The Art of Pastel

Sally Strand, Red Cafe, pastel, 18 x 24. painting, southwest art.
Sally Strand, Red Café, pastel, 18 x 24.

By Albert Handell & Anita Louise West

Today’s artists are drawn to working in pastel for a variety of reasons—from the immediacy and freshness of the medium and the ability to layer color to the directness and tactile character of pastel. In the following pages, we survey works by nine leading pastel artists that cover a range of style and subject matter. Accompanying this survey is an introduction to pastel painting excerpted from Painting the Landscape in Pastel [2000 Watson-Guptill Publications] by artists and teachers Albert Handell and Anita Louise West. To order a copy of the book, call 505.983.8815.

Pastel does not refer to pale colors, as the word is commonly used in the fashion and cosmetic industries. Pastels are made with exactly the same pigment used to make all art paints. Powdered pigment, mixed with a little water and a special binder, is ground into a paste, rolled into sticks, and left to dry. The name comes from the French word pastiche, meaning paste. It is a painting medium with a full range of artistic possibilities. In the hands of a skillful artist.

Doug Dawson, Astoria, pastel, 20 x 22.  painting, southwest art.
Doug Dawson, Astoria, pastel, 20 x 20

The history of pastel can be traced back to the 16th century, but it became popular in the 18th century. Although its invention is attributed to the German artist and chemist Johann Alexander Thiele [1685-1752], it was Rosal-ba Carriera who was its real pioneer. Carriera [1675-1758], a Venetian woman, painted beautiful, fully finished pastel portraits. In 1720, her renown took her to Paris, where she dazzled French royalty with this relatively new medium and started a pastel frenzy that lasted for decades.

During this time, hundreds of pastel artists worked in Paris, of which one of the most brilliant was Maurice Quentin de La Tour [1704-1788]. Converted to pastel by Carriera, La Tour’s skillful draftsmanship allowed him to push the medium to new limits. Another notable pastelist of the 18th century, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, took up pastel when failing eyesight prevented him from continuing his work with oils. Nonetheless, he introduced new ways of building up color. These innovators were followed by famous artists such as Watteau, Delacroix, Millet, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Glackens, Whistler, Hassam, and Cassatt, who used pastel not just for sketches but for finished works.

Elizabeth Sandia, Pumpkins for Sale, pastel, 6 x 15. painting, southwest art.
Elizabeth Sandia, Pumpkins for Sale, pastel, 6 x 15.

In 1882, William Merritt Chase returned to New York City from Europe and, with friend and fellow painter Robert Blom, formed the Society of Painters in Pastel, the first organization of its kind in the United States. In 1884, it had its first exhibition at the W.P. Moore Gallery in New York City.

Over the centuries, pastel has fallen in and out of vogue. With the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, it was linked to the excesses of the ancient regime and abandoned.

Thomas Wood, View of Edison, pastel, 24 x 30. painting, southwest art.
Thomas Wood, View of Edison, pastel, 24 x 30

The most prominent pastel artist of all time was the French Impressionist Edgar Degas [1834-1917]. When he died, it seemed that the medium died with him. For a time after his death, pastels were primarily used in advertising and commercial illustration. With the exception of a few stellar pastels by oil painters, the medium lay dormant from 1917 until its current renaissance.

Today, pastel has regained the stature of oil and watercolor as a major fine-art medium. Many forces have worked to bring about the modern rebirth of pastel. In 1968, the publication of Elinor Lathrop Sear’s Pastel Painting, Step by Step brought the medium back into the public eye. Other publications followed, and in 1972, the first annual “pastel only” exhibition opened at the National Arts Club in New York City, sponsored by the newly formed Pastel Society of America.

Rick Stoner, HermosilloSchoolboys, pastel, 22 x 32.
Rick Stoner, HermosilloSchoolboys, pastel, 22 x 32

As a direct and immediate med-ium, pastel frees the artist from the restrictions imposed by the more complicated and elaborate medium of oils. Unlike oils, there is no mixing of colors on a palette. No drying time is required. The pastel colors will remain as fresh and vibrant as they were when they were first applied. There is no palette to clean, no colors to lay out. Being a matte medium, pastels are free from the glare you get from a wet, glossy medium, such as oils, where special precautions are needed when painting, such as tilting the canvas forward to avoid the glare.

