A: Pastel has been in use for five hundred years. Its invention is attributed to the German painter, Johann Thiele, in the 16th century, followed by Venetian artist, Rosalba Carriera, who was the first to use it consistently. Edgar Degas, the most prolific user of pastel and its great champion, was followed by many artists who used varying techniques.
Degas’ subject matter included ballet dancers, laundresses, milliners, and denizens of the Parisian demimonde. The pure hues of pastel, plus its direct application, made it his preferred medium. Rosalba Carriera, a much-admired portrait artist, revolutionized the world of pastel by developing a wider range of colors, expanding pastel’s availability and usefulness. Mary Cassatt’s pastel portraits of children and family life provided her with a steady income while living in Paris. American painter William Merritt Chase used pastel to explore plein air painting. Pastel’s portability and rich colors made it ideal for outdoor landscapes and for capturing light.
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Q: You use an impressive assortment of soft pastels to create your pastel paintings. Which are your favorite?
A: My favorite brand of soft pastels is Henri Roché. They offer subtle variations in color and hue since they make more colors than any other company.
As a birthday present a few years ago, I treated myself to a full 750-color set. I mainly use them for finishing touches, rather than letting them get buried under pastel. At nearly $20 a stick, I also don’t want see them reduced to colored dust on the floor beneath my easel. One of my peers calls them, “the Maserati of pastels!”
Isobel Roché told me that her goal is to reach 1000 colors in time for the company’s 300th anniversary in 2020! I hope she makes it.
These pastels have been around so long that Degas and other artists of the era used them. It’s humbling to know that I am working with the same materials and following a long and prestigious art tradition of using soft pastel.
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A: Our eyes can see infinitely more colors than the relative few that are made into pastels. When I layer pigments onto the sandpaper, I mix new colors directly on the painting. The short answer is, I need lots of pastels so that I can make new colors.
I’ve been working exclusively with soft pastel for nearly 27 years. Whenever I feel myself getting into a rut in how I select and use my colors, I look around for new materials to try. I’m in one of those periods now and plan to buy soft pastels made by Henri Roché in Paris. (Not long ago I received a phone call from their artist’s liaison and was offered samples based on my preferences. Wow, what great colors!). Fortunately, new brands of soft pastels are continually coming onto the market. There are pastels that are handmade by artists – I love discovering these – and new ones manufactured by well-known art supply companies. Some sticks of soft pastel are oily, some are buttery, some more powdery, some crumble easily, some are more durable. Each one feels distinct in my hand.
Furthermore, they each have unique mixing properties. It’s an under-appreciated science that I stumbled upon (or maybe I invented it, I’m not sure since I can’t know on a deep level how other pastel painters work). In this respect soft pastel is very different from other paint media. Oil painters, for example, need only a few tubes of paint to make any color in the world. I don’t go in much for studying color theory as a formal discipline. If you want to really understand and learn how to use color, try soft pastel and spend 10,000+ hours (the amount of time Malcolm Gladwell says, in his book, “Outliers,” that it takes to master a skill) figuring it all out for yourself!
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