Making a Mark
In the past few weeks I have been working with an awesome new model in my studio. The other day he noticed something interesting while I have been working….
Some days he heard me slashing very loudly on the board and the music I had chosen for that day was louder and bolder. Other days he heard the strokes barely scraping the surface in tiny strokes and the music was classical guitar or piano. He noticed that my overall mood seemed to change from each session too. Sometimes I was feeling bold and silly and telling jokes, and other times I seemed more focused and the sounds he heard from the other side of the easel seemed more deliberate. Quiet.
The "Bearded Slave" and "The Atlas" by Michelangelo
I once read a biography on Michelangelo and apparently he had days where he boldly hacked at his sculptures and then other days where he only felt like softly modeling the forms. Other days he only dusted his creations.
Detail of chisel marks left on the Young Slave
Here is a photo of one of Michalangelo’s unfinished sculptures. I can literally feel the difference between what it took to create the right side versus the left. I can only imagine that they were on different days, with different moods.
That makes me so happy, because I am very much aware that on some days I can only paint in a certain way. Some days I think I will get to focus and clearly finish a head and instead spend my time slashing around bold lines- it just feels right for that moment. Some days I think I will be able to finish a piece and realize that I just can’t bring myself to even touch it and spend my time cleaning sticks, washing the floor, puttering around the studio and putting things away even though I know I need to work on something.
I think artists are very intuitive creatures …. For me, I have found that is is best to "go with my gut" on most days and then I am normally happier for that day. I have tried to force myself to paint the way I am not “feeling” that day, and it is usually less productive. Of course, I do have many days where all I want to do is get in that room and sculpt happily away on an image, but sometimes real life interrupts and I can’t paint at all and then I tend to be a little grumpier on that day.
This is a head shot of one of my paintings. I know for a fact that the face was created on a different days than the hair- the energy is different. The strokes between these areas have a completely different feel. I think this is key for a painting - variety! Energetic textures versus softly sculpted ones. Follow the moods and they will develop!
So, the next time you are ready to paint, start with analyzing your mood. What kind of music would feel appropriate right now? What does the painting need today that will match that?
Then paint the music of your soul.
So, who am I? I guess that is the best place to start for a blog. Over the years I have had a varied path as a student, illustrator, graphic designer, muralist, DJ, freelance artist, teacher and portrait painter. I am a mom of three (four, if you count my husband), a caretaker, a wife and a very visual person. These layers merge and smash together sometimes, crisscrossing over my life. I have always been fascinated by the visual world. My earliest memory is of drawing crooked smiley faces, putting the nose right between the eyes, and my mother telling me to “draw what you see” and gently pointing out that noses are below the level of the eyes. Then and there something clicked in my three-year-old mind, and I have been fascinated with the visual world ever since.
My obsession now is faces. Subtle nuances that set one child apart from another or wrinkles of life in a wise face. I love sunlit hair and bare feet- the mommy in me always comes to the table and, despite all the detail, the graphic designer still lives and tries to bring a well-thought-out plan to every painting. Although I still rely on that first art lesson –“draw what you see”, I now strive to see beyond a likeness to tell a story. Intention is king.
So, now I paint. Because I have to. It is that simple. Other artists will understand. I hope to share here a bit more of my story and how my path is still meandering along a dusty trail with my current obsession with pastels. This blog is called the Power of Pastel because it truly is how I think- how powerful this medium is, and how to control those powers.
Hope you enjoy the stroll….
I remember always being fascinated with how things looked in space
the feeling of how objects were placed and the invisible pull between them. My sister, when she was mad at me, would go into my room and move around the items on my dresser or turn them backwards. Ugggh! It was like someone messing with my head. So, I think that is when composition began to become important to me, although I couldn’t have verbalized it then.
In college I wanted to be an illustrator. There were these huge, heavy illustration manuals called the "American Showcase" that had the “best” illustration artwork of the year in them. I pored over these books! Man, I wanted to be in one! Visual stories told in such a unique way, humor that cut so deep with a picture, portraits that would make me weep for their beauty.
These images fueled my need to learn about painting, learn about why some art moved me and why some did not. I was not able to attend a “classical” art school, plus, in the 80’s “fine art” schools had little respect anymore.
