What Are Pastels? A Beginner’s Guide To This Amazing Medium

Michael Daly
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What Are Pastels

Pastels are sticks of pure pigment that are ground to a soft dust. They have been around for hundreds of years. Pastel originated in Europe, they get their name from the French word pastïs, …which is …tracing.’

Lately, they’ve been getting very popular in the United States. Pastels are similar to colored pencils except they are more vibrant and sensual than colored pencils.

Also, some colored pencils are really pastels but they are labeled as colored pencils. Why is that?

Colored pencils are actually wax pencils and they are called like this because they are actually colored pigment held by a wax binder.

In the beginning, colored pencils were used to cover pencils with a thin layer of a transparent pigment to prevent the pencil from becoming dull.

The binder was not colored enough to make them look like a stick of butter in the yellow container so every pencil manufacturer designed its own binder.

This is why colored pencils are not completely uniform in their texture. Some pencils are thicker and more waxy, some are thinner and more like a waxy crayon.

These are the reasons why some colored pencils are more prone to breaking and/or not as vibrant as pastels.

Types Of Pastels Available

There are 2 major varieties of pastels—hard and soft. Hard pastels are harder and smoother than soft pastels. They are typically made with clay, which gives them a really nice texture to work on. They are great for really bold work and they take a lot less pressure to apply than soft pastels do.

Soft pastels, which are typically made from chalk or pigment, are slightly crumbly, less expensive and give a more varied and textured look to your paintings.

Pastel pencils are another very popular type of pastel that are great for detailed drawings outdoors. They are colored sticks that come in a variety of colors and are hard and sturdy so you can create finer lines.

Some brands will have only one type of pastel, while others will combine a variety of different styles in a single pack. For example, Art Alternatives offers a variety of pastels that can be used for anything from detailed work to bold work.

Soft Pastels

And Hard Pastels: What Are They?

While soft pastels have a looser feel, hard pastels tend to be firmer. Hard pastels are easier to handle but harder to blend. Soft pastels are easier to blend, but more prone to crumbling. Both kinds of pastels are available in one thickness. A barrel shaped “stub” pastel is a piece of chalk wrapped in paper.

Pastels can be mixed with white or gray paint, with a binder, or with other colors of pastel, depending on the effect you want. They can be used on paper, cardboard, or any other firm, nonabsorbent surface. Because of their extremely soft texture, you can even use them on fabric. M’s watercolor pastels are made from finely-ground pigments. The medium is thick to prevent colors from rubbing off. While his triangular pastels are of a single color, his rectangular pastels are available in a variety of colors, which you can use to make pictures or geometric designs.

Pan Pastels

It is a wonder to behold pastel art. Depending on the artist and the technique, the finished result can range from subtle, delicate images to bold, vibrant, painterly art.

However, this variety in results is often based on the mediums used rather than the artist. Some artists choose only to use oil paints, and they would never dream of combining oils with watercolors, pastels, or any other medium.

Pan pastels are different. These artist pastels are made out of oil, so they’re able to be combined with water-based products. This is why pastels work so well with other water-based art tools.

The versatility of these oil pastels is one of their biggest selling points. They can be used to create virtually any style that you desire.

From vibrant, textured art, all the way to a piece of classical art with subtle and beautiful gradients, pan pastels may be the best option for one piece of art and a nightmarish option for another.

How is this so, you ask?

&&& The Advantage of Using Pan Pastels

Pan pastels are one of the most versatile media out there. You can use your fingers to create fine work, or blow the dust off the canvas to make your work coarse.

Hard Pastels

The harder form of pastel usually called “hard pastel” (or just “pastel”) look almost like sticks of chalk. They form when pigment and paper fibers bind together with a drying agent to form the piece of art that we are painting.

Hard pastels are very versatile and can be used on many surfaces, such as chalkboards, windows and even ice.

They are especially versatile when you want to work on a large painting surface like a canvas.

The positive thing about working with pastel is that because it is similar to chalk, it is easy to work with, and you can blend and mix different hues easily.

You can also fix mistakes with the tips of your fingers or by using other tools or materials, such as q-tips and brushes.

The hard pastels are great for any artistic piece that needs vibrant colors, that you want to draw quickly. The intensity of the pigment is a lot more than traditional oils, and pigments can sometimes be added on top of each other.

There will be a deeper variation of colors even with just two pastels, and by adding different textures, you can expand a painting without stopping to set up a new canvas.

Pastel Pencils

Despite the name, many styles of pastel pencils are far from being soft. Pastels are easily the broadest range of art tools available to artists.

“Soft Pastels” are referred to as such because they are typically made of an assortment of different colored pigments that are loosely bound with wax or oil.

The colors in soft pastels are typically laid onto the surface of a board with a stick like tool.

“Hard Pastels” are made to be put in contact with the surface with a sharpened tip and often must be ground down with a fine sanding block or very fine sandpaper prior to use. The payoff for this more difficult preparation is they are easier to sharpen than soft pastels and they have a sharper edge.

Pastel pencils are made of the same stuff that you find in a pencil. Pastel pencils are often made of clay, wood, or graphite dust bound with a wax or oil binder. The lead is then sharpened like a regular pencil with a pencil sharpener.

The clay of the pastel core gives the pencil what some artists describe as a scratchy feel. This is in part what makes pastel pencils unique.

