The Mesmerising World of Pastel Drawings: A Comprehensive Guide

Pastel drawings, a medium known for its soft and delicate appearance, have been captivating artists and art enthusiasts for centuries. This versatile and expressive art form combines the richness of painting with the immediacy of drawing, resulting in stunning visual compositions that often blur the line between reality and imagination. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the world of pastel drawings, from their history and origins to techniques, materials, and contemporary applications. Whether you’re an aspiring artist or simply curious about this captivating medium, this article will provide you with a deeper understanding and appreciation of pastel drawings.

A Glimpse into History

Pastel drawings, also referred to as “soft pastels,” have a rich and fascinating history that spans several centuries. The term “pastel” is derived from the Italian word “pastello,” which means paste or mixture. The medium itself consists of pure pigment mixed with a binder and shaped into sticks. Unlike oil or acrylic paints, pastels don’t require a drying process, making them a favourite among artists for their immediacy and vibrancy.

The origins of pastel drawings can be traced back to the 15th century. It is believed that the use of pastels as an art medium began in Italy, where artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo experimented with powdered pigments mixed with binders. However, the true development of pastel as we know it today occurred in the 18th century, particularly in France. French artists such as Jean-Siméon Chardin and Maurice Quentin de La Tour played pivotal roles in popularising pastel as a medium for portraiture.

The Rococo period (18th century) marked a significant era for pastel drawings. Pastels gained immense popularity among European aristocrats and were often used for portraiture. Their soft and delicate nature allowed artists to capture the subtleties of human skin, making pastel portraits highly sought after. Maurice Quentin de La Tour, a renowned French pastel artist, created exquisite portraits that exemplified the elegance and charm of this medium.

Exploring Pastel Materials and Techniques

Creating pastel drawings involves more than just using pastel sticks on paper. To achieve the desired effects and ensure the longevity of your artwork, it’s essential to understand the materials and techniques associated with pastel drawing.

There are two main types of pastels: soft pastels and oil pastels. Soft pastels are the traditional choice for pastel drawing, consisting of pure pigment held together with minimal binder. They come in various shapes, including square sticks and cylindrical pastel pencils. Oil pastels, on the other hand, are composed of pigment, a non-drying oil, and a wax binder. Oil pastels offer a different set of characteristics, including a creamy consistency and the ability to blend like oil paints.

Choosing the right support and ground for your pastel drawing is crucial. Popular choices include:

Pastel paper: Specifically designed for pastel drawing, pastel paper has a textured surface that helps grip the pastel pigment and allows for layering and blending.

Sanded paper or boards: These surfaces provide even more texture and tooth, allowing for intricate detail work and multiple layers of pastel.

Watercolour paper: Heavier watercolour paper can also be used for pastel drawing, though it may require the application of a pastel ground to enhance texture.

One of the unique qualities of pastel drawings is their capacity for layering and blending. Artists can build up layers of pastel to create depth and richness in their artwork. Blending can be achieved using various tools, including:

Fingers: Many artists prefer the tactile experience of blending pastels with their fingers. This method allows for precise control and a direct connection with the medium.

Tortillons and blending stumps: These cylindrical tools, often made of paper or felt, are used to smudge and blend pastel marks, creating smooth transitions and gradients.

Brushes: Soft brushes can be used to gently blend and soften pastel marks. They are particularly useful for creating subtle, atmospheric effects.

To preserve the integrity of a pastel drawing, artists often apply fixatives, which are aerosol sprays that help seal the pastel particles to the support. It’s essential to use a fixative specifically designed for pastels, as using the wrong type can alter the colours and texture of the artwork. When applying fixative, it’s advisable to do so in thin layers and to allow each layer to dry completely.