I was like a beggar looking in a restaurant window when it came to “museum" artwork- I knew I wanted it, but could not indulge, so illustrators became my heros, my teachers. It’s funny, but many of those illustrators that I had admired over the years turned into professional “fine artists” and I believe their work is so strong today because of their grounding in design and illustration.
To be a storyteller is tough. To please a client is tougher. To please a client while telling their story and yet maintain an artists’ individual style is the ultimate challenge. So, my work has always been based in storytelling and even now I start to think about the end result at the very beginning.
There are 3 reasons why I love and highly respect illustrators.
#1 they have to work in a timely manner or else they can’t make any money. They have to meet crazy deadlines, or if not, they don’t get paid.
#2 there is always an end goal to illustration, a story that needs to be explained or a graphic to visually capture a story. When I started painting portraits, I found that it was so ingrained in me that I still treat a commission like a freelance project- what are the goals of a client? Who is the sitter and what do they stand for? Where do they want to hang the piece and what do they want? ( Notice my needs aren’t even thought about yet. )
A good portrait is about the person and their story. A painting to me is always an illustration, and to illustrate objectives is the goal.
#3 Most illustrators play by their own rules. If they work in watercolor? There is no compunction about adding white gouache or taking an airbrush overtop of an image. They can paint on cardboard, they mix oil and acrylic, they even rip things up to make things work. There is no “right” or “wrong” like you typically find in “fine art”.
No judging or ranking of each other as much as appreciation for good work. If the work is good. Illustrators tend to be brutally honest too. In my experience, illustrators have a sharp-wit, are fearless and the most creative people I have ever met. They are my peeps and among them is where I feel the most comfortable.
Here are some amazing illustrators that I admire….George Schill and John Blumen are Pittsburgh artists that I have known for over 20 years. They still knock my socks off!
So why is this blog called the “Power of Pastel?” If you are familiar with my recent work at all, you know that my travels have led me down a very dusty path to a love affair with pastels.
I believe pastel paintings – yes, they are considered paintings, and not drawings- can be every bit as powerful as other mediums- oil paintings may get more respect in a gallery setting, and command more money, but there are artists that can create images in pastel that can blow your mind.
Here are a few from Rosalba Carriera (top two) from over 250 years ago! So lush and alive! When I first started, I had a hard time getting the pastels to do what I wanted them to do, so over time I have found a system ranking pastels according to their “power” .
This has given me a lot of control over the medium and I guess it is like anything – you have to practice until it becomes secondary. NO one can pick up a violin and expect to play amazingly well in a few weeks or months, and yet we, as artists, expect that to happen in art!
Weirder still, others expect us to do that too and when we create what I call “struggle pieces” boy, are people ready to give their opinion! More about “powers” to come! Also shown below are piece by Robert Nanteuil from the year 1663 (second to last ) and Maurice-Quentin de La Tour in 1741 (bottom).
I used pastels for the first time when I was 17. When I was between my junior and senior year of high school, I attended a 2-week art class in the summer at a local art center. This was amazing for me and a first- I had not had a real art class yet unless you counted the high school art class where everyone doodled and threw erasers at each other!
So, 2 weeks of actually learning from a college professor and getting some real drawing advice was breathtaking for me. I knew at this point that wanted to be an artist of some kind, so I was determined to be a sponge, and like most 17-year olds, I was arrogant enough to think I was already pretty good and could learn and master anything.
During those 2 weeks, I was given a small set of pastels. Old, square Grumbacher sticks that aren’t made anymore. It was magical. Like holding sunlight in your hand. The drag across the dark piece of paper was captivating and I knew, I knew, I wanted to do this for a long time.
The painting here was the one I did ( I obviously had a lot to learn about chroma! Plus, the tiny brown triangle of a tree branch in the top right corner cracks me up now.….). My first pastel! I think my mom would have stuck it up on the fridge if she could! :)
I still have it! Unfortunately, pastels are expensive, and I had 4 years of college ahead of me and lots of living to do before I came back to rediscover my love of pastel. I got a job I hated in a corporate art department where everyone fought over the cubicle with a window.
