The following is copyright and courtesy of Pastel Society of America, 15 Gramercy Park South, New York, NY 10003.
Pastel is pure pigment, the same pigment used in making all fine art paints. It is the most permanent of all media when applied to conservation ground and properly framed. Pastel has no liquid binder that may cause other media to darken, fade, yellow, crack or blister with time. Pastels from the 16th century exist today, as fresh as the day they were painted. No restoration needed, ever!
Pastel does not at all refer to pale colors, as the word is commonly used in cosmetic and fashion terminology. The name Pastel comes from the French word "pastische" because the pure, powdered pigment is ground into a paste with a small amount of gum binder, and then roiled into sticks. The infinite variety of colors in the Pastel palette range from soft and subtle to bold and brilliant.
An artwork is created by stroking the sticks of dry pigment across an abrasive ground, embedding the color in the "tooth" of the paper, sandboard or canvas. If the ground is completely covered with Pastel, the work is considered a Pastel painting; leaving much of the ground exposed produces a Pastel sketch. Techniques vary with individual artists. Pastel can be blended or used with visible strokes. Many artists favor the medium because it allows a spontaneous approach. There is no drying time and no allowances to be made for a change in color due to drying.
Historically, Pastel can be traced back to the 16th century. Its invention is attributed to the German painter Johann Thiele. A Venetian woman artist, Rosalba Camera was the first to make consistent use of Pastel. Chardin did portraits with an open stroke, while LaTour preferred the blended finish. Thereafter, a galaxy of famous artists . . . Watteau, Copley, Delacroix, Millet, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, Bonnard, Glackens, Whistler, Hassam, William Merritt Chase . . . just to list the more familiar names, used Pastel as finished work rather than preliminary sketches.
Degas was the most prolific user of Pastel, and its champion. His protégé, Marry Cassett, introduced the Impressionists and Pastel to her friends in Philadelphia and Washington, and thus to the United States. In the Spring of 1983, Sotheby Parke Bernet sold at auction two Degas Pastels for more than $3,000,000 each! Both Pastels were painted before 1880.
Today, Pastel paintings have the stature of oil and watercolor as a major fine art medium. Many of our most renowned living artists have distinguished themselves in Pastel, and enriched the art world with this beautiful medium.
Note: Pastel must never be confused with colored chalk. Chalk is a limestone substance impregnated with dyes.
Pastel is sometimes combined with watercolor, gouache, acrylic, charcoal or pencil in a "mixed-media" painting, but it is incompatible with oil paint.