Drawing or Painting With Pastel | Which Is It?

pastel pointers with ricahrd mckinley
The marks of pastel that are akin to drawn lines next to larger swipes of pastel that relate to brush marks.

The true nature and definition of pastel is “to be dry.” It is not a wet medium like most forms of painting. Its dry, stick-like quality allows pastel to have a close association with drawing, which can be used as both a verb and noun. As a verb, it describes the physical act of mark-making to create the appearance of an image, form, or shape. As a noun, it describes the produced image.

Painting, on the other hand, is defined as the application of paint, pigment, or color to a surface. It commonly relies on a brush for application, although other means of application are utilized. Painting can also be used as a verb or noun, signifying the act or end result of the action.

The definitions of drawing and painting have evolved over the years. Most working artists today associate the act of drawing to mark/line making with a dry media like charcoal, pencil, pen and ink, chalk or pastel and the act of painting to shape configurations that consist of value and color applied wet with paint on a brush. It is easy to see how these two can overlap in definition. An artist can easily use colored lead pencils to create a piece of artwork that represents a realistic portrayal of shapes, values, and colors and another artist can easily utilize a brush filled with paint to make definite marks and lines. Some have drawn the line, no pun intended, between a pastel drawing and painting by the amount of paper or flat surface allowed to show. If the tone of the paper/surface plays a major visual role in the final appearance of the artwork, it is a drawing. If the paper/surface is completely covered with pastel, it is considered a painting. These differentiations can become even harder to make when pastel is made wet, a process often employed at the beginning stages to set an underpainting or tone to the paper/surface.

So how do you define pastel artwork? Is it drawing or painting? It is a perplexing question. My observation is that if we stick to the dictionary definition, pastel is a drawing medium. It is pigment in a dry stick form. But, when placed in the hands of an artist who applies it with the intent of creating an image that communicates to the observer with the symbolic use of shape, edge, value, and color, it can be considered a painting medium. While the definition debate will inevitably continue, for most of us it is of little concern. What matters is if the artwork has successfully communicated our intent and we enjoy the medium. As an artist friend once said, “I let others label what my artwork is, as long as they see it as beautiful”.

What do you think? Add your voice to the debate by sharing your comments here concerning pastel as a drawing or painting medium.

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15 thoughts on “Drawing or Painting With Pastel | Which Is It?

  1. A Google User says:

    It is as much painting, as etching is drawing. Pastel is a whole different thing, but uses elements of all art. It is a very different technique to use a dry stick than to use a brush, with it’s many ‘points’, to apply wet, gluggy and/or oily paint. I think the controversy exists because painting has a certain prestige.

  2. Deipatrous says:

    So where do we stand on colour pencils? Soluble colour pencils?

    Painting is applying sloppy stuff to a surface, and drawing is sketching with something grainy. But ink is sloppy stuff if you look up close! Maybe inking is a weird halfway house.

    It feels like drawing when you are concerned with edge and contours, and where things are located, and your marks are much longer than they are wide. It feels like painting when you are concerned with how masses respond to light. But then hatching is a weird halfway house.

    It feels like drawing when you sketch in monochrome. It feels like painting when you worry about tone and hue.

  3. TravelingArtista says:

    Rich, full pastels is PAINTING, in my, and many others’, opinion. A near-pure medium that covers large areas of the picture is usually considered painting. Yes it can be used to “draw” (just as watercolor or oil brushes can draw so that depends on the application style), but the idea of what pastel paintings are is morphing. Since the early 1700s pastel has been used in formal paintings. This beautiful and huge portrait hangs in the Louvre where there are galleries of pastel paintings. [http://musee.louvre.fr/…/marquise_pompadour_acc_en.html] It’s about 4×4 feet! Would anyone refer to this work (as an example) as a “sketch”? It is an absolutely beautiful PAINTING.

  4. ritamariecreations says:

    Hello Richard and Pastel Artists Friends ~ Interesting query and commentary by all here! This has been a question at times for me too…. My final answer!… I draw with pastels in the beginning; and yes, the final process produces the PAINTING! 🙂 My grandson tells me the final paintings look like “PHOTOGRAPHS” though…. :0 bless him – loves G’ma’s “paintings” xo

  5. Julia Whitenight says:

    “Placing artwork in categories is something most artists abhor … Guess we just like labels.” That makes me a little sad, and more than a little impatient with people in general.

