PASTEL is derived from the French word “pastiche”. Metaphorically, pastiche and pasticcio describe works that are either composed by several authors, or that incorporate stylistic elements of other artists’ work.

Pastel, described as “…the dust on butterfly wings” by renowned American artist Wolf Kahn.

Pastel is as close as an artist can come to painting with pure color. It is made from pure pigment in powdered form allowing an artist to create a velvety matte surface, dry color capable of a range of effects. There are two basic types of pastels, soft and oil, both bound in stick form. Soft pastels are made with a combination of white chalk, pigment and gum arabic, which gives it a drier matte finish. Oil pastels are bound with wax and oil, not gum, providing more intense hues.

If viewed under a microscope, pastel pigment particles  look like a diamond with many facets, therefore, pastel paintings reflect light like a prism. The medium allows each painting to have a rich velvety texture that seems to glow with intensely luminous color that does not yellow with time. Click to view microscopic images of pastel pigment particles.

The presence of pastel has been identified in works of art from about 1500 A.D. It was sometimes used as a medium for preparatory studies by 16th-century artists. Leonardo de Vinci is credited with the first known use of pastel in his portrait of Isabella D’Este (1499).

Venetian artist, Rosalba Carriera ( 1675 – 1757) popularized pastel in the late-1600s. Her works possess a delicate feeling and soft look, which results from her rubbing and blending techniques. In her 1721 work, “Young Girl Holding a Crown of Laurel,” pastel produces a gently refined image with discreetly elegant effects and became known for her stunning portraits of aristocracy.

By the eighteenth century, color, not line, became dominant as pastels moved aesthetically closer to painting, the medium became fashionable for portrait painting, sometimes in a mixed technique with gouache. Maurice Quentin de La Tour (French, 1704–1788), strongly influenced by Carriera, took pastel in new directions with brilliant color, crisp detail and clarity never before seen in pastel works. One of his celebrated portraits, “Nicole Richards as a Child” illustrates the artist’s agile hand in capturing the subject with remarkable clarity.

Most contemporary amateur and professional pastel artists trace their roots to 19th century French impressionists, especially Edgar Degas. Degas took his pastel work very seriously, developing his own fixative allowing him to paint over previously painted surfaces. His figures were often lit from below and painted while singing or dancing. He frequently employed underpainting in watercolor to intensify the light catching effects of dry pastels.

Other pastel painters of note include the likes of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, William Merrit Chase, Childe Hassam, Georgia O’Keefe, and Odilon Redon.