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Using Pastels

Where do I start!! Art is a very personal journey, and pastels mirror this intimacy. However, in this article, I’ll try to explore how I view and use pastels in an attempt to help and inspire others about this medium.

Pastel is a very old medium used extensively in antiquity – wall and cave art abound, done with charcoal, gypsum and ochre sticks and lumps.  A pencil is, with some stretch of the imagination,  a pastel wrapped in a wooden jacket.

Pastels have a number of highly desirable characteristics and a number of disadvantages – when compared to other mediums.

Let’s start with the apparent downside – pastels are dirty, clumsy, expensive, generate almost unhealthy dust levels and travels badly. They can smudge; their paper support is prone to humidity, warping, fungus, worms etc. They are difficult to operate in a plein air exercise. Why would anyone go for this stuff in the first place?

Pastel is often a medium of choice by elimination.   That implies the artist turns to pastels after the other traditional mediums fail or fade for whatever reason.   One thing is certain – almost all artists start life in pastels – a childhood filled with crayons and pencil doodling. I found that my love for pastels in my mature art career resonates with the endless joy I have with those greasy pastels in my tender years.

Let’s get serious now! Pastels offer huge advantages over other mediums.  Primary asset is colour saturation– no other medium or professional Giclee printer can manage the brilliancy or saturation of pastels – not even oils.  Pastels just keep getting better with new technological pigments (Vanta Black pastel any time soon?).  Pastels offer the shortest route from the artist’s brain to the drawing surface – absolutely nothing comes in between.  In oils (and acrylics), the brush has its own nature and the artist has to succumb to the brush’s technicalities and inherent limitations.

Watercolours fare even further away from the artist. Not only is there a brush in the way but watercolours have a mind of their own. The artist has to manoeuvre and whisper to the gods to get his or her way done.  I like watercolours (and paint with them too) – but I’m in love with pastels.

Pastels need no rocket scientist to operate – all you need is a bunch of pastel sticks and a surface.

What about the sticks?

By far I consider Unison pastels as a top brand that delivers what it promises at a reasonable price. The quality is certainly there.  The pigments are properly milled to their ideal micron size and rarely one finds the abrasive scratching blob in a Unison stick. They are moderately soft and I personally would have liked them just very slightly stiffer. The pigment strength is at a maximum and with Unison you need pretty much nothing else.

I find that you need about 100 different pastel shades in order to start using pastels in an articulated way.  For me mixing two pastel shades on paper is a no no! Of course everyone else can mix (some say blend) and layer pastel colours on paper to create a new hybrid shade – but in doing so it defeats all the scope of the biggest asset of pastels – the laying down of  a single shade.  There is something special about how a shade of a single freshly layer pastel stroke resonates in the light.  Blending dulls down the colour to oil paint level – a perceptible level of degradation. Blending two or more layered colours kills the vibrancy of pastels even more – hence the need of a wide range of pastel shades. I have a collection of about 200 shades but effectively use about a hundred of these on regular basis.  The rest fill in odd jobs on occasions, and importantly keep my work looking a bit different and fresh in colour usage across a number of drawings.

I use pastels in a pointillist way – I know what a patch of colour needs to look like. I go and select the closest coloured pastel stick. I go on the surface and apply a drawn area that mostly will be left as it results – without blending of flattening.

But of course this is me and there are scores of ways to use these sticks – all very much as great and suiting different artists.

Many pastelists struggle with detail and here is where pastel pencils come in handy.  The coloured pencil once sharpened can finish off sharp edges and fine lines, something that chubby chalk sticks cannot do. Some artists chop and fragment shards off pastel sticks in order to make the pastel stick do detail work.

Surfaces come in all shapes and sizes.

Pastels need a flat but textured surface to maximise its colour release. The most common finishes are the velvety surface and the sanded type.  I happen to use sanded papers.  Sometimes I use hot pressed watercolour paper and apply a toned ground with a very fine pumice mix to create a toothy surface.

In conclusion, pastel work also benefits from planning. Pastel is not a very spontaneous medium- for that watercolour wins hands down. I plan (or try to plan) my pastel work in a detailed way. I strategise both on colour use (palette) as well on composition.  Again I must stress that this is my philosophy and what works for me. I hope that anyone would try pastels and discover that it  works for them and their creative insights!

Cheers and enjoy the medium.

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