    It can be either drawing or painting; the final product is the determining factor, not the medium. In reality, you can “paint” with graphite. The idea that people still try to nail pastel (or any other medium) to drawing strikes me as unbelievably inflexible. I almost feel like the only reason there’s still a debate on this subject is because some people need rigid definitions to cope. (I know, that’s harsh.)

    Very few things in the universe are suited to hard-and-fast classification — it’s chock full of degrees of difference, with few abrupt edges to be found (no pun intended). There’s a whole world of beautiful art out there that fits somewhere in the continuum from painting to drawing, but instead of admiring and allowing our enjoyment to be its own reward, we insist on wrestling in the mud of the gray areas for no reward other than bruised egos and a certain weariness. I sincerely hope that the unyielding drive to label and classify art goes away in my lifetime. Talk about the forest for the trees!

    Can you tell I’m quit of this subject? Off my soapbox now…

  6. marian rosson says:

    This is silly to me…I draw with my oil or acrylic paintbrush to begin my painting…I use pastels the same way. They’re both painting.

    I do my drawing with a pencil pen. Overall I think R.McKinley is right!

    Marian Rosson

  7. Kathy Smoker says:

    It can be either painting or drawing, but I definitely consider my completed pastel paintings to be paintings. If it looks like a painting then it is a painting, regardless of the medium used! I agree with Peter – I think that too many people get too worked up about whether something is a drawing or a painting
    If we want to get so pedantic about definitions, then something produced using oils, for example, can also be described as a drawing. How about an oil sketch – the brush can be used to draw.

  8. Jana says:

    When I sketch out my layout on my pastel surface, I’m drawing with pastel. If I were to stop there, it’d truly be a pastel drawing. Once I start laying in color using the sides of my pastels, rubbing it in with my fingers, blending multiple pastels together on the surface, removing color, glazing with hard pastels over already applied color, I’m painting with pastels, and the finished piece is a pastel painting! Of course this is only my opinion about my artwork. Others may not think this same way, and I’m ok with whatever they want to see within my artwork. That’s the beauty of doing art, and being an admirer of art – everyone has their own individual opinions about what they’re looking at.

  9. WinnerStudios says:

    It is interesting to me that the public can rarely tell the difference between my oil,my pastel, and (earlier) watercolor portraits. The artist’s technique seems to dicate whether pastel is recognized as a drawing or a painting. This is obviously why we all adore the medium. The rich, bold colors, the ability to build striking contrasts in light and shadow, and the ease of variety of application all make this the perfect medium. Today a quick sketch = drawing…tomorrow a fully rendered painting = painting…. Don’t we love this maliable medium? The debate should be are we making the best artwork we are capable of with this wonderful medium…

  10. jp4art says:

    I like to think of it as “the link” between drawing and painting. It is definitely a painting in my mind. But, when you enter shows you have to have a catagory, and Patels is grouped with drawing. I find that a shame at times. I admire pastel artist so much.

  11. RMcKinley says:

    Lee, You are so right about word definitions evolving over time. It has been interesting to see the responses pastelists have had, especially on the Facebook posting for the blog. Seems like we consider ourselves painters. Not that there is anything wrong with drawing – just kidding! Without it where would painting be! Thanks for adding your comment to the thread.

    • RMcKinley says:

      Peter, As I stated in the posting, “for most of us it is of little concern”. It is interesting though, to see how many artists working with pastel identify themselves as painters versus draftsmen. The post has also made many consider the differences between the two. There is one thing man uses that visually does not exist in nature, line. How we use it in our artwork has a purpose. It can be a sort of personal calligraphy. Placing artwork in categories is something most artists abhor: representational, impressionistic, abstract, illustrator, etc… Guess we just like labels. Thanks for the comment. I appreciate you adding your voice.

  12. Lee McVey says:

    I think of pastel as painting because the process is basically the same other than the brush and the wetness. Definitions of lots of words and how people use the words have evolved over time. Pastel painting can be one of them. Even when some of the underpainting is left visible, I think of the result as a painting not a drawing.

  13. heidimayo says:

    It is definitely painting; you can mix it, you can blend it, you can layer it; you can wash it; and can you schmoo it. I don’t each pastel drawing, I teach pastel painting.

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