What is pastel?

Pastels on gray paper

Technically, pastel is powdered pigment, rolled into round or square sticks and held together with methylcellulose, a non-greasy binder. It can either be blended with finger and stump, or left with visible strokes and lines. Generally, the ground is toned paper, but sanded papers, boards and canvases are also popular. If the ground is covered completely with pastel, the work is considered a pastel painting, as opposed to a pastel sketch that leaves much of the ground showing. When properly protected behind glass, pastel is the most permanent of all media, for it never cracks, darkens or yellows.

Historically, its origin can be traced back to the 16th century. In the late 19th century, Edgar Degas was the most prolific user of pastel, and its champion, for he raised it to the full brilliance of oil. His protege, Mary Cassatt, introduced the Impressionists and pastel to her wealthy friends in the United States. Today, many of our most renowned living artists have distinguished themselves in pastels, and have enriched the world with this glorious medium.

Since the early 1990s, pastel societies have sprung up all over the world, as artists are raising the awareness of pastel as a serious medium of choice. Today, art competitions are now recognizing pastel as a separate category for consideration for awards. Two major organizations exist to demonstrate the validity and quality of fine art in pastel: The Pastel Society of America and the International Association of Pastel Societies.