A Pastel Continuum

A Swatch of Carmine

One of the advantages of having a group publisher with a background in the history and science of art materials is that you only have to ask to receive the answers to your most pressing pigmentation questions. When I asked David Pyle about carmine, for example, he told me about cochineal, the dried insects used to achieve that brilliant bright red. They live and feed on certain cacti and are one of the most ancient sources of pigmentation still in use. The Aztec and Mayan people made frequent use of them and today you can find them in cosmetics, fabrics and foods (they’re FDA approved!), as well as paint, of course.

Here’s another bit of pigmentation trivia for your perusal: Mummy brown (also known as Egyptian brown) was once derived from a powder ground from actual mummies, which were apparently more readily available for such purposes than you might expect. A powder ground from mummies was sold for its supposed medicinal properties in medieval apothecaries. And eventually it found its way into paint in the 16th and 17th centuries. (Now mummy pigments are made of mineral deposits.)

When we talk about the draw of the pastel medium, we often talk about its simplicity. It’s a rather straightforward affair, after all. You need only your pastels and your papers to paint. And pastelists often speak of the sheer tactile thrill they experience as they work–the gritty immediacy of the experience. According to some historians, prehistoric people created a kind of pastel stick by packing pigment-laden paste inside hollow animal bones, which they then baked near fire until they slid easily from the bones. Many of our featured artists and readers alike regularly make their own pastels (and their own supports.) We have yet to hear of any who bake bones near a fire, but many attest that the process brings them closer to their chosen medium–and more importantly, their sense of a continuum among artists.

Incidentally, you can watch our group publisher David Pyle demonstrate new pastel products at IAPS here. You’ll find Deborah Secor demonstrating there, as well.

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