A Brief History of Pastel

Pastel - the Original Medium

Illustration was the first profession, all other claims to the contrary. And given that pure pigments from the rocks and earth around them mixed with a little water or spit were the materials used by those first artists in caves, pastel was the first artistic medium.

Lascaux, in southwestern France, is famous for its cave paintings.  The size, quality and sophistication of these image are exceptional considering they are estimated to be up 20,000 years old.

Lascaux cave painting

The vibrancy of the pigments, their endurance and easy application, are the medium’s strongest assets, and the reason that this oldest of materials has been in constant use over the millennia.

To make a stick of pastel, a little clear binder holds the pure fine-ground mineral pigments together well enough for an artist to hold and apply to paper or board. Varying amounts of binder make sticks of different degrees of hardness, each with its own uses. These are dry pastels, also called soft pastels (and sometimes, erroneously, ‘chalk’ pastels even though they contain no chalk). Pigments mixed with an oil base and formed into sticks are ‘oil’ pastels and are an entirely different medium.

An infinite range of colour is achieved by blending the natural ultramarines, viridians, ochres in many light and dark variations from yellow through red to purple. Many of the new pigments used are synthetically created

Small sample of today's vibrant pastels

Over the centuries, artists have found soft pastel to be as fine and expressive a medium as oil paints, but somehow that high reputation has eluded it.

An artist can be fastidious and meticulously precise, as the Venetian, Rosalba Carriera was with her exquisitely painted portraits in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, or Andrew Hemingway, a British artist, in our own day.

Or they can be as loose as Leonardo da Vinci was with sanguine drawings in the 16th century to American Wolf Kahn in full blazing colour in the 21st century.

Rosalba Carriera - Summer

Edgar Degas in the late 19th century, experimented freely with the marks he made in many layers, with fixatives, and on unusual as well as traditional surfaces; he mixed pastel with watercolour, steamed the works to get different effects – all the sort of exploration we might associate with the free-thinking artists of our own day. Was he perhaps the first modern painter?

Edgar Degas - The Star

Odilon Redon, a contemporary of Degas, exploiting pastel’s qualities, moved from painting flowers to symbolism, surreal work well ahead of the capital “S” Surrealists like Dali, so well-known in our time.


Odilon Redon Bouquet of Flowers

Mary Cassatt worked with Degas in Paris and brought pastel to America and gave it respectability there.

Mary Cassatt - Mother and Child

Claude Monet left us hundreds of pastel paintings as subtle and gorgeous as his more familiar oil paintings.

Canada has many pastellists who made their mark in pastel over the past few decades including Harley Brown, Joseph Plaskett, Walter Bachinsky, Ann Kipling, John Hartman and Horace Champagne

Currently, Canadian artists and PAC members, like Roberta Combs, Andrew McDermott, Gail Sibley, Kathy Hildebrandt and many more are  garnering attention around the world on the pastel stage. Check out the works of all these artists on the net and here on our website.

Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.

~~Edgar Degas~~