I freelanced illustration and graphic design jobs to supplement my crappy pay from the “keyline” art job. (Basically I was strapped to a drafting table with a straight edge and my best friend was a “stat” machine.- No computers then.)
I got married. Bought a house. Learned I couldn’t garden or cook. Then, I found myself with a baby. And at 30 years-old I finally thought, “That’s it! I just had natural childbirth, so I deserve to buy pastels!!” So I did- the most expensive ones I could find at the time- Senneliers…...and so the love affair began….
So, Senneliers….. When I bought them they were said to be the “best”. They were lauded as the “softest” and so I thought they would be just the thing for me. So I made paintings- lots of them. I had hoped to make strong paintings that would pop with color, but no matter what I did, I was always disappointed…sound familiar?
There is a great Pixar movie called the “Incredibles”. When my girls where little, it was a favorite, and I would always hear it playing in the van (yes, I was a mini-van mom!) In the movie, there is a child villain who wants to be a super-hero but has no super-power. His ultimate revenge is to grow up and invent superpowers to sell to everyone, explaining, “When everyone is special, no one will be!”
He wanted to “level the playing field”, so to speak. I love this phrase because I realized that this is what was happening to my paintings. Senneliers are extremely powerful. They have one of the most pigment-to-binder ratio, and so the sticks are very strong. Not just in the color, but the overall strength of the color. Even in the neutral sticks. So, by using Senneliers all over the painting, they were essentially cancelling each other out. Everything was intense, so none of it was. It was all the same power, with no contrast in pigments. Think of this concept like using watercolor paints.
The more water that is added to the paint, the more the color gets "watered down." This is what I found is happening in pastels when they are made. Certain brands- sticks or pencils- are just more watered down. All pastel pencils, for example, have to have binders added to them to make the pigments strong enough to be in the wooden barrel and not just crumble. As a result, the color is weakened or diluted. Even a bright, hot-pink pastel pencil is a diluted color or what I call a “low power”. So, if you are using a bright pink pastel pencil in a very important part of, say, a main flower in your painting, do you realize you are painting with diluted color?
But this makes them awesome!!! An entire watercolor painting made with the same bright hues all over the image can be very jarring! ( "When everyone is special, no one will be!" ) The best watercolor artists control these pigment fluctuations and have a lot of low-powered colors to push against the most dense areas of pigment….pastel can do that too!
So I discovered what I call the “powers” of pastel- that not all sticks are created equal. I started to rethink about my past and how I had used watercolors. ( I forgot to mention that when I started painting for myself after college, I worked in the watercolor medium.) Now, watercolor takes guts. Once something is down in a watercolor wash, there is no going back without repercussions. It takes a kind of fearlessness (or is it recklessness?) to work in watercolor because watercolor demands that you give up some control. But I loved it. Portraits in watercolor? Bring it on. Whenever I had worked in oils, I found I was always thinning the oils down and working thickly just seemed really uncomfortable for me. Watercolor was a better fit because I loved the transparency. And not just the transparent washes in watercolor, but also the contrast you could get against the more opaque pigments.
Dignity, Watercolor, 24 x 18"
I loved trying to control that variety, so I began to work with different collections of pastels. “Grading” the powers of them and finding out if I could find “transparency” in an opaque medium. I found that by running a stick over the palm of my hand, it would give me a rather accurate test of the “binder to pure pigment” ratio in the mix. Ah ha!! I have determined that there are very soft sticks that can be low power and hard sticks that can pack a punch. There are even differences between colors in the same brands!! This was such an eye-opener for me and I have been thinking this way about this medium ever since. Now I deliberately pit low-powered and high-powered areas against each other to help tell a story.
From left to right is a pastel pencil, Rembrandt, Grumbacher, Girault, Unison, Sennelier and Roche. Notice the “power” increasing!
For more information on this subject, the Pastel Journal featured my work in the article, “Powering Up” in the 2016 October issue. Check it out! Click on the pictures to buy the magazine.
Do you suffer from PPS?
