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The word "pastel" is derived from the Italian word pastello, which means paste. Pastels are raw pigments mixed into a thick paste with a binder (gum arabic, gum tragacanth, or methyl cellulose) and often a preservative and sometimes a fungicide.

Pastels are one of the simplest artistic media. They involve the least amount of supplies. They can also be very easily blended on the page. Pastels have a high degree of permanence, as they are pure pigments made with very little medium that can undergo chemical changes over time. But pastels contain enough medium to achieve texture and necessary cohesion. Pastels combine the expressive immediacy of a drawing with the characteristics and rich depth of paintings.

Working in pastels does have its disadvantages. For one thing, they are fragile. Some brands are quite expensive, and it is easy to go through a stick of a certain color very quickly. Unlike paints, which can be mixed to form new colors, pastels have color & tonal limitations. The pastel artist must begin with a large number of sticks in order to achieve an adequate variety of color. Finally, glazing is very difficult and sometimes impossible with pastels.

Even so, pastels are a wonderfully rich and versatile medium to explore.

Kinds of Pastels
The softness or hardness of a pastel is determined by the amount of binder used, the hardness of the pigment, and the pressure applied in making the stick.

Hard pastels contain more gum binder; mixed with black pigment instead of chalk-which is why they tend to comprise more of the darker colors available. Hard pastels are generally used in a drawing capacity rather than a painting capacity. You can achieve sharp, definitive points by breaking or by sharpening with a blade. Hard pastels are used mainly either in the preliminary stage of a painting, or in the final, touch-up stages. Hard pastel doesn't clog the tooth of the paper as readily. Hard pastels can be easily erased with a rag or with a bristle brush, to define composition before the working-over stage.

Pastel pencils (hard pastels encased in wood) are ideal for intricate work using fine, crisp lines. They are excellent for cross-hatching and feathering. Pastel pencils also allow greater control and ease in handling. Unfortunately, they are often more expensive.

Soft pastels have minimal binding agents and contain proportionately more pigment than hard pastels. Their colors are mixed with white chalk, clay, gypsum, or a dark substance such as charcoal to increase the covering power of the pigments. The white filler is responsible for the delicacy of hue associated with light colors such as flesh tints. Darker fillers create rich earth tones and deeper hues of colors. Soft pastels are indispensable when working in a more "painterly" style. They can be worked and blended into thick, velvety finishes, covering large areas very quickly. As a result, however, soft pastels disappear rapidly. They are also some of the most expensive and fragile pastels. Accordingly, great care should be taken when storing them.

Oil pastels are raw pigments combined with oil binders instead of gum. They produce thick, buttery strokes, and their colors are deeper and more luminous, like oil paints. They are also less crumbly and smearing. Oil pastels are suited to direct, spontaneous work, and can be diluted with turpentine or mineral spirits. In a technique known as sgraffito, oil pastels (as well as other pastels, for that matter) can be layered over other media such as soft pastels, acrylic paint, watercolor, or gouache.

Choosing Your Colors
While most paints can be mixed from a relatively limited palette to form many different colors, pastels require a large number of separate sticks to achieve an adequate range of hues and tints. The greater the variety of pastels you have, the better.

Every pastel company has a full collection of pure, full-strength colors. In addition, each of these colors has a number of lighter or darker shades, made by mixing carefully graded percentages of either white or black chalk to the pure pigment. Begin acquiring your pastels by considering your subject matter and the colors it will require (ie., flesh tones, earth tones, brilliant colors for flowers, etc.). Or start by choosing a warm and cool version of each of the major colors of the spectrum. Add to these black, white, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and raw umber. Each color you select will need at least three shades: light, middle, and dark tone. Hard pastels usually come in more limited shades than soft pastels. You might also record color names and/or numbers that you already have or that need to be replaced.

Pastels vary in permanence and in hardness. Some pigments are more permanent than others, and some require more binding agents to adhere into sticks. For example, raw umber needs a much weaker binding agent than alizarin red; as a result, raw umber will in general be softer than red. It is a good idea to choose only those colors identified by true pigment names. Avoid the colors designated by simple hues (light green, rose pink, greenish blue, etc.) as well as fancy names (mouse gray, peacock blue, pansy pink) - as these probably contain non-permanent colors.

Which Surfaces to Choose
A pastel painting is very much a marriage of pastel and paper. Always keep these three things in mind:

Tooth - Pastel, unlike paint, sits on top of the paper. Smooth surfaces won't hold the pigment. Whether rough or smooth, the paper should be relatively thick, of good quality, and should contain some sizing. The finer the tooth, the fewer layers of pastel a paper can hold. Rough is good for bold, vigorous work with thick layers of color. Rough is good for achieving textured, grainy, sparkly effects. Smooth is good for fine detail and linear work, although soft blending is also good on a smooth surface.

Tone - This refers to the relative lightness or darkness of a paper. Middle-toned papers are most popular. Dark toned papers can be more difficult to work with.

