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What are Pastels?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2016
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Pastels are a drawing medium in the form of square or round sticks made from powder pigments mixed with a base and a binder to form a paste that hardens. They are used in art classes in elementary schools and by professional artists. Pastels are available in four basic forms: soft, hard, pencils, and oil.

Soft pastels. “Velvety bloom” is a phrase characteristically used to describe the look of the soft pastel, and notable for appearing in the C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation of the fifth volume of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, The Captive. They have a relatively high pigment to binder ratio, and they are easy to both blend and smudge. Having less binder makes them susceptible to breakage, however. Soft pastels are available in student and professional sets. The student items include classroom sets, with multiple sticks of basic colors, as well as individual, small-to-medium-size sets, and are more affordable than professional sets.

Hard pastels. This type have the opposite ratio of materials to soft pastels: more binder and less pigment. As a result, they have less brilliant colors but a firmer texture, and — even able to take a point — can be used to create small, tight detail or for outlining.

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Pastel pencils. Pencils with pastel-colored lead or graphite (or some other writing medium) are available. When sharpening, lettering, and outlining are necessary, a hard pencil may suit the job. Also available are soft pencils, which are typically better for filling in larger areas with pastel colors.

Oil pastels. This type features a different binder than hard and soft pastels, which gives them a different texture, often described as “buttery.” Artist Pablo Picasso was involved in developing this variety made by Sennelier. Like soft pastels, oils are available in student and professional sets. They have intense colors, which are more difficult to blend but less likely to break than soft versions. They are often found in art classrooms in elementary and secondary schools.

Paper. Pastel paper is usually characterized by its “tooth” — it’s ability to hold lots of pigment. Special paper has been developed for oils to prevent seeping or bleeding. One can also purchase pastel vellum and colored paper made specially for this media.

Accessories. Fixatives are used to set pastels so that they stay as the artist desires, with no further blending or smudging. Stumps and tortillons are spiral-wound gray paper used for smoothing and blending pastels and charcoal. A sandpaper block is used to sharpen pastel sticks if a point is desired. The block is sold as a sheaf of small sandpaper strips stapled onto a handle.

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