Oil Pastels

Pastels are extreme when it comes to colour intensity; you can can easily and quickly achieve the brightest of colours!

Moreover, pastels involves little to no mixing, brushes are rarely used. It is very important to note that there is no mineral oil in pastels unlike oil paints, so there is no drying time involved; hence, you can use it just like regular crayons.

If you are a beginner, pastels are the best option because they are affordable and easy to learn on.

For a first pastel investment, I strongly recommend Crayola’s Pastels. They are cheap, readily available, very forgiving and great for kids to learn on!

The only issue is that they are quite dusty so it is important to work in a dry environment to avoid getting your house/place dirty.

Water Soluble Pastels

When it comes to art supplies, there are a lot of different options.

If you are a beginning artist trying to figure out exactly what type of art medium to try you are probably going to find it hard to decide what to add to your art supply list.

That is why we want to help.

In this article, we are going to talk about pastels, what kinds of pastels there are and some of the techniques you can use when painting with them.

Working With Pastels

While the term “pastel” is used to refer to any dusty medium capable of producing a smooth effect, pastels are most frequently used as a drawing tool, either for art or as a means of teaching art.

What makes pastels so easy to dabble in is that with a few tools and some time, you can start producing quality results with some practice. You can work with pastels on their own or use them to create a more dynamic work.

The softness of pastels means that works can resemble oils, s watercolor, pencil, gouache or charcoal.

As such, pastels allow you to draw as you normally would using any of these mediums, and they can also be used to smooth out a watercolor painting or add texture to line drawings roughened up with crayons.

In terms of technique, pastel is the broadest term. Like chalk or colored pencils, artists can create the desired effect with a range of tools.

Generally, pastels are applied with a stick that’s been wrapped in flocking paper, then covered in a natural or synthetic wax.

Some modern pastel artists also use water-soluble pastels that can be wet into a damp surface or can be dissolved in water to produce an ink-like quality.

Transporting Pastel Pieces

Never transport your pastel paintings in their “original” pastel paper tube; always remove the work from the tube and place it in a separate, acid-free and foam-backed, corrugated cardboard box and wrap it securely inside protective sheets of foam.

If you are traveling a distance, be sure to pad the bottom of the box so that it doesn’t bang up against something hard and damage the painting.

I wrap the work in a sheet of glassine paper to prevent the paint from being scraped off the enamel-coated paper and then I place it in a cardboard tube. The actual work is not in the tube; it is wrapped inside the tube. This way, you can see what you have, and work on it when you have time in your travels.

Always pack your works horizontally so that they don’t roll around in the transport boxes.

Insulate the entire box so that the work stays cool and protected. This can be done with an inflated pack of bubble wrap. Put down that kind of cushioning on either side of the work, over the entire box, and wrap and tape it securely.

What About The Archival Qualities Of Pastels?

The archival quality of any medium simply refers to how stable that medium is. It is possible for a painting to be considered a work of art and be considered a good pastel work of art, without being an archival work of art. From the largest fine art and craft store to the smallest gallery, the information regarding the archival quality of a paint is always listed on the bottle of the paint. The most common definition used, is that of the INBA or the International Organisation of Oil Pastel Artists. In order to qualify as an archival work of art, the medium used must be able to do the following:

To be non-yellowing over time: This allows the medium being used to be considered an archival medium once it is completely dry, since the yellowing of the medium is caused by the chemical reaction between the dye that causes the color and the binder that holds the pigment to give a solid application.

To be light fast and light resistant: A good quality pastel painting will be able to maintain its original color for many years without the colors of the painting degrading, which is due to the degradation of the color either by sunlight or even artificial light.

The archival quality of any medium should tell you how well the medium is going to stand up to time.

Are Pastels Dangerous?

They’re not dangerous but there’s no denying that pastels are a little messy to deal with. You will probably find yourself covered in dust while working with them. But there are steps that you can take to minimize the mess before it happens.

Pastels do not come in sealed packaging, so there’s bound to be some dust from the package. To minimize the mess, open the package using a paring knife or an X-Acto knife. Then, very gently lift the pastel out of the package without touching the bottom.

Be very gentle. The pastel is very delicate and can break with too much pressure.

Samples Of A Few Pieces Of Artwork That Were Made With Pastels

If you’re like most people, your mind doesn’t immediately associate the word “pastel” with bright, vibrant art when you hear it.

Instead, you think of pale and dull colored chalky pieces of artwork.

The reality is that when it’s not used in school projects, pastel actually refers to a versatile medium that can be used in many different contexts to produce some incredible pieces of art. Check out these examples of artwork that were made with pastels.

You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised at how bright, vibrant, and colorful they are, especially compared to your stereotypes of the pastel medium.

Is That Everything There Is To Know About Pastels?

It can. I hope you have learned something new about pastels in general and about pastel pencils specifically.

I also hope that you were able to try out the techniques I learned from all the artists I interviewed. It will definitely help your paintings to look better.

Yet, the only way to learn more about pastel pencils and the medium in general is to actually try to draw with them.

You may also want to try different brands of pastel pencils to see if they feel more comfortable to use.

Finally (and I think it’s important that you do that) you should take your drawings to a museum to get them validated by professionals.

While painting portraits is a very subjective art form, there are certain things that usually go with it.

The good news is that if you picture a painting and it feels right, it probably is. So follow your instincts and keep growing your pastel techniques.

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