Pastels – A Drawing or Painting Medium?


Compare drawn pastel lines to those marks made with the side of a pastel stick.

What is the difference between drawing and painting? Can I draw, as well as paint, with pastels? These questions are frequently discussed among pastel painters. Defining a difference between the two can be subjective and often leads to passionate opinions from those involved.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, drawing is the art or technique of representing an object or outlining a figure, plan, or sketch by means of lines. Painting is simply defined as a work produced through the art of painting. We can infer that since paint is wet and easily spread, it tends to create shapes that represent value and color, while the act of drawing—done with a dry utensil—easily makes lines or marks. Line is the one thing that man has created that does not exist in nature. We see light as it falls on form. Line is a type of calligraphy, or handwriting, that we created as a means of communication.

Since pastel is a dry medium, kindred to charcoal and chalk, it is easy to see why it is so often associated with drawing. Many painters enjoy its ability to easily produce line and use it in a fashion closely associated to drawing. Others choose to work with it in the fashion of paint. This makes pastel a very versatile medium, providing a gamut of possibilities.

If you are a landscape pastelist that longs to be more painterly, representing the fine texture of grasses or tree limbs can be an issue. While overstated detail can be the curse of any representational painting, a degree of it is often needed. This often prompts the pastelists to draw lines with their pastel sticks. A better method may be to let the edge of the pastel stick do the work for you. By holding the pastel so that an edge is placed onto the painting surface, a more natural looking, less drawn, line will be produced. This works especially well with softer pastels. A pastel stick broken into a usable size of approximately 1 to 1.5 inches works well. When the long edge of the stick is struck against the surface, a broken application of pastel is deposited. Practice this procedure on scraps of paper or failed paintings in advance of a masterpiece. The effect is similar to what an oil painter achieves by loading a bead of paint on the long edge of a painting knife. Small brushes tend to make lines, while the painting knife creates a more serendipitous, natural appearance.

Whether you use the attitude of the draftsman or the painter, pastel sticks are capable of providing a multitude of techniques. Peel the label off, and experiment. It’s not so much how you put it on, but the end result that matters. Make it your own!

Richard McKinley’s article about supports, gounds and underpaintings and his article about fixing mistakes in your pastel paintings can both be purchased as downloads in our online shop.

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