Pastel (soft pastel) is a dry medium that has been in use since the Renaissance and became popular in the 18th century. Pastel is the most lightfast of all mediums. Painters like Quentin de La Tour, Whistler, Degas, Manet and Georgia O’Keefe produced many works in pastel that are as brilliant today as the day they were made. The drawback of a pastel drawing or a pastel painting is that it must be framed as it is susceptible to mechanical injury (rubbing). A pastel drawing is what is commonly thought as pastel, it has a sketchy quality and requires less time. Every area appears to have been worked simultaneously and has less depth. Pastel Painting, which I prefer, resembles oil painting as the colors are highly blended and saturated, often the work of many weeks. I worked each area separately to emphasize the sharpness of boundaries and the overall depth with the background done first and the foreground last.
Soft pastels are mostly made of pure pigments that can be synthetic, mineral or organic although most are now synthetic. Pure pigment is ground with water. A little binder like gum Arabic or methyl cellulose is added so that the pigment particles bind together. This paste from the Latin pastellum is then rolled into sticks and allowed to dry. The higher quality pastels are softer because they contain less binder (as healthy food contains less fillers or ingredients one can not explain). Some colors are softer or harder than others because each has a different chemical composition and degree of hardness (in the Mohs hardness scale, talc is 1, quartz 7 and diamond 10).
Soft Pastels are not to be confused with chalk (mostly limestone with a little pigment), with chalk pastels (mostly chalk) or with oil pastels which are pigments with an oil base (not the finest medium). The best soft pastels are also the most expensive. That they should be so expensive is another question… They contain a higher concentration of better quality pigments and less binder. Do not buy a set unless the price is great as you will then let the manufacture dictate what colors you should use. For example, I buy very few browns as I rarely use them and a set is bound to contain two or three. Each pastel can be bought individually. If money is a concern (as it is for most of us), simply buy a few of the colors that you like or that you will use for a particular pastel. With 3 or 4 colors, I can create a wonderful piece. Thus, buy less, buy the colors you like and buy the best quality.
The best brands readily available on the market are in no particular order, Schminke (Germany), Sennelier (France) and Unison (England). They are all very good but have different qualities. One will be softer, one smaller, one brand has a color you like, etc… Buy pastels from different brands as they all mix well together. Make up your own pastel box (my father built the one I have). Manufacturers like when you buy a lot of colors. They add more or less white to a common color to create different hues or add more or less black to create different shades. Cut the middleman and buy the unadulterated color and add black or white yourself. Learn to blend. You are likely to use the color white the most. The best white is made by Schminke, a titanium white that is very opaque. Rembrandt is another common brand of pastel but they are overpriced and of medium quality.… You can also make your own pastels from pure pigments but this requires a little effort, skill and knowledge.
Do not buy pearlescent colors or other glittery hues (they are not lightfast). Do not buy metallic colors like silver, copper or gold. Of course gold is not really gold but is made of mica or aluminum flakes that are tinted by fugitive dyes instead of permanent pigments (some of which are more permanent than others). The origin and the story of each pigment are fascinating. Did you know that Indian yellow is made from the urine of mango fed cows? That the bright vermillion red derived from cinnabar which contains mercury is toxic? That carmine red is made from thousands of cute little beetles called chochineals…
Pastel also come in the form of pencils which are harder then the pastel sticks. I use the lighter colors of these pastel pencils for sketching as graphite pencil will show through light pastel colors and for occasional details. The best brands that are commonly available are made by Stabilo Carb-Othello, Conté and Derwent. These pastels pencils can be challenging to sharpen. Stabilo Carb-Othello sells a pencil sharpener that is perfectly engineered for the diameter of their pastel pencils.
Pastel paper is a complex subject with a myriad of choices. I will simply suggest the two types I prefer. Buy a large sheet of rag (cotton) paper that you can cut into smaller pieces. Choose a hot pressed paper that is soft to the touch with a little tooth to grab the pastel particles and not too thin. Or buy the highest grade of professional sanded pastel paper (cotton sparkled with marble dust). Any art supplies store will be familiar with these. The papers said for pastels that are available in pads are generally not very good. Paper is rather inexpensive so buy large individual sheets and buy the very best. Different papers will give you different results, so experiment.
You will need to tape your paper to a board. Foam core which is sturdy and light represents the easiest solution. Tape your drawing all around with artist tape, not masking tape as the later contains acid with may discolor the paper it touches. You will need a razor blade to cut the end of your pastel stick into the desired shape. And last, a soft kneaded eraser. Pastel is difficult to erase, I only use an eraser when I am sketching with pastel pencils or to clean areas that I have left blank. Voilà. Pastel is a sensual and rich medium with a velvety texture that I love to work with.