The Dilemmas of Painting With Pastels

Pastel is a very popular medium, and many of my students like to use it. Personally, I love the look of a well-done pastel painting. However, due to the powdery nature of the medium, I’ve had to limit its use in my studio. Here are some of the issues I’ve encountered.

Pastel painting by Lee Hammond

The softness and light color of the shawl was lost when the spray was applied. “My Grandmother’s Shawl” is now unsprayed, and framed behind glass.

Pastel dust is a real problem in a confined area. When pastel is used on a sanded paper, or pastel paper, the powder debris is immense. It’s our human nature to want to blow the dust off of the paper, but that makes it airborne for everyone and everything to accidentally inhale. Like sheetrock dust that’s part of building a new home, pastel dust will settle on everything. I’ve been known to wipe down the drafting tables after a pastel session, and have come up with a rainbow image on my cleaning rag. I’ve also blown my nose, only to discover the same wonderful colors inside of my tissue.

The problem with all of this is not just the mess; it’s also a health concern. Good quality pastels are made from natural pigments, which can contain hazardous elements such as cadmium, chrome and manganese. These colors can be found in most high quality pastels. Not only do we inhale these toxins, we also absorb them through the skin when we blend pastels with our fingers. This small daily exposure for the pastel artist may not seem like a big deal, but over time it accumulates. To reduce your risk of health-related problems, there are some precautions you can use. I now only allow my students to use pastel on suede board or velour paper. The fuzziness of the paper surface grips the pastel, and reduces the airborne particles. One of my studio rules is that students must tap any built-up debris into the trash, rather than blow it into the air.

I also ask that students wear a mask to keep from inhaling the powder when creating their pieces, and wear surgical gloves when blending. A little baby powder on the fingertips of the gloves will make the gloved finger blend just fine, and keep the fingertips from being exposed to the pastel directly. While this may not feel as natural and artistically free, it’s a good safety measure nonetheless.

Because of the powdery nature of pastel, many artists will spray their pieces with workable fixative when they’re done painting. That, too, isn’t without its problems. The example of my grandmother in the shawl was a frustrating artwork. I loved the way the pas-tel captured the softness of her crocheted shawl. When I attempted to fix it with the spray, however, all of the light tones melted away. I made many attempts but, each time, the fluffy nature of the yarn was lost, and it looked harsh. I had to rework the shawl each time. The only answer was to leave it unsprayed. But unsprayed pastel is highly vulnerable. The drawing was on velour paper, but the pastel still had a tendency to sift off over time. Periodically, I have to take it to a framer to undo the framing, and clean off the matting where the pastel has accumulated on the bottom. It’s a small price to pay for preserving the look that I want.

painting a flower in pastel

I left this pastel rose unsprayed to preserve the light tones.

I left this rose, which was created on suede board, unsprayed as well, due to all of the white. I love the look of it. Now, I rarely will spray my pastel pieces at all. The result is a softness that tells the viewer that it has clearly been done with pastel. The solution is to get it behind glass as soon as possible.

painting a butterfly with pastel

This butterfly is a combination of pastels combined with Coloursoft colored pencils.

The butterfly drawing is a combination of pastel and the Coloursoft pencils by Derwent. Combing the two gives you the control of making something look very detailed, like the butterfly. The colored pencil gave me the ability to create deep, dark lines in the butterfly’s wings, making it look close and detailed. The pastel used in the background gave the bushes the illusion of distance, with an out-of-focus appearance. Coloursoft pencils are clay-based, which makes them easily combined with pastels. It’s a wonderful artistic pairing.

Have some fun, and give these methods a try. But, be a smart artist, and take the necessary precautions, so you’ll be around creating art for a very long time!

Have fun!
~Lee


Edited by Cherie Haas, online editor of ArtistsNetwork.com

Lee Hammond has been called the Queen of Drawing. That may not be fair these days, since in addition to providing the best drawing lessons, she has also created fantastic books and videos filled with the same easy to follow acrylic painting techniques, colored pencil techniques and more. Click here to see all of the instructional books and DVDs that Lee Hammond has to offer!

Free download! Easy Acrylic Painting Techniques by Lee Hammond

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