What is Pastel and why is it such a special medium?

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Pastel is a dry medium of pure pigment, the same pigment used in making all fine art paints. When a pastel painting is framed under glass, it is the most permanent of all mediums, as it has no liquid binder which may cause darkening, fading or cracking with time, as can be the case with some mediums. Pastels from the 16th Century still exist today, as fresh as the day they were painted.

Jan Harris - Poppies from our 33rd Annual Exhibition

Genevieve Monnier, in her book “Pastels from the 16th to the 20th Century” describes pastels as –

“…powdered colour with an infinite range of shades and gradations of unfading freshness and intensity, spanning more then 1650 nuances of the colour spectrum and peculiarly fitted for ease and rapidity of handling, immediate transcription of an emotion or idea, easily effaced, easily reworked and blended. The pigments can be rubbed in, made luminous and velvety, or given a soft and silky matness of grain. Pastel is line and colour at once. It can also be built up into rich skeins of blended lines, into rapid jottings of all colours creating a dense and brilliant texture. Pastel is a medium of unsuspected range and diversity.”

Pastel does not refer to pale colour, as the word is commonly used in fashion terminology, instead it is derived from the French worked ‘pastiche’. The pure powdered pigment is ground to a ‘paste’ with a small amount of gum binder and then rolled into sticks. The infinite varieties of colours range from soft and subtle, to bold and brilliant. In fact the luminosity of the pastel medium is a constant source of amazement amongst viewers.

Many pastel works hang in National Galleries around the world. During the 17th and 18th centuries notable artists such as Le Brun, Boucher, Lemoine, Carriera and La Tour created some of the most exquisite portraits using pastels. In the 19th and 20th centuries – Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Millet, Manet, Gauguin, Whistler, Cassatt, Picasso, Klee, Chagall and Pollock are just a few of the many familiar masters who used the pastel medium.

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