What constitutes a pastel stick? The dictionary defines pastel as an art medium in the form of a stick, consisting of pure pigment and binder. Pastel can manifest personality traits that are quite different than its wet siblings, depending on the pigment type, amount of binder, and additional inert materials used in manufacturing.
The pigments used in making pastels are the same as other painting media, but due to the minuscule amount of binder utilized to form the sticks, they retain a closer association to the natural dry appearance of pure raw pigment. To better see this, find a pure pastel stick of burnt sienna and compare it to a tube of burnt sienna oil paint. You will observe that the oil paint version appears darker and richer. This is due to the suspension of pigment in oil. Even the final act of varnishing alters the pigment’s appearance. If you have worked with a wet medium and are transitioning to pastel, this can prove disconcerting. Remember that what can be accomplished with four tubes of paint cannot be easily replicated in pastel. When setting up a pastel palette, think less about specific pigment families and instead rely on a color wheel to govern your color choices. Be sure to select lighter and darker variations of the color choices as well as grayed/neutrals to round out your working palette. This is why pastelists most often reference a color family and value when describing a painting action versus a wet painter that often references a specific tube color.
Historically there have been a few binders utilized in pastel formation: gum arabic, gum tragacanth, and most recently methylcellulose. Each has little effect on pigment color and is added in varying degrees, depending on the nature of the pigment being formed. Some pigments need practically no binder, while others may require a fair amount to stay compacted. Binders are also used to regulate the hardness or softness of pastel brands. The harder the pastel sticks, the higher the binder to pigment ratio.
Inert material traits:
Since individual pigments can vary widely in their feel: some are fine and velvety, and others grainy and course. Manufactures may often add inert materials such as chalk, gypsum, talc, or even fine pumice to affect the feel. These additives can help to standardize a brand, creating a consistency across their pigment offerings. Others add them to create interesting characteristics that make their pastels stand apart from the crowd. While most manufactures keep their trade secrets close to their chests, it is easy to feel the brand differences when you hold the stick in your hand and make that swipe across a surface. Velvety sticks glide across a surface and often require great tactile control. Course sticks grab and grind into the surface, opening it up for more pigment application.
We are fortunate to be painting in a time when so many pastel manufactures are providing diverse pastel personalities. Each has its traits and each provides creative possibilities. Get to know them and enjoy what they have to offer. Viva la difference!
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