What are Pastels

A brief description of Pastels, their history, how they are made and how artists use them.


When I talk about Pastels, I am generally referring to Soft Pastels which have the appearance of coloured chalks but they are so much more.
Good quality soft pastels are mostly hand made using the finest pure pigments and held together with a binder. Usually gum arabic, gum tragacanth, or methyl cellulose.
The pure pigment concentration in pastels is generally much higher then in most other painting mediums but that can vary from brand to brand. Obviously, the cheaper brands are not going to contain as much pigment and have far more filler and yet even they can be a versatile medium for sketching and are often used by students.


A brief history

The origins of drawing with pastels go as far back as the 15th Century and in fact, Leonardo da Vinci employed chalks in many of his drawings but it was not until Johann Alexander Thiele created the first pigmented pastels in the 1700’s that they were adopted by artists.

More notably, many artists in the imressionist movement recognised them as a beautiful and versatile medium. The works by artists like Edgar Degas, Jean Francois Millet, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard and Many others are as beautiful today as they were when painted.

Pastels today

Today, artists are able to choose from a large number of manufacturers with a huge range of colour variations and degrees of softness. There are pastels to suit every budget though obviously, you do get what you pay for.

A growing number of artists around the world are discovering pastels and many pastel societies have sprung up.  A lot of artist’s who work in oils also use pastels, especially for creating alla prima work. The beauty of pastels is that there is no drying time.


Artists working in pastels tend to experiment a lot with different types of paper. Textured paper allows more layers of pastels to be applied while smoother paper become loaded very quickly, but not every artist wants the texture of papers like Ingres or Canson Mi Teintes to show through and consequently, sanded papers have become very popular. These sanded papers allow paintings to be built up with many layers and I myself started using them just over a year ago and they have transformed my work enormously. Combined with higher quality soft pastels like Unison’s beautiful range of colours, I work with greater confidence and enjoyment.