My childhood enjoyment of drawing was primarily with soft pastels. They seemed more accessible and immediate than paint. I loved the texture on my fingers and the process of blending. Despite my enjoyment, for reasons I am not quite sure, I always felt somehow inferior to fellow students who could paint. In my school years there was no internet so I had no wider community of artists to tap into and my local library was not very big.
Now, some 25 or so years later, I have returned to my love of drawing and was interested to see if pastels are indeed viewed as the poor relation in the art world. So, whilst waiting for my Foundation in Drawing course materials to arrive, I devoted some spare time over Christmas 2016 to researching pastelists and how the medium has been regarded across history. In the process I discovered this gorgeous, vibrant piece by Odilon Redon, a whopping 91.44 x 132.08 cm currently held in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. I was stunned by the depth and glow of the colours.
My searching for famous pastelists revealed a plethora of incredible art which I will post about in future. My research then took a turn. I was sad to discover my gut feeling was right. Swathes of art websites state that oil is seen as the most “valuable” and collectible medium because it does not deteriorate, is easy to transport and therefore less likely to damage when pieces are moved to galleries and exhibitions. It seems this view began in the 15th century when the masters viewed drawings as preliminary sketches for paintings rather than works of art in their own right.
It is heartening to see pastelists fighting back and there seems to be many sites saying there is a resurgence of interest in pastels. I particularly enjoy the vim of Bill James who has set about doing research to educate and counter against the prevailing view. He writes on his blog:
“…pastels last longer than oils before you need to refinish them, if they need it. Because of the oil binders that are used to make oil paints, things will happen to any oil painting over time. Paintings will most likely darken with age. Along with that, if you use the wrong procedure in order to apply oils to a surface, there definitely will be problems in the future in the form of cracking. With pastels you do not have that problem because there is a minimal mixing of a binder, which is usually gum arabic or gum tragacanth. The binder will be mixed with colored pigment to form a paste, which is then rolled into sticks of pastel. Also, as with oils, there is no mixing of colors – the mixing is on the surface by applying a layer of pastel over another.
…because of the way pastels are made, they are the most permanent of all the media used to paint works of art. Because there is a lack of oil binders, there will be nothing to degrade the quality of the work itself.”
I hope in my lifetime to see the prevailing view of pastels change but given we have 500 years of history against us I do not plan to hold my breath!