When you think of great artists like Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso, chances are their works on canvas come to mind. However, most of art history’s master painters dabbled in more than just oils and acrylics. In fact, many had a penchant for pastel.
Whether used to sketch preliminary studies or create polished masterpieces, pastel has played a big role in many painters’ practices. Here, we take a look at the ways in which some of the world’s most famous artists have employed the medium throughout art history, and how they’ve helped shape the practice as we know it today.
Some of the most prolific painters in art history have also worked in pastels. Scroll down to discover this other section of their portfolio.
Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix is renowned for his larger-than-life paintings bursting with drama. Before he applied paint to canvas, however, he often created pastel drawings in order to map out his compositions, test different tones, and perfect his figures.
Crafting studies—like his sketch for The Death of Sardanapalus, one of his most well-known works—aided Delacroix in his art. He notes, however, that transforming a simple drawing into a painting packed with detail was not without its challenges.
“The original idea, the sketch, which is so to speak the egg or embryo of the idea, is usually far from being complete; it contains everything, which is simply a mixing together of all parts. Just the thing that makes of this sketch the essential expression of the idea is not the suppression of details, but their complete subordination to the big lines, which are, before all else, to create the impression. The greatest difficulty therefore is that of returning in the picture to that effacing of the details which, however, make up the composition, the web and the woof of the picture.” (Artists on Art: From the 14th to the 20th Centuries)
As a key figure of the Realist Movement, Jean-François Millet preferred featuring working class people in his paintings. After all, he noted: “Peasant subjects suit my nature best, for I must confess . . . that the human side is what touches me most in art.”
Like Delacroix, Millet would often employ pastel to sketch out ideas for his “peasant paintings.” However, he would also use the medium to create delicate drawings of nature, including sunlit landscapes, quiet seascapes, and enchanting studies of flora, like his whimsical Dandelions.
“Millet excelled in the medium of pastel,” the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, explains, “and his skill as a draftsman and colorist are evident here in the rich variety of greens that set off the flowers and in the airy delicacy of the dandelions, which are shown in all phases from bud to seed.”
Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir was drawn to pastel—and for good reason. In his oil paintings, Renoir applied a soft touch that culminated in hazy strokes and blended colors, making the medium a perfect fit for the French artist.
Renoir first explored the medium in the middle of the 1870s. While he regularly exhibited his works in pastel (along with six paintings, he included one pastel in the first Impressionist Exhibition in 1874), he typically reserved this medium for personal depictions of friends and family, as it enabled him to craft authentic portraits of those he cared about the most.
François Daulte, a Swiss Art critic, explains: “If he frequently used that medium to depict those near and dear to him, it was because pastel, which combines color with line, gave him the possibility of working rapidly to capture in all their vividness the rapid flash of intelligence and the fleeting show of emotion.”
Having created over 700 pastel drawings, Impressionist Edgar Degas is one of the most prolific pastel artists. While he initially turned to the medium out of necessity (there had always been a market for his small drawings), he eventually grew to prefer pastels for the experimental capabilities of their colors.
“Aware that some pastel colorants fade when exposed to light, Degas put his pastels out in the sun to bleach fugitive colorants out of them before he used them,” the Phillips Collection says. “He often used pastel moistened with water and mixed with an adhesive such as casein, creating a kind of pastel paste that gave the appearance of paint applied with a brush. He even selectively moistened pastel passages with steam or a spray of boiling water and then extended the dissolved pastel with a brush into a translucent layer of color or pastel paste.”
These color tests culminated in the one-of-a-kind palettes evident in some of his most well-known pastels, including his voyeuristic views of bathers and scenes of ballet dancers on stage.
Like Degas, fellow Impressionist Mary Cassatt pushed pastel drawing to its limits. In fact, Degas’ experimental drawings are what first attracted Cassatt to the medium, as she explained: “I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his [Degas’] art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.”
Though initially inspired by Degas, Cassatt eventually developed a distinctive style that was entirely her own. With mothers and children as her signature subjects, Cassatt would craft portraits that paradoxically explored quiet moments through vivid palettes and energetic strokes—qualities inherent to the pastel medium.
“For Cassatt, the medium’s modernist appeal rested on several aesthetic factors closely tied to its material properties,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes. “Among these properties were speed of execution, a vast array of ready-made colors, and ready adaptability to draftsmanly and broad painterly handling.”
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Post-Impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was another artist deeply affected by Degas’ pastels. Namely, he was inspired by his approach to portraying women: “without their frills” and viewed as though the artist was “peeping through the keyhole.”
This influence is particularly evident in Toulouse-Lautrec’s scenes set in brothels. A far cry from his polished posters celebrating Paris’ star-studded nightlife, these intimate drawings offer viewers an unadulterated glimpse into the capital city’s most vulnerable. In some drawings, the women are shown standing in line for very public health check-ups; in others, they’re shown lounging around communal spaces within the brothels.
In any case, Toulouse-Lautrec sought to capture an authentic glimpse of life behind closed doors. “I don’t comment,” he said. “I record.”
Modernist master Pablo Picasso wore many artistic hats. While he is predominantly known for his stylistic paintings, avant-garde sculptures, and even collage work, he also dabbled in professional-grade oil pastel—an implement he himself helped pioneer.
While oil pastels had been on the market since 1925, they were typically low in quality and intended for younger artists and students. In 1949, Picasso—seeking a high-quality version that could be used on a variety of surfaces—approached his friend and fellow painter Henri Goetz with a request: ask art supply manufacturer Henri Sennelier to create a new and improved oil pastel.
The Sommelier shop created and started selling their famous oil pastels shortly after this meeting, and the rest is history.