Within the sphere of pastels, there are varying degrees of stick firmness. The level of softness or hardness of a pastel stick is dependent on the individual pigment characteristics, the addition of inert compounds, and the composition of the binder holding the pigment together. Generally, pastelists categorize the sticks in their palettes as either soft or hard. The pigment may be the same between a hard and soft pastel stick, providing a similar hue, value, and chroma, but the firmness of the stick will ultimately have a profound effect on the application and its final appearance. When determining which firmness of stick is best for your specific painting needs, take these factors into consideration (click here to share them on Twitter):
- The degree of force you typically exert when applying pastel. Every pastelists has one. It is the amount of pressure that naturally comes from your shoulder and hand. Some pastelists are capable of breathing the pastel onto the surface with the most delicate of applications; others are destined to trowel it on with bravura force.
- The surface to which the pastel will be applied. The toothier the surface, the easier the pastel is to apply. A softer stick of pastel on a very toothy surface can be akin to a stick of butter on a warm plate, and a harder pastel on a smooth surface can be similar to a stick of wood on glass.
- The desired technique of application. Ask yourself, “Am I planning on layering pastel or applying one direct bold application?” Since harder pastels deposit less pigment, they facilitate more control when attempting to apply multiple layers of pastel. Conversely, a direct, alla prima (all-at-once), technique is better achieved with a softer pastel stick.
Hard Pastels on the Market: The number of fine art manufacturers offering pastel continues to rise with the popularity of the medium. Every brand has its own unique personality but softer pastel sticks tend to dominate the field; that is, until recently. Within the last decade, historic and modern pastel manufacturers have expanded their range of harder pastel offerings. This has broadened the creative possibilities for those of us who enjoy the diversity of mixing both soft and hard pastels into one pastel painting technique. When acquiring harder pastels in the past, great caution had to be used. Many were composed of inferior pigments that made them prone to fading. Today we can work with confidence using trusted brands such as Rembrandt, Art Spectrum, Holbein, Faber-Castell Polychromos, Cretacolor, and Caran d’Ache Pastel Cubes. Cretacolor and Caran d”Ache have the added benefit of offering their hard pastels in both stick and matching pastel pencil form.
The pastel stick, surface, and artist’s hand all work in harmony to produce a desired outcome. Having the latitude to choose a softer or harder pastel stick broadens the technique possibilities and, ultimately, creativity. With the options available to us today, it is no longer the choice that is hard—it’s the pastel.
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