Working in pure pigment: artists’ tips on using pastel

Published 1 December 2015

Inspired by Jean-Etienne Liotard’s pastel virtuosity? Find out more about this versatile medium with some tips from the experts.

  • Pastels have an illustrious history. Renaissance artists from Barocci to Leonardo used them and Jean-Etienne Liotard mastered the medium, as shown in our current exhibition. But how have pastels evolved, and how do artists use them now?

    What is a pastel?

    A pastel is a stick of pure powdered pigment combined with a chemical binder. As a medium, it sits comfortably between drawing and painting, giving artists both a sketch-like fluidity of line and the rich iridescent colour of paint. But unlike paints, pastel colours are blended on the paper itself, and artists develop their own unique ways of doing this, using either their fingertips or a cloth, perhaps even a little water. Jean-Etienne Liotard achieved a staggering level of detail and tonal subtlety in his pastels. He would have had no more than 25 colours available to him, which he could lighten or deepen by adding plaster of Paris chalk to the base (a combination of pigment and Arabic gum).

    How have they changed?

    By the 19th century, pastels were bound with oil and wax, making them less crumbly and able to stick better onto the paper. But it was the introduction of chemical-based dyes which revolutionised the medium. Artists had dozens of colours at their fingertips, including intense and unusual colours like fluorescent green and salmon pink.

    Artists including Edgar Degas and Edvard Munch explored the new sophistication of the medium. Degas – who initially used pastels for sketch portraits but embraced the medium by the 1880s – used fixatives to experiment with building up layers of colour in his work. In The Tub (1886) he achieved a woven surface of colour, capturing the woman’s movement and the translucent surface of the water. For Munch, too, pastel allowed experimentation with the vividness of colour. Of the four versions of The Scream completed by Munch between 1893 and 1910, it is the one made in pastel which is the most vivid.

    Pastel remains a popular medium today. Here are some top tips from Royal Academicians who use pastels in their work.

    • Eileen Cooper RA, Bathing (detail)

      Eileen Cooper RA, Bathing (detail), 1987.

      Charcoal and pastel. 76 x 56 cm. © Eileen Cooper. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2015.

      Experiment, enjoy and play

      “I like soft pastels. It’s important that they’re not too hard. Sometimes very crumbly is good… it’s like drawing with dust and that degree of difficulty in handling it can be very productive. But there aren’t any rules.

      "Experiment, enjoy and play, if it goes wrong… keep going until you find a way through, or begin again.”

      Eileen Cooper RA

    • Use different textures to build colour

      “I love the extensive colour range and the variety of subtle shades that each pastel can create. I make dust by rubbing the pastels with sandpaper and then blending the dust onto the paper with a cloth to build up the required depth of colour.

      "Try all the different makes of pastel – you will find some work better for you than others depending what you want to do. Play with them – experiment fearlessly.”

      Ann Christopher RA

      Ann Christopher RA, The Lines of Time – 12

      Ann Christopher RA, The Lines of Time – 12, 2014.

      © Ann Christopher. Photo: Steve Russell.

    • Anthony Eyton RA, Yellow Iris

      Anthony Eyton RA, Yellow Iris.

      Pastel. 99 x 99 cm. Image courtesy Tanya Baxter Contemporary.

      Try fixing each layer as you work

      “I use pastels because it’s like you’re drawing with the colour itself. They’re flexible because you can manoeuvre them by rubbing and blending. It’s all about the directness of the mark. It’s a great feeling, because you’re using raw pigment, like cave painting.

      "Try building up colour by fixing the pigment [with a fixative spray] after each layer, but don’t fix the final layer, because then it becomes dull. You want it to be bright. Fear not – be direct!”

      Anthony Eyton RA

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    Watch Anthony Eyton RA working in pastel

    Watch Anthony Eyton RA using pastels to create works inspired by the bell ringers of Christ Church Spitalfields.