The Paradoxical Pastel Medium

by Nancy Lilly, July, 2017

Every medium has certain attributes that help or hinder artistic expression. If you ask a pastel artist why they chose to work in pastel, they will often reply it was because they “couldn’t stand waiting for paint to dry” or they “couldn’t stand the smell of solvents used for oil painting” or they “just loved the color.”

What is a Pastel?

Pastel, with only one exception, is a pure powdered pigment combined with a binder, in the form of a stick. The pigments used in pastels are the same as those used to produce all colored art media, including oil paints.

The biggest ‘difference’ between pastel and oil paint is that pastel is a ‘dry’ medium. Oil paint is generally applied with a brush, pastel is a more tactile experience because pastels are held in the hand and are often worked or rubbed by the artist’s fingers.

“When is a drawing not a drawing (or a painting not a painting)?  When it is a pastel.”

A work of  art made with pastels is also called a pastel. The debate as to whether a pastel is a drawing or a painting has raged for ages. The above quote comes from Emily Beeny, Associate Curator of Drawings for the Getty Museum. In her blog titled “The Birth of Pastel” (June 2017) she states:

“From a curatorial standpoint, pastels occupy an ambivalent position. Perched between line and color, between the intimate touch of the artist and the ambition of the exhibition piece, pastels really aren’t either/or but both/and.”

According to Wikipedia, “A pastel is made by letting the sticks move over an abrasive ground, leaving color on the grain of the paper, sandboard, canvas, etc. When fully covered with pastel, the work is called a pastel painting; when not, a pastel sketch or drawing.”

The Pastel Paradox

Setting the debate aside, the question remains, why pastel is such a magical and appealing medium to artists?  Why would a dry crumbly stick of color  be so helpful when it came to producing a great image? If you have worked with the medium, you know it gets all over your hands, you can hardly erase it with ease, and if you happen to rub your arm across the top of it while you are working it will smear everything you’ve done.

The answer is color.

While delicate in application, pastel possesses a ‘Herculean’ power to deliver intense color. What the pastel medium provides over oil paint is superb, luminous, brilliant color. Pastel
paintings, are works made with a medium that has the highest pigment concentration of all.  Works of pastel reflect light without darkening refraction, you have images that contain very saturated colors.

How Long Have Artists Used Pastels?

Pastels have been used by artists since the Renaissance (c. 1400 to c. 1530 BCE.) Artists in this period mostly use pastel in preliminary drawings.

It was the 18th century that gave rise to the Golden Age of Pastel. The pastel medium enabled artists to render complexion with greater facility. The popularity of this medium was also made possible with the ready availability of cast plate glass, and the emergence of crayon-makers in cities throughout Europe that produced pastels in varied textures in a near limitless range of hues. Portraits in these ready-made pastels offered tangible advantages over oil for the artist and the sitter: they required fewer sittings as there was no drying time; less paraphernalia; the materials were easily portable and the costs lower than that of oils.

Artists such as Rosalba Carriera, Maurice Quentin de la Tour and John Russell were accepted into their country’s art academies or appointed as pastelists to royalty. Virtually all the pastel paintings created for the courts of Europe were portraits. Pastels, applied dry and possessing great light refraction, are particularly appropriate materials for portraits because they appear effortlessly to convey the warm tones and soft, matte velvety surface of skin. Portraits and head studies, therefore, figure prominently in histories of pastel.

The Different Types of Pastel

In the late 17th century, artists manufacturers produced some 500 hues of pastels. Many accounts of the emergence of Pastel portraiture during the Rococo period always points to the relatively sudden emergence in the later seventeenth century of sets of friable pastel sticks. The term ‘friable’ is mentioned with great frequency in historical texts but is not used widely today. It means ‘easily crumbled or reduced to powder.’  Today artists can choose from over one thousand hues and multiple brands of consistently manufactured pastels, all with varying degrees of hardness and softness, and friability.

  • Soft Pastels: Soft pastels are generally wrapped in paper (For example, present day Sennelier. But not always, for example, Terry Ludwig Pastels.) Soft Pastels are the most widely used form of pastel. The sticks have a higher portion of pigment and less binder, resulting in brighter colors. The drawing can be readily smudged and blended, but it results in a higher proportion of dust. Finished drawings made with soft pastels require protecting, either framing under glass or spraying with a fixative to prevent smudging; hairspray also works, although caution should be taken, as fixatives may affect the color or texture of the drawing. White chalk may be used as a filler in producing pale and bright hues with greater luminosity.  Major soft pastel manufacturers include:  Schmincke, Girault, Sennelier, Diane Townsend, Great American, Terry Ludwig and Unison. 

