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Soft Pastels - the world's oldest and most durable painting medium

(Image: Wikimedia)

32,000 years ago, in a cave in Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, France, an artist decided to decorate the walls and ceilings of his or her cave with paintings of horses. While experts continue to debate the reasons for their creation, what is not debatable is the beauty of this art. The horses are so true-to-life that you expect them to leap off the walls and prance out the cave. The medium this prehistoric artist used? Pure minerals and charcoal. The same minerals we use in soft pastels today.   

I work primarily in soft pastels because to me, they are the most versatile of all painting mediums. They are made from the same mineral pigments that form the basis of oil colors, watercolors, acrylics, and inks. Instead of being mixed in a liquid, they are mixed with a binder, typically gum tragacanth, rolled into sticks, and left to dry. The more pigment and less binder, the softer the pastel.   

I use a wide variety of pastels that are “harder” (NuPastel and Faber Castell) to "medium" (Art Spectrum, Rembrandt, Mt. Vision) to the very, very soft (Girault, Schmincke, Sennelier, Unison, Great American, Blue Earth, Terry Ludwig). When using pastels, I cannot “mix” pigments the same way a wet media painter would. To “mix” colors, I layer them on top of each other. I usually start with the harder pastels because they don’t leave as much pigment on the textured surface of the paper. By adding the softer pastels later, it allows me to create greater depth, more texture and the semblance of “brush strokes” because the softer the pastel, the more it adheres to the surface.

My medium-sized, plein air pastel box (after I've tidied it up a bit)

When you look at pastel particles under a microscope, you see that they look like dozens of prisms — they’re crystals! And because of that crystalline structure, they refract and reflect light. It is this quality that provides the luminosity and sparkle that is unique to a pastel painting. No other medium can duplicate the freshness and vivacity of a pastel.   

Some pastellists use a fixative in order to adhere more pastels to the surface when they run out of tooth or want to create a certain texture. I rarely use a fixative. If I do, it’s usually at the very end and then only lightly. That’s because using fixatives aren't good for the environment and they destroy the crystalline properties of the pastel making them appear duller and darker.   

Caring for Your Pastel Painting 

If you already own a pastel painting, or purchase one of mine, it's important to treat it with particular care so it doesn't get ruined by moisture in the environment. I've written some instructions you can follow, download it here.

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