Color - On the whole, it's best to avoid the vibrantly colored papers. If in doubt, go with a neutral, muted color.

Fine pastel papers include: Canson Mi-Teintes, Hahnemühle Ingres, Alcantra, watercolor papers (cold pressed or rough), charcoal paper, fine sandpaper (this can be expensive: the coarse grain eats pastels quickly and is hard to erase on), pastel boards, velour (flocked) paper, and many others.

You can tone and/or texturize your own papers:

Toning - Use pastel dust, atomizers, watercolor washes, acrylic, gouache, damp tea leaves (old Chinese practice).

Texturizing - coat paper with warm size or acrylic medium, then immediately add pumice powder or marble dust evenly over the surface. Shake off the excess.

Blending & Erasing

Razor blades, kneaded erasers, bristle brushes, stumps, fingers, rags, and other things such as paper towels or bread are all excellent tools to use with pastels. Erasing should be done early on because excessive working of the surface can deaden the color of a pastel painting. Erasing can also spoil the texture of the paper. Fingers are perhaps the best tool a pastel artist has. One can cover the fingers with latex gloves to avoid adding grease to the image. Never rub a kneaded eraser on a pastel painting, as this can make it slick and greasy. Press the eraser in and pick up the pigment without rubbing.

A pastel fixative is a thinly diluted varnish that binds the particles and holds them to the page. Most fixatives are in the form of aerosol cans, which are efficient but usually very unhealthy.

To fix or not to fix?

Curators - yes: When a pastel painting is fixed, the falling particles won't damage the mat when it is framed. Also, the tactile quality of the painting is enhanced; it acquires a richness and solidity like oil paintings.

Artists - no: A fixative alters the character of a painting. Particles absorb the varnish and coalesce, resembling thicker and heavier paint more than pastel. Colors change and are darkened: for example, white with underlying or adjacent colors can blend more than might be desired. Finally, the tonal balance of a painting can be lost with too much fixative. Many pastel artists leave most of the fixing to moisture in the air, which acts on the size in the paper & gum in the pastel over time. Also, the older a pastel is, the more solid it becomes on its own.

Middle ground: impasto: Many pastel artists alternately fix and work color over the fixative to build up heavy layers. This method is characteristic of the pastel paintings by Degas, who used fixative as a medium to create a thick paste which could be worked into with a brush. Other pastel artists fix their paintings more heavily early on, and then little to none at all over the final layers and highlights.


* Place a thin sheet of tissue or cellophane over the painting, then apply pressure with a board. This fixes particles into the grain of the paper without affecting the surface.

* Spray the fixative from behind the paper so that it soaks through and holds the painting together without affecting the surface.

* Or, make your own fixatives: dissolve ½ tsp. gelatin powder in 2 pints warm water, then let it sit for 2 hrs. Spray on the mixture while it's still warm. (Or: 1 part mastic varnish to 25 parts ethyl acetate or butyl alcohol. This produces a very fast drying fixative.)

How to Spray Fix:
Practice with aerosols to achieve a uniform mist.
Don't spray too close; you want a mist that settles gently over everything.
Tap the back of the board.
Spray 3-4 feet away, back & forth, going beyond edges, keeping arm moving.
2 or 3 light coats are better than one heavy coat.
Always work in a well-ventilated area.

Making Your Own Pastels
Making one's own pastels can be a fun and simple procedure. Very often the colors produced can be brighter than manufactured pastels. This is because most companies include pigment extenders & fillers in their pastels. Also, in creating your own pastels you can achieve exactly the desired color. Finally, it is much cheaper than buying separate pastel sticks!

Here is one method of making pastels:

Ingredients: powdered gum tragacanth, precipitated chalk (calcium carbonate), distilled water, beta napthol (a preservative), and dry pigments. Plus bowls, palette knives, and a smooth glass slab, airtight jars, and lots of paper towels.

4 tbsp. Gum trag. + ½ tsp. beta napthol + 2 pints distilled water and mix in a bowl. (For softer pastels, add more distilled water; for harder pastels, add more gum tragacanth.) Let the mixture stand overnight in a warm place. Then mix the binding solution with dry pigments using a palette knife. For lighter tints, mix chalk with the binding solution before mixing it with the pure color. For darker shades, use ivory black pigment. To make the sticks, knead the paste on a slab covered in paper towels to remove excess moisture and air bubbles. Roll into sticks lengthwise with finger, or with cardboard covered with paper towel. Let dry at room temp. for 48 hrs.

Care & Safety
* Pastels can be very dangerous, because it's easy to breathe in their dust. Also, watch out for the fixatives.

* Use a rice container to store and cushion the fragments of pastel sticks.

* Use corrugated cardboard to keep sticks from rolling onto the floor and breaking.

* Wear a mask when you work with pastels; the dust is very toxic.

* Using an air filter machine is another good safety precaution.

* Never blow hard on your work; work on upright easels and allow the pastel dust to settle by itself.

* Collect the pastel dust at the base of your easel, or on papers on the floor. This can then be used for making new pastels or for toning more paper.



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