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Learn to Paint Without a Brush By Drawing With Pastel Sticks

Pastel Art

Photo: Peter Feghali
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Pastels are an artist material with a long history. Sometimes referred to as “dry painting,” the medium offers an incredible range of colors with the ability to blend hues in the same way that you would paint pigment. When you learn about the history and the versatility of pastels, it’s no wonder that they have been popular for so long.

What are pastels?

Pastels are crayons that are made of powdered pigments and a binder of either gum, clay, or resin. Two of the most popular types of pastels are soft (sometimes mentioned as “chalk”) and oil. Each is created with the same pigment you’d find in other art media, like oil paints. The binder is neutral coloring and low in saturation to avoid diluting the vibrancy of the pigment.

History of Pastels

The history of pastels can be traced back to the Renaissance. The medium is said to have originated in Northern Italy during the 16th century, and it became a favorite of the masters, including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. They used the chalks for sketching. At that time, there were only a few colors in their palette—black, white, and red. (To put it in perspective, there are more than 1,600 hues on the market today!)

Pastel Art Drawing by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain] (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Pastels gained considerable popularity during the 18th century, particularly in England and France. During this time, it was “fashionable” to have your portrait crafted with a combination of pastels and gouache paint. France saw the material fade in influence both during and after the Revolution because it was identified with the frivolity of the Ancien Régime. Around the same time (early 19th century), popularity also waned in Great Britain.

Pastel Art by Edgar Degas

‘The Star' (1878) (Photo: Edgar-Degas.net Public Domain)

As the 1800s wore on, pastels eventually found their place with artists again. Edgar Degas famously used them to depict his dancers, and Gauguin, Monet, and others followed suit. Today, they remain some of the most popular examples of artists that use pastels.


Next: The Difference Between Soft and Oil Pastels

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Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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