Preparing the Pastel Stick

82-preparing-pastels.jpgMany years ago I worked in an art supply and framing shop, it was a great experience and very informative. They handled a few pastel lines—two brands, I think (it was the 1970s after all)—and whenever a shipment came in, there were invariably a few broken sticks. This was especially an issue with the unopened boxed sets. 

Often, after purchasing a set, a customer would return upset because some of the beautiful sticks were “not perfect.” We’re not talking crushed or in multiple pieces, just broken in half. The policy was to give an exchange or refund, and the customer always departed happy. Some time during this period, I began teaching pastel classes and many of the pastel customers would filter through these sessions. It was always a traumatic experience for them to arrive the first day, open their pastel boxes preparing for work, only to be told to remove the paper label and break the sticks into usable sections. The look of complete horror on their faces was quite comical and I admit being amused. Hard-earned monies had been spent on these beautiful sticks of pure pigment, and they wanted them perfect. Even I am guilty of selecting another stick from open stock when I discover it is broken. It is human nature, especially for us OCDs.

But the issue is not about whether a pastel stick is perfectly formed; our concern is whether it’s a usable tool. To draw is to use a stick and make marks consisting of lines. To paint is to make a variety of shapes consisting of value and color. This is a simplified definition but gets to the aesthetic differences between the two mindsets. The longer we hold on to those perfectly wrapped pastels, the longer we hinder their potential. Whether rectangle, round or disk shaped, the new pastel stick needs to be readied for use. Think of these pastel pieces like a brush. The wet artist obtains a variety of sized brushes for the strokes they employ. The pastel artist mirrors this by breaking their pastels into pieces that provide a diversity of edge. The exposed side of the pastel stick is capable of broad strokes; the tip a blunt mark; and the edges a variety of line and dashes. By applying more or less pressure on one edge, varying degrees of pigment will be deposited, replicating the loaded or lean paint application of the oil painter.

So peal the paper off and break those beautiful pastel sticks into usable sizes! Think of them as brushes. If you don’t do it now, some instructor will insist on it in the future. Save your shocked expressions for the awards your paintings will ultimately win.



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5 thoughts on “Preparing the Pastel Stick

  1. Suzanne Zimbelman

    Thank you for this blog. Wonderful insites in all articles. I took my first pastel class in 1984, and was hooked. There are several different papers or boards to use and would like to know what people prefer. Shipping is another issue. How do you protect your work as pastel does not dry, but sets in the tooth. I would like to share two observations over the years. I prefer a square chalk as I DO break them often for sharp edges to paint with. Also there was a time that I didn’t paint and the box of colors sat in a cool, possible damp room. Almost threw them out till I tried them.
    The consistancy had changed and I like them even better. Rice among your chalks will keep them clean, and have done this in the past, but seemed messy in time so I prefer to wipe them on a cloth.

  2. Kelly

    When I get new supplies, I’m like a kid in a candy store. I can’t wait to get home and start playing. One of the things that I keep in mind is that nothing is perfect, so I’m not "hurting" or "destroying" the supplies. Instead, I’m letting my pastels transform from colorful caterpillers into gorgeous butterflies.

  3. BlueBerry Pick'n

    I suffer from a strange "weren’t these art supplies perfect before I began messing about with them?!?’ anxiety…

    somehow, the pigments, the papers & the supplies all seem as if all I’m about to do is muck & flail about on their pristine state of perfection…

    which generally requires me to almost ritually mar them before I can relax enough to feel that what I’m doing isn’t a near sacrilege.

    call it self-denial, self-confidence or sheer nuttiness…

    but all those perfect art supplies seem as if the are art unto themselves.

    yes, sometimes I’ve been known to deliberately scratch the non-functional portion of a new cookpot or shop from ‘factory seconds’… simply so I don’t have to anticipate that "damn, look what I just did: damaged a perfectly good… " self-disappointment.

    sometimes, "perfectly good" can be "perfectly self-inhibiting".

  4. Katherine

    My solution is to break them in half while they are still in the paper sleeve and then keep the half with the colour name code on on the sleeve separate in ‘stock’.

    When I get to the point that I need to use that ‘stock’ item, then I need to go and get a new one for ‘stock’ – but at least I’ll know what colour I need to buy!

    I also really like the way the Unison sleeves are more minimal, Breaking off a piece becomes much more acceptable somehow.

  5. Pam

    Wonderful, Richard! And yes, we all want the new stick, the perfect stick of CLEAN color. I’ve found a way to make myself happier about breaking sticks. I started a separate box of pastels to keep in the car at all times. I have a travel kit of a spare easel, box of pastels, baby wipes, & whatever other supplies I’ll need to paint at the spur of the moment. Now there is no excuse for missing an opportunity to paint because I haven’t got everything in the car with me. If I have time to pull over and paint, I do. If I don’t, I at least take some photos of what caught my eye.

    When I lived in Montana, I used to go out after work, park at the end of some dirt road and paint until I lost the light. I didn’t have to waste time going home to gather & load stuff in the car. When I moved to NY, I didn’t paint for almost 4 years because I didn’t have the inspiration/motivation or the easy access to my gear. I had excuses. Now I have paintings.