Pastel Painting

End of the Season by William Merritt Chase, 1885, pastel, 13¼ x 17¾.
End of the Seasonby William Merritt Chase, 1885, pastel, 13¼ x 17¾.

Pastel painting or pastel drawing starts with an implement of pigment mixed with chalk or clay and combined with gum to make a paste that is then hardened and made available as soft or hard pastels, pastel pencils, or oil pastels.

Pastel lessons often discuss the medium in terms of both drawing and painting. It can be used to create broad strokes that appear buttery and solid like oil paints, but they can also be used to create precise lines and marks akin to any drawing implement. Further appeal of pastel painting lies in its wide range of colors and blending ability.

What makes pastels unique is that pastels aren’t mixed together the way other media like oils, watercolors, or acrylic paints are. An artist has to select the specific color and value they want, or he or she has to overlap several strokes of pastel so they blend in the viewer’s eyes to appear as if they have been physically combined. A pastel artist must have a wide assortment of pastel sticks to work with, and a strong sense of color layering.

Pastels were initially used to create studies for larger works, and not intended for the completion of a finished work. But nowadays pastel is accepted as a viable artistic medium. The nature of the medium makes it an excellent choice for those who favor portability as well. Pastel painting requires little set up, there is no need for solvents, and there are no brushes to clean. For this reason, many plein air painters work in pastel, and many portraitists of the 19th century worked in pastel to facilitate a speedy execution.

A Pastel Painting Master: Jean Francois Millet

Shepherdess and Her Flock by Jean-François Millet, 1862, black chalk and pastel, 14 5/16 x 18 11/16.
Shepherdess and Her Flock by Jean-François Millet, 1862, black chalk and pastel, 14 5/16 x 18 11/16.

Born to a family of farmers, French painter Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) was most interested in painting the daily life of the peasantry. His early work consisted of portraits and pastoral scenes, but it is the painting The Gleaners for which he is best known.

The painting depicts two women picking leftovers of the harvest, stooping low to collect so little. Picking up what was left of the harvest was regarded as one of the lowest jobs in society, yet Millet offered these women as the heroic focus of the picture; light illuminates the women’s shoulders as they carry out their work. While he was criticized for presenting socialist leanings in his work, his paintings appeared in the Paris Salon year after year.

As his popularity grew in the 1860s Millet steadily received commissions, and in 1865 a patron began commissioning pastel drawings. From 1865-1869 he painted almost exclusively in pastel for a collection that would eventually include 90 works. With this collection Millett explored the possibilities and limits of the pastel painting. “He was one of the first to really draw with the medium and use broken strokes of color, rather than blending the colors extensively the way many early pastelists did,” says Flattmann. Many of his later pictures are landscapes, with the human figure entirely absent. As he grew older, the artist preferred simpler, more direct processes such as using graphite or pastel, over painting. Instead of the heavy, dark coloring of many of his paintings of peasant life, Millet often let the tinted paper show through and used his color sparingly in his pastels, bringing his draftsmanship to the fore.

The artist’s subject matter can inspire artists today who may be drawn to subjects that are deemed controversial or uninteresting. The use of pastel as a drawing tool, and the strokes of color evident in much of his pastel work not only brings greater attention to his subject matter but also shows that an artist has many options when working in pastel.

Source: Pastel Masters by Naomi Ekperigin, American Artist magazine, 2008.

Switching From Oils to Painting Pastels

Back to the Clouds by David Stout,2006, pastel painting, 18 x 24. "I just love capturing the moment when the clouds open up and there is a sliver of intense light," says Stout. The approaching storm forced the artist to develop the painting very quickly--although he still ended up getting soaked. (Thankfully, the painting didn't.)
Back to the Clouds by David Stout,2006, pastel painting, 18 x 24. “I just love capturing the moment when the clouds open up and there is a sliver of intense light,” says Stout. The approaching storm forced the artist to develop the painting very quickly–although he still ended up getting soaked. (Thankfully, the painting didn’t.)

To help him maximize the limited amount of time he has for his art, artist David Stout decided to switch from oil to pastel. Besides enjoying the purity of the colors, the artist appreciates that there’s little set up and no drying time with this medium, so he can have something down relatively quickly. Because he’d rather spend his time painting than searching for new products, Stout works with a limited number of pastels and only three brands: Rembrandt, Sennelier, and Schmincke. Although he admits to having “a hodgepodge of pastels” in his studio, separated into warm and cool colors, the artist has developed a feel for picking up a half or quarter stick of the right color. “I work fast and don’t think about it too much,” the artist explains. “I feel the color–I know what I want, and I find it.”

