Pastels were first used in the 15th century. They were often used as a study medium by artists in the 16th century. Leonardo da Vinci learned the technique from Jean Perreal around 1499. Many famous artists throughout history used pastels, especially for portraits including John Russell, John Singleton Copley, Eugene Delacrois, Jean-Francois Millet, and Edouard Manet. Probably most notable was Edgar Degas who was an innovator in pastel technique and used it in an expressionist technique after 1885. Mary Cassatt, an American artist working in Europe, introduced the medium to the United States.
Pastels are a dry medium and come in several forms and are pure powered pigments that have been combined with a binder. The characteristics depend on the binder used. They come is varying degrees of hardness. But they are similar to working with chalk. The surface used to draw or paint on has “tooth” or a rough surface to hold the pigments. Because it is a dry medium, colors are not mixed ahead of their use. Color variations come from laying one color over another and blending. Working with this medium is challenging since it is blended directly on the work surface and is not tested ahead of time. Mistakes cannot be covered over.
The various types of dry pastels include:
SOFT PASTELS: These are the most used type and come in sticks similar to chalk. They have the highest portion of pigment, the greatest selection of shades and the richest colors. They have a greater luminosity than other forms. Colors blend easier, but can also be smudged. They need to be protected being framed under glass.
PAN PASTELS: These also have a minimum of binder, but are formed in pots similar to a makeup compact. They are applied to a surface with a soft sponge.
HARD PASTELS: These have much more binder that the previous two types. They are useful in sketching or finer details. The colors are less brilliant.
PASTEL PENCILS: These are just like pencils, only the lead is made of pastel. They are a harder pastel, but difficult to sharpen because they are not hard like lead. They are used for the finest details.
OIL PASTELS: The are soft and dense with intense color. They do not blend.
Unlike a sketch or study, a pastel painting is created much like an oil painting with detail, layers of color and using several techniques and types of pastels. These paintings are generally very expressive and full of life. Pastel paintings can capture nuances of light and shadow unlike some other mediums.