Introduction to Pastel #1: History, Materials and Light

Pastel is an ancient medium of powdered pigment held together with a binder. Let us suggest that  the earliest pastelists were cave painters circa. 30,000 BCE.


cave painting

The first historical reference to the term appears via Leonardo da Vinci whose experimental ways led to its use in his work.

Leonardo da Vinci, Study for the Head of Christ for The Last Supper, pastel and charcoal

We most commonly associate the medium with the 19th c. Impressionists including Mary Cassatt…

Mary Cassatt, Lydia leaning on her arms, sitting in a loge. 1879

…and her mentor, Edgar Degas.

Edgar Degas, The Tub, 1885

Edgar Degas, The Tub, 1885

It appears in the work of contemporary masters Francesco Clemente and R.B Kitaj among others and is currently pretty popular.

R. B. Kitaj, Maryrnka Smoking, 1980

R. B. Kitaj, Maryrnka Smoking, 1980

The term pastel comes from the Latin meaning “paste”.  Pastel refers to a broad category of dry media including oil pastel, conte and charcoal.



Chalk pastels come in varying degrees of hardness which depends on the quantity and quality of binder used in their manufacture.

We like pastels because they avail saturated nearly pure pigment.

Top row: Hard, medium-hard, soft, super-soft.

Bottom row: Vine charcoal, conte pastel pencils, oil pastels.


Other materials involved in the pastel process include tinted and textured papers, fixative,


and tape.


We are approaching our first work observing an achromatic still -life.


We want to tune in to light first before we dive into color.

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1874.

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1874.

We make a grisaille or gray-scale drawing first and then glaze/ scumble just one color over top for a monochromatic study. Pay attention to pressure.



Repeat this process. Possible variations include cool dark blue, burnt sienna, umber or cool green for the initial grisaille with one color (and its tints, tones and shades) to glaze over top which relates harmonically to the under-drawing.


  • tape your paper down to a rigid support
  • tone your paper with a dulled medium value of your dominant color or its complement
  • fix between layers

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