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Pastel colors and pastel painting

What is pastel paint and pastel painting?

At first, the technique seems to be a drawing, since it is done dry - however, it is called pastel painting for a reason.


History and origin of pastel painting

Pastel chalk, from Ital. "pasta" = dough, is first documented for the Italian Renaissance, when pigments with little binder began to be rolled into sticks, allowed to dry, and used as drawing material. Originally, only black was used for shadows, red for midtones and white for highlights; the works - sketches and studies - were still drawings. Later, when the color spectrum expanded, this opened up the possibility of distributing the pigments contained in the crayons on the painting surface as in a painting, to nuance, to wipe, and even to glaze to a certain extent.

It is said that the term "pastel" as a synonym for "light, chalky hues" originated in the Tarn region of southern France, where in the 18th century people began mixing blue residues from woad dyeing with chalk - both as an antibacterial wall paint and to produce light blue pastels.

The appearance of a pastel painting is very airy and powdery, which was very much to the taste of the Rococo period. The most technically accomplished pastel paintings date from this period - portraits in particular were often done in this technique, as they were less expensive than oil paintings and at the same time allowed the realistic depiction of pale complexions, shimmering silk and pearly luster. Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Rosalba Carriera, for example, achieved great mastery.

The famous pastel painting "The Chocolate Girl" by Jean-Etienne Liotard from 1744 or 1745, which can be seen in the Dresden Gemäldegalerie, can hardly be distinguished at first glance from a classical oil painting. Considered one of the finest examples of a pastel painting, it depicts a servant bringing a porcelain dish of hot drinking chocolate on a tray, an expensive status symbol at the time.

Components, processing, fixing

Pastels consist of pigment mixed with very little binder to form a paste, pressed into stick form and dried - the exact type and amount of binder is kept under wraps by the manufacturers. It is considered likely that some chalks contain gum arabic, kaolin and / or glue.

The chalk is applied as in a drawing and sometimes then spread with the finger or a wiping tool; this also makes it possible to achieve smooth color transitions, mix colors and overlap them as in a "real" painting. The powdery-dry application does not allow glazes in the strict sense, but can appear transparent.

In order to adhere, pastels need a rough surface, such as canvas or special papers. Handmade paper, velvet paper, tissue paper, and the like are commercially available; the color of the paper also affects the appearance of the pastel painting.

It is possible to combine the pastel colors with another technique, such as an ink drawing, watercolor or oil pastels. However, contact with a liquid binder can greatly darken the color tone, which is why pastel is usually applied as the last layer on top of an underpainting (or drawing) that has already dried.

After application, the pigments must be subsequently bound to the undercoat and to each other with a fixative to prevent them from smudging or coming off (for example, when touched). More recently, a synthetic resin-based spray fixative has often been used for this purpose; earlier approaches included immersion in glue water, dusting with dry, water-soluble binder in powder form and subsequent steaming, and many others. Applying a liquid varnish has the decisive disadvantage that the colors darken very much, which is why it is usually not done. Despite fixation, pastels are therefore extremely sensitive and must be presented behind glass if they are to be preserved for posterity for as long as possible.

With regard to restoration

Because of their extremely fragile constitution, pastels are among the most difficult works of art to preserve and restore. Common damage includes mold, decay of the support material, mechanical contamination, and loss of pigment that falls from the support due to vibrations, for example. Many interventions therefore involve careful removal of soiling and retouching of damaged areas.

Special features of pastel colors

One advantage of pastel colors is that they are extremely color-intensive due to their high pigment content and, depending on the quality of the pigments they contain, they are also lightfast. Particularly optical blends, such as those produced by dry application of a color to a rough, colored background, can hardly be achieved with other techniques. Bright, strong contrasts are just as possible as subtle color compositions.

Probably the biggest disadvantage is their sensitivity to mechanical influences. They are also not easy to process for non-professionals; in order to achieve satisfactory results, some experience is required in handling the various processing techniques.

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