Techniques and Styles

Pastel drawings offer a wide range of techniques and styles, allowing artists to express their creativity and vision in various ways. Here are some popular techniques and styles associated with pastel drawing:

Realism and Hyperrealism

Pastels are renowned for their ability to capture intricate details and achieve a high level of realism. Artists who specialise in realism and hyperrealism often use pastels to create lifelike portraits, still life compositions, and landscapes. The layering and blending capabilities of pastels make them well-suited for achieving the subtle nuances of light, shadow, and texture.


Impressionist artists like Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt embraced pastels for their ability to convey the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere. The loose and expressive marks made with pastels allowed impressionists to capture the essence of a scene rather than focusing on precise details. Pastels were particularly effective in depicting scenes of dance, theatres, and everyday life.

Abstract and Expressive Art

Pastel drawing is not limited to representational art; it can also be a powerful medium for abstract and expressive creations. Artists can explore bold colours, gestural marks, and unconventional techniques to convey emotions, ideas, and abstract concepts. The soft and velvety texture of pastels can add depth and mystery to abstract compositions.

Still Life and Florals

Pastels are a popular choice for creating vibrant still life compositions and floral arrangements. The medium’s ability to render delicate petals, lush foliage, and the interplay of light and shadow makes it ideal for capturing the beauty of nature and inanimate objects. Artists often experiment with different colour palettes and textures to bring their subjects to life.

Maintaining and Preserving Pastel Artwork

Pastel drawings, while visually stunning, are delicate and require proper care to ensure their longevity. Below are some essential tips for maintaining and preserving pastel artwork.

Pastel drawings should be framed under glass to protect them from dust, moisture, and physical damage. To prevent the pastel from touching the glass, artists often use a mat or spacer to create a small gap between the artwork and the glass.

When handling pastel drawings, it’s essential to do so with clean hands to avoid transferring oils and dirt to the paper. Use gloves if necessary. Hold the artwork by the edges to minimise contact with the pastel surface.

Avoid displaying pastel artwork in direct sunlight or areas with high humidity, as these conditions can cause fading, discoloration, or damage to the artwork over time. Controlled lighting and climate are crucial for preserving pastel drawings.

When transporting pastel artwork, use acid-free paper or glassine sheets to protect the surface. Secure the artwork with an acid-free cover and transport it in a padded and protective container.

Contemporary Applications of Pastel Drawings

While pastel drawings have a rich history, they continue to evolve and find new applications in contemporary art. Modern artists are pushing the boundaries of this traditional medium, creating innovative and exciting works of art. Here are a few examples of how pastel drawing is being used in the contemporary art world:

Mixed Media: Many contemporary artists combine pastel with other mediums, such as acrylics, watercolours, and even digital art. This blending of techniques and materials allows for a broader range of creative possibilities and the exploration of new styles.

Large-Scale Works: Pastel drawings are not limited to small-scale pieces. Some artists have embraced the challenge of creating large-scale pastel murals and installations, showcasing the medium’s versatility and impact on a grand scale.

Abstract Expressionism: Contemporary artists are using pastels to create abstract and expressive works that challenge traditional notions of representation. Bold colours, gestural marks, and non-representational compositions are hallmarks of this contemporary approach to pastel.

Digital Pastels: With advancements in technology, artists can now create digital pastel drawings using tablets and stylus pens. Digital pastels offer the benefits of undo functions, layering, and the ability to work in a digital format while retaining the look and feel of traditional pastel.

Pastel drawings, with their rich history, diverse techniques, and contemporary applications, continue to captivate artists and art enthusiasts alike. Whether you’re drawn to the delicate realism of pastel portraits, the vibrant colours of abstract pastel art, or the versatility of mixed media, pastel drawing offers a world of creative possibilities. As an art form that bridges the gap between drawing and painting, pastels remain a cherished medium that inspires both established artists and newcomers to explore their artistic potential. So, whether you’re an artist looking to expand your repertoire or someone who simply appreciates the beauty of pastel artwork, take a moment to immerse yourself in the mesmerising world of pastel drawings.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button