History of Pastel


Pastel - the original medium

Illustration was the first profession, all other claims to the contrary. And given that pure pigments from the rocks and earth around them mixed with a little water or spit were the materials used by those first artists in caves, pastel was the first artistic medium. The vibrancy of the pigments, their endurance and easy application, are the medium's strongest assets, and the reason that this oldest of materials has been in constant use over the millennia.

To make a stick of pastel, a little clear binder holds the pure fine-ground mineral pigments together well enough for an artist to grip in a manageable form and apply to paper or board - or rock. Varying amounts of binder make sticks of different degrees of hardness, each with its own uses. These are dry pastels, also called soft pastels (and sometimes, erroneously, 'chalk' pastels although they contain no vibrancy-surpressing chalk). Pigments mixed with an oil base and formed into sticks are 'oil' pastels, and make another medium entirely.

An infinite range of colour is achieved by blending the natural ultramarines, viridians, ochres in many light and dark variations from yellow through red to purple, and on into new pigments created in a modern lab.

Over the centuries, artists have found dry pastel to be as fine and expressive a medium as oil paints, but somehow that high reputation has eluded it. An artist can be fastidious and meticulously precise, as the Venetian, Rosalba Carriera was with her exquisitely painted portraits in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Paris or Andrew Hemingway, a British artist, in our own day, or as loose as Leonardo da Vinci was with sanguine drawings in the 16th century, American Wolf Kahn in full blazing colour in the 20th or Montrealer Jacques Clement in the 21st.

Edgar Degas in the late 19thC experimented freely with the marks he made in many layers, with fixatives, and on unusual as well as traditional surfaces; he mixed pastel with watercolour, steamed the works to get different effects - all the sort of exploration we might associate with the free-thinking artists of our own day. Was he perhaps the first modern painter? Odilon Redon, a contemporary of Degas, exploiting pastel's particular qualities, moved from painting flowers to symbolist, surreal work well ahead of the capital "S" Surrealists like Dali, so well-known in our time. Mary Cassatt worked with Degas in Paris and brought pastel to America where her family were, and gave it respectability there. Claude Monet left us hundreds of pastel paintings as subtle and gorgeous as his more familiar oil paintings. Modern 20thC artists as different from each other as Italian Francesco Clemente, Colombian Fernando Botero and American R B Kitaj have been using pastel with wonderful results.

The Musee d'Orsay in Paris mounted a spectacular exhibition of pastels from their collection in 2009, calling it "Mystery and Glitter" in English. This link will take you to their Archive, with illustrations and more very interesting information: 


Canada has many pastellists among the first rank of artists working today. Joseph Plaskett, Walter Bachinsky, Horace Champagne, Ann Kipling and John Hartman, among others, exhibit in the major galleries of Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton.

The Pastel Society of America has been a very active organization promoting the medium there since 1972 and the popularity of pastel has grown exponentially, arousing the curiosity of artists and manufacturers alike - many superb brands of pastel are now made there, as well as in Europe and China.

The works of all the artists mentioned can be found at your fingertips on the internet - tracking them down will give you great pleasure.



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