One of the biggest allures of pastel, as a fine art medium, is its tactile nature. Painters who are using a wet medium have to rely on either a brush or painting knife to apply paint, but pastelists get to hold molded dry pigment directly in their hands. Depending on the relative softness or hardness of the stick, the form in which it was shaped, the surface upon which it is to be applied, and manner of application, a multitude of technique possibilities can be achieved.
Stick Consistency: A pastel stick basically contains pure colored pigment and binder. Some manufacturers add other inert products, such as pumice, talc or various chalk and clay compounds, to affect the feel. The inherent nature of the colored pigment, degree of binder and possible addition of inert substances all have an effect on the final tactile sensation of the pastel as it is being applied to surface. For this reason, pastelists need to experiment among the various pastel brands available to find the one best suited to their individual hand.
Form & Function: The shape and size of the pastel stick has a lot to do with how it will be used. As manufacturers began to offer pastels for commercial purchase requiring mass production, they developed ways of extruding the initial wet pastel paste. Most of these forms relied on cylindrical shapes with varying degrees of length. The circumference was kept relatively small to allow for fine edge detail. This shape associated well to the pencil, or pen and led artists to make marks with the stick traditionally. To facilitate swipes of pastel, longer sticks were broken into lengths for application on their sides. Today, many manufacturers offer half-stick pastels, alleviating the need to remove a paper labels and break the stick into a useable size. Rectangular shaped sticks are also becoming popular. These are less prone to rolling off of a palette and make edge use easier to gauge. Some hand-formed boutique pastels are also available in a variety of shapes.
Surface Interaction: The consistency and form of a pastel stick isn’t the only factor involved in how it feels once in hand. It depends in large part with its interaction with the surface. A grittier surface will more readily grab pigment, while a smoother surface will not. This explains why a pastel stick that may feel like a cube of margarine on one surface will act like a tree limb on another.
Artistic Personality: While consistency, form and surface play major roles in painting with pastel, it is their interaction with one’s artistic personality that creates the final tactile experience. Some painters are inclined to push hard, exhibiting a heavy hand. Others exert subtle pressure, allowing the pigment to whisper onto the surface. Some of us jab at the surface, generating fragmented dashes of color. Others gently swipe the pastel, producing ethereal transitions of application. No matter the outcome, it is the tactile relationship between pastel and painter that has made us fall in love with the medium.
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