Stout’s pastel kit for painting outdoors is limited to about 35 pastels. (Occasionally he uses pastel pencils for fine line work.) He never buys the whole range of values of one color, relying on different colors for different values. One of his favorite colors is Sennelier dark green (No. 158) “It’s incredible,” he enthuses. “I use it instead of black; it breathes, it has life in it.” Schmincke, he notes, makes a wonderful white (No. 17001-069D), which he appreciates for its saturation and covering ability. In snow scenes he likes to use Sennelier violet blue (No. 393), which is effective for cool shadows, and Sennelier ochre orange (No. 104) is perfect for creating the look of adobe.

After experimenting with different grounds, Stout has settled on Sennelier Pastel Card. He likes the uniformity of its surface as well as the fact that it’s very forgiving and allows him to build up layers to create a sense of luminosity. It’s also conducive to fine work and drawing thin lines. His preference is for toned cards, cooler blues and grays for winter pieces and warmer tones for fall or New Mexico scenes. He attaches the card to an acid-free Fome-Cor board with acid-free double-sided tape and sets it up on his French easel.

Stout begins a pastel work by making light indications, explaining that he does more thinking than painting at this stage. “You have to sneak up on a pastel painting,” Stout says. “Start light. If you build up too quickly there’s no going back. You lose the freshness and that painterly quality you want.” With a half stick of Rembrandt burnt umber he then blocks in the scene, using the toned paper as the middle value. (Because he uses light strokes he can work other softer pastels over the burnt umber.) At one time he worked his way from the darkest dark to the lightest light, but now he blocks in the light, middle, and dark values in one step.

Next Stout paints the crucial center of interest and then makes decisions about what to include around it. He likes to keep everything loose except the focal point, allowing other areas to complement the main attraction. The artist generally uses three to four layers of pastel, spraying the second layer lightly with fixative to push the pastel into the ground. Because fixative tends to deaden colors, he sprays a painting only once. He doesn’t hesitate to blend with his fingers-he enjoys the immediacy and control-and does a lot of smudging and softening of edges. “Too many competing sharp edges make a painting look overworked,” he explains.

Source: A Disciplined Approach to Pastel by Linda Price.

From Frustration to Forgiveness: One Artist’s Pastel Lessons

Path With Trees to Hidden Pond by Marlene Wiedenbaum 2008, pastel, 24 x 31.
Path With Trees to Hidden Pond by Marlene Wiedenbaum 2008, pastel, 24 x 31.

In her pastel painting Path With Trees to Hidden Pond, Marlene Wiedenbaum presents a resplendent view of a glade whose rich canopy encloses a forest floor buried under a dense carpet of fallen leaves. So natural and convincing is the filtered sunlight and enveloping space of the painting that it takes us a few moments to discover the hint of a pathway through the woods. The artist, it seems, is content to take the world as she finds it and then to mine it for hidden riches and intriguing insights. She has achieved this feeling through masterful use of pastel, working it in numerous layers to create color of surprising subtlety and nuance while keeping her surface supremely tactile and alive.

“I love the immediacy, the color, and the forgiveness of pastel,” says Wiedenbaum, “but I especially enjoy the involvement of my hands. I understand and control my fingers much better than I ever did a brush, and there’s a more direct connectedness to the work.” Wiedenbaum made the change to pastel from oil some years ago. “I was frustrated at having to clean brushes, as well as myself, and having to put everything away each time I wanted to paint,” she recalls. “It was drudgery. I didn’t have the luxury of huge blocks of time back then, and the condition of the work is different each time you return to an oil painting. A very good friend left a box of pastels on the dining room table, and that’s when my relationship with pastels began.” The artist also enjoys the portability of pastel. “It’s so much easier to spontaneously pack up my supplies for working en plein air,” she says.

Like most other pastel artists, Wiedenbaum has also come up against the difficulties imposed by the medium. “The biggest drawback is the dust,” she says. “I sometimes wear a mask in the studio, but I don’t know how much that really helps.” The artist also manages to keep some of the pastel dust off her fingers by wearing finger cots–small rubber sleeves that can be rolled onto individual fingers–which are available in drugstores.

In order to achieve the lush and rich surface of her paintings, Wiedenbaum uses sanded paper and a wide variety of pastels. “I primarily use Sennelier, Schmincke, and Unison soft pastels,” she says. “Through my endless search for colors, I have also been enjoying Great American Art Works and for a slightly harder pastel, Mount Vision. For many years I worked on Sennelier La Carte sanded paper. That product seems to have changed, however, so I use Wallis paper more often. I am also working a lot with UART paper, since they offer a 40-inch sheet and various textures. The 400 and 500 grades have made my fingers bleed, but the layering possibilities make 500 my preferred paper.”

Source: Building Rich and Full Layers by John Parks.

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.