Ask The Artspert – May 2014

Dear Artspert:

I’ve always wondered, what is pastel? Is it the same as chalk?


Dear Dusty,

Richard Segalma, Ciara and Alima

Richard Segalma, Ciara and Alima

One of the great misunderstandings about art is the notion that a pastel painting is created with chalk. While both come in stick form, they are vastly different but are often confused as being one in the same. Chalk, which can be used as a temporary artform on sidewalks, is simply ground limestone with added coloring. Pastel on the other hand is the purest art medium of all and is the crushed earth elements (i.e. pulverized rocks) compressed into a stick for easy conveyance to a heavy paper.

Since each color in a pastel set comes from a different source the artist must select the exact color he or she wants. A master set of pastels can actually include up to several thousand varying shades of every color in the rainbow plus shades of black and white.

While, your eye may mix the colors of a pastel painting there is no physical mixing of colors to achieve a third color, such as in painting with liquid forms of medium like
oils or acrylics.

Pastel paintings may seem very fragile but if created on the proper paper and given the care due any work of art, pastels can actually outlast an oil painting. Mary Cassatt pastels created in the late 1880s are as alive and vivid today as they were when she created them. Pastels cannot fade since they are pure pigment. Direct sunlight will do more harm to the paper than to the pastel. Another concern is whether or not the pastels will eventually fall off the paper, especially if the work is dropped. While some “dusting” may occur, damage done to an oil painting that is dropped can be more significant.

One issue about pastels, and their close cousins of oil pastels, charcoal and conte crayon has always been that they must be behind glass. When Plexiglas was first used as a substitute in framing works on paper, these pastel forms were not acceptable choices because the Plexiglas could create a static bound with the medium and pull elements  of the painting away from the paper. That problem has been solved with the introduction of Optium Plexiglas, which is anti-static, uv filtered, and non-reflective as I  mentioned in a previous article.

The pastel medium dates back to the 18th century but is very much alive today. There is even a Pastel Society of America founded in 1972, based in New York City which hosts an annual competitive show in September at the National Art Club in Gramercy Park, NYC. (

The Artspert

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