Not only is pastel an immediate medium, but it incorporates both drawing and painting. Using the same pastel stick, the artist can draw or paint simultaneously, a convenience that other mediums do not permit. The dry quality of pastel can actually enhance the artist’s proficiency in drawing. At times, it feels as if you are painting with your fingertips. Simply varying the pressure on the pastel stick can change the appearance of the color. You can move from a very opaque to less opaque color by applying less pressure. You can cover large areas with a broad stroke by using the side of the pastel stick or use the points to paint delicate lines within these large masses of color. Sharp lines are easy to obtain even with bulky masses of color.

Albert Handell, Lily Pond, pastel, 16 x 15.  painting, southwest art.
Albert Handell, Lily Pond, pastel, 16 x 15.

Pastel offers its own textural variety. Again using the side stroke, the artist can skim over the tooth of the paper, leaving a beautiful, rough-looking texture that is excellent for painting rocks or old walls, such as those found in Mexican marketplaces.

Pastel is a dry pigment mixed with a binder, or mild glue, like gum tragacanth. The binder is just strong enough to hold the particles of raw color together and form a stick. Pastels come in various degrees of hardness, determined by the amount of binder used to make them. The bulk of pastel painting is executed with soft pastels, which are made with a minimum of binder and are easily applied, permitting the special “buttery” appearance so desirable in this medium.

The availability of pastel painting supplies has changed dramatically in the past 35 years. It used to be much harder for artists to find what they needed. Today there are more choices, and new brands come to the market continually. Pastels come in three different forms: soft pastels, hard pastels, and pastel pencils. Each has its own characteristics. Artists outline the shapes with hard pastels and then begin to work them over with soft pastels. Pastel pencils are used for delicate work such as feathering, a thin application of pastel over a thick one.

Dan Beck, Fruits and Flowers, pastel, 24 x 18. painting, southwest art.
Dan Beck, Fruits and Flowers, pastel, 24 x 18

Pastel offers a full range of colors, and because it is a matte medium as opposed to a glossy medium, there is a vast array of colors that are light in value. The value of a color refers to its relative lightness or darkness. Pat-terns of light and dark give a painting its structure, much as the skeleton gives structure to the body. By taking full advantage of lights and darks, the artist can give a painting a sense of volume and depth not possible when the value range is limited.

Photos courtesy the artists and the following galleries. Sally Strand: J. Cacciola Galleries, New York, NY; Diane Nelson Fine Art, Laguna Beach, CA. Doug Dawson: Saks Gallery, Denver, CO; Ventana Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Telluride Fine Art, CO. Elizabeth Sandia: Third Canyon Gallery, Denver, CO; Gallery A, Taos, NM; Canyon Road Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM. Thomas Wood: Lisa Harris Gallery, Seattle, WA. Rick Stoner: Merrill-Johnson Gallery, Denver, CO; Gallery East, Loveland, CO; Maxim’s Gallery, Greeley and Estes Park, CO; Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, CO; Nancy Charles Gallery, Las Cruces, NM. Albert Handell: Ventana Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Howard Portnoy Gallery, Carmel, CA; Third Canyon Gallery, Denver, CO; Mountain Trails Gallery, Jackson, WY. Dan Beck: Lynne White’s Shriver Gallery, Taos, NM; Long Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Smith-Klein Gallery, Boulder, CO; Abend Gallery, Denver, CO: Jack Meier Gallery, Houston, TX Gil Dellinger: Jones and Terwilliger Galleries, Carmel, CA; Galerie Gabrie, Pasadena, CA; Greenhouse Gallery, San Antonio, TX; Vault Gallery of Fine Art, Sonora, CA. John Harrell: Third Canyon Gallery, Denver, CO; Huntsman

Gil Dellinger, Surf off Fort Cronkite, Pastel, 18 x 24. painting, southwest art.
Gil Dellinger, Surf off Fort Cronkite, Pastel, 18 x 24.

Gallery of Fine Art, Aspen, CO; Thomas Anthony Gallery, Park City, UT.

Featured in April 2001