis is on lines, the work (whatever the medium) is a drawing; if the emphasis is on shapes, the work is a painting.

Among pastelists, we tend to say that if a large portion of the background paper/support is visible, it is a drawing; if most or all of the underlying support is covered, it is a painting.  

For me personally, it has to do with how I'm using the pastel--if I'm primarily using the tip, I am probably drawing (i.e. making lines); if I'm primarily using the sides of the pastels, I am painting (i.e. making shapes).  Some works will, of course, combine the two, but usually it is clear which is the primary means.

Ruth Rodgers

Debilynn wrote
on 29 Jan 2009 11:29 AM

Hello all,

I would think it would depend on the finished work maybe? Pastel (and Colored Pencil) is a tricky medium. You use a stylus to 'paint' on the computer, so I would assume you could 'paint' with Pastels (and Colored Pencil). Could you paint with Graphite? Actually I know you can because I have with water soluble graphite.  And Ive seen some painters refer to 'drawing' with paint.

So maybe the answer is in how you apply it? If its applied in a painterly fashion and looks like a painting, its a painting.

Dug Waggoner wrote
on 29 Jan 2009 11:32 AM

The process I use in producing a pastel “painting” starts with a watercolor base painting. A dark value pastel stick constructs the composition and filled in and blended with water using a brush. Some use an odorless turpentine to achieve the same result as it melts the pastel. When this is dry, pastel is applied over the under painting. Pigment, when dry, like pastel can become a wet pigment by introducing a wet medium. You can draw with a brush and paint with a pencil. Because of its facility for making broad or fine colorful marks pastel is my preferred medium to make a painting.

ria4 wrote
on 29 Jan 2009 5:11 PM

I label my pastel works as paintings. I have been challenged on this numerous times and it comes down to personal interpretation. I "paint" using blocks of color and fill my surface completely which in my thinking qualifies it as painting.

Personally I really don't care what you call it but on a professional level it seems to make a difference, although I have also noticed over the years that pastel artists have gained the same respect that oil painters have had for eons. And I think that's what it comes down to - having respect as an artist for what ever medium you use.

There's a lot of history behind the argument. But it is history.

Bvssey wrote
on 30 Jan 2009 9:07 AM

Good topic.

I agree with Hansen too. Wagoner, your type of work is called mixed media.  

Would you call a painting, a pastel or a drawing? No. Then why would you call a pastel or drawing a painting.  Would you call a square a triangle or call a dog a cat. No! It's a descriptive term that describes what it is. Should a book about how to paint go over pastels, chalk and pencils too, No and they don't!  Seems almost insulting to all the great oil painters of history to call your drawings a painting. Yes art is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but that shouldn't have anything to do with how its labeled.

The above "Silver Cluster" pastel work looks like a painting and is awesome but it's still labeled a pastel as it should be.

Thanks .

Bob Bahr wrote
on 30 Jan 2009 10:15 AM

Bvssey----no, but you COULD call a square a rectangle, and that may be the equivalent. Not all paintings are pastel but a pastel may be a painting. Calling it a pastel rather than a painting may just simply be more precise, rather than either being right or wrong.

Robin11 wrote
on 31 Jan 2009 12:16 PM

"Seems almost insulting to all the great oil painters of history to call your drawings a painting."

I think the great oil (and other) painters of history would be excited to see how artists are bending the traditions of their medium to paint with a tool meant for drawing!

What about oil sticks?  What about pan pastels that aren't in sticks?  

See, I just don't see it so cut and dried...on either side!

johanne7 wrote
on 31 Jan 2009 3:41 PM

I have done portraits for years in oil and pastel.  I work in much the same manner in both mediums, mixing and layering. I consider both paintings with different amounts and types of binders.  I can "draw " with a brush, pastel or colored pencil just as I can paint with them.  They all have pure pigments and are archival so what's the big problem.  I think it is the finished product that makes the painting.

nsdeitz wrote
on 3 Feb 2009 12:13 AM

Funny you should ask this question.  I'm a portrait artist who has tried all kinds of media but I keep returning to the ones that feel like home: graphite and charcoal, black and white.  Rather than line, I love using subtractive techniques -- toning areas of the paper, then lightening or darkening values with various erasers, blending tools or additional layers.  My works are highly finished pieces that cover the  page completely, yet in my mind they are drawings.  I have recently discovered Pan Pastels and am exploring incorporating them into my work, but still feel that the medium retains the feeling of a drawing .  I feel uncomfortable when people call them "paintings"  (even though it takes as long to complete one as many people take to paint a complete piece) -- though, I confess, not nearly as uncomfortable as when people call them "sketches"!!!  One term seems to overstate the work, while the other diminishes it.   I guess in my mind drawing engages me with the medium more directly, but this is all so subjective.  Still, it seems pretentious to call them anything but what they are -- stand-alone pieces that are drawings.

Susanem624 wrote
on 19 Oct 2013 8:48 AM

That silver cluster piece is amazing.

The artists can ask to have people call it whatever they want. I always considered them drawing, but, they are hard to define on a computer screen, and look like paintings. The dust bothers me too much sometimes, but, I still have my Mother's pastel set and can use that if I get a chance. I wanted to order "water color pencils" which I never used before. I have a limited art supply and use what I have and buy supplies when I can.

I would put the pastels in the water color pencil category if water was used for technique.