For a chart on soft pastels (from the Dakota Art Pastels website), listed from softest to hardest, see Chart. (this chart no longer exists on the Dakota website. ~Webmaster).

Pan Pastels:  This is the only pastel that does not come in ‘stick’ form. According to the manufacturer, “PanPastel Colors are professional artists’ quality soft pastel colors packed in a unique pan format (cake-like). The special qualities of PanPastel colors mean that artists can blend and apply dry color like fluid paint for the first time. Pans contain 0.30 floz (9ml) of color — 40% more material than the average pastel stick, yielding at least 4-5 times more coverage than sticks.” These are formulated with a minimum of binder in flat compacts (similar to some makeup) and applied with special soft micropore sponge tools. No liquid is involved. A 21st-century invention, Pan Pastels can be used for the entire painting or in combination with soft and hard sticks.


  • Hard Pastels: These have a higher portion of binder and less pigment, producing a sharp drawing material that is useful for fine details. These can be used with other pastels for drawing outlines and adding accents. Hard pastels are traditionally used to create the preliminary sketching out of a composition. However, the colors are less brilliant and are available in a restricted range in contrast to soft pastels. Hard pastels include  Cretacolor Pastel, Carre Hard Pastels, NuPastel, Faber-Castell Polychromos.

  • Pastel Pencils: These are pencils with a pastel lead. They are useful for adding fine details. The different kinds of pastel pencils you can purchase include Conte’ Pastel Pencils, Faber-Castell Pitt Pastel Pencil, Stabilo CarbOthello Pastel Pencils, and Derwent Pastel Pencils.

The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of the Pastel Medium

The Pastel medium got it’s foothold in the world of art in what is known as the Rococo Period.  The Rococo period of art came about as a reaction to the Baroque period of art. To not get bogged down here, let me just cover the major points.  The Baroque period of art actually came about AFTER the Renaissance. It began around 1600. Art of this period depicted dramatic, grandiose religious themes in swirling compositions with astonishing detail.  ‘Baroque’ painting came about actually through the strong encouragement of the Catholic Church in response to the Protestant Reformation. The church wanted art to ‘elevate’ and ‘educate’ the public with the goal to promote conservative Catholic ideals.

Beginning around 1700, the great courts of Europe had begun to tire of these themes and quickly embraced the witty, light hearted, and sweet images of what would be known as the Rococo. Most portraits, acquired at great cost, were made of the royal families and aristocratic class. With the French Revolution, this type of art became condemned as it was aligned with what was known as the ‘old order’ of life; the French monarchy.

Surprising, isn’t it, that politics would stamp out the use of a medium, but it did. It was not until the 19th century and the Impressionist movement that pastel would be become embraced by artists and the purchasing public.


Paradoxically, it would be the very aspects of pastel that would enable a new kind of imagery, use of line and color.  All throughout the Impressionistic period of the 19th century, the pastel medium enabled a change to the surface of paintings  and would help introduce a new way of thinking about art. Perhaps the strongest proponent of the medium was Edgar Degas. An example of his late work is shown below.

As an artist, I find working in pastel both challenging and a joy. And I suppose, in essence, that is the paradox of pastel.

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Russian Dancers, 1899, Edgar Degas, pastel and brush on tracing paper. Getty Museum. A mere two hundred years after the height of French Rococo Pastel Portraiture the Post-Impressionists in the same country take pastel painting in a whole new direction.  The painting above demonstrates the continuation and the breadth of experimentation with the pastel medium by artists in the 19th century.

Various types of soft pastels. Note that all are wrapped in paper with the exception of the Girault on top.

Portrait of Maurice, Comte de Saxe, Marshal of France; Pastel; 1748 by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, France. La Tour devoted himself exclusively to the pastel medium and never painted in oils. He is noted for his superb handling of fur and textiles such as velvet and taffeta.

PanPastels with applicators for painting.

A box of Conte’ Pastel Pencils

Copyright Central Texas Pastel Society. All Rights Reserved.

A Muse; by Rosalba Carriera (Italian, 1673 – 1757); mid-1720s; Pastel on laid blue paper; 31 × 26 cm (12 3/16 × 10 1/4 in.); 2003.17

Small Girl Presenting Cherries; by John Russell; 1780; Pastel on Blue Paper; 24.4 x 18.1 inches; Louvre Museum. In 1790, he was appointed Crayon (pastel) Painter to King George III of England.