Pastels are sticks of ground pigment mixed with chalk and gum or oil, then shaped into 'drawing sticks'. Pastels cannot be mixed on a palette like paints, but are mixed on the paper by overlaying or blending.
Painting with pastel began 250 years ago, in Italy and France. Rosalba Carreira, born in Venice in 1675, became the first popular painter of the new medium she was the first to master this new medium, becoming the most fashionable pastelist in Paris. She used a rubbing and blending technique applied with a soft and delicate feeling. After Carreira died, pastels remained popular in Europe. Jean Etienne Liotard, originally from Switzerland, did remarkably textured society portraits capturing the likeness of the gentry and their families.
Maurice Quentin de La Tour 1704-1788, a great name in pastels, studied in Paris . His works were unpolished, not soft or delicate. His work showed competence, clarity, detail and freedom. Many pastelists emulated his frenzy of brilliant colors and textures. He gave pastel a new expression that lasted four decades. Pastel had no equal for freshness and spontaneity.
By the end of the 1860's, art was again changing...replaced by impressionism, the new doctrine of light and air being developed by Monet, Pissarro, Alfred Sisley and Cezanne boldly advanced. During this period, Renoir, temporarily abandoned impressionism, but later returned, combining discipline with color, light and atmosphere in such paintings as "Les Canotiers", aggressive strokes and colors were the hallmarks of this pastel period. They were thinly applied to approximate cool atmospheric colors and emulate the transparency and sparkle of light.
Edgar Degas 1834-1917-- remains the most important pastel painter in the history of Art. He greatly advanced pastel's total range of effects. Degas was fascinated by the camera, cropping effects, Japanese woodcuts by masters Hokasai and Hiroshigek, flattened compositions, asymmetry and bright colors. Working to make his colors luminescent, he experimented with crosshatching, paints and pastel; he combined pastel with every medium, and surfaces of paper, cardboard and canvas. He mixed pastels with gouache and watercolor, and steamed them to soften pigments. With brushes, he manipulated colors and mediums, dipping pastels into prepared solutions and fixing each of the layers. He popularized the use and advanced the knowledge of fixatives. He drew and painted at the same time, constructing pictures, and enhancing illustration. Blindness finished his work in 1892. Degas pushed the envelope of pastel usage. Because of him, pastel was no longer considered a pale, pallid medium.
The first Americans who could compete with the proficient Europeans in pastel were James McNeil Whistler, of Massachusetts and Mary Cassatt, she was an excellent draftswoman, doing inspired pastel portraits of mothers and children.She repeatedly used the same models, seeking a feeling of intimacy. Much admired, she created rounded forms with straight strokes.
Today, painters in pastel, join this roster of famous men and women to explore the beauty of the most permanent of all the mediums in existence. Its intrinsic beauty is without peer.