This disease afflicts many artists and causes indecision, mini strokes, (that are timid) jittery nerves, wimpy colors and a false sense of being accomplished. Yes, it is the dreaded…. Precious Painting Syndrome.
Just because you created something, doesn’t mean it is good. The worst is when there is that nagging feeling that something is off with the painting, but you think “Hey, I have spent so much time on this and I don’t want to ruin it and waste all my precious time, so hopefully no one will notice that his nose is on upside down….”
Another symptom is when you are in love with a certain section of a painting- (“man, I am good!”) but that area just doesn’t help the painting as a whole. But you just can’t risk changing it…it has become too precious!
Prescriptions include 1. Looking at your painting upside down, 2. Subjecting it to opinions from non-artists (and being grateful for the non-artsy advice.) 3. Throwing on loud music, getting a big stick of pastel, take a deep breath and paint with your gut! No pain, no gain, and all that……
Side effects may include: Blurred vision, (from squinting too much) loss of high chroma areas, mental fatigue, trouble swallowing(your pride) weight gain from too much chocolate therapy and/or death of a painting. But the end result may be worth it!!!!
Seek medical/artistic help immediately: If you throw the painting in a closet for longer than a week.
Don't let PPS get you down! (Paintings are only pigment and paper after all) Throw out your fear and feel better about facing your next painting!
An “Ode to Aluminum Foil”
I have a quiet friend. A shiny, little helper made from astronaut-worthy stuff that has saved my life and the lives of many pastel sticks….
Like most pastellists I work at an easel with the top of the painting tipped forward about 15 degrees so the dust from the scraping of pastel sticks will fall in front of the painting and not rain down on the front of the just-completed (read many hours of struggle) face of a portrait. I use a lot of “gritted” surfaces (think soft sandpaper) and although this surface is wonderful for keeping strokes of pastel in its proper place, it can create a lot of dust from the “drag” of these wonderful colors.
So the best little trick is making an Aluminum Foil “tray” on the bottom of the painting so it can collect the dust that wants to reach my floor and get all over the feet of my cat. (Be sure to fold the shiniest side inside the tray to prevent optical migraines from sparkly laser beams reflecting into ones’ eyes...) Notice how tipped forward the top of the board is here...
Aluminum Foil was born in 1910 in Switzerland and was soon wrapping Toblerone chocolate bars by 1911. (I should have known I would love something with a chocolate history.) It is great for catching dust, sure, but the absolute best part is how my friend will catch my treasured pastel sticks when I drop them from my over-zealous dabbing. Oh, how happy I am to have it catch my pastels! Every pastellist knows how one dropped stick can cost between $4 – $20 a drop. (yep) I say “saved my life” because if you are an artist working in pastel, you know your heart can stop when you drop a stick.
So, Aluminum Foil saves me from having a heart attack each day at work. In my workshops, I have heard the snap and fall of a doomed stick, then the crunch of it hitting the floor. There is a collective sigh of sorrow across the room and sympathy for the stricken artist. (who at this point is swearing profusely) Aluminum foil could have been there! Let it help!!!
My Aluminum Foil is so travel–friendly too. Just a large folded-up square will pack up neatly and save the lives of many pastel sticks and many distant floors. I am picky about my Aluminum Foil, and only the best will do. I am afraid I am going to name-drop and say that I only use heavy-duty Reynolds- because I am worth it.
Then, when the workday is done, my “tray” of dust can easily be wadded up and thrown away, saving me cleaning time and congestion of my lungs.
Thank you Aluminum Foil…..sniff……
"Grey is not a color…"
When my husband and I were first dating, we went skiing on a very bright sunny day. As we were heading up a ski lift, he asked me to give him an art lesson since he is an engineer and knew I was an artist. I responded by looking down on a row of pine trees that were below us and were casting beautiful shadows from the sun. I said, “ok, what color are the shadows?” He seemed confident when he answered, “they are grey”. I said, “ok, this is your first art lesson... grey is not a color”.
Over the years he has come to see the amount of color that can be present in shadows and more importantly, the variety that can reside there. But when I say that grey is not a color, I mean that- it doesn’t exist. Artists frequently talk about neutral colors, and then we think of “greys," but I don’t like to think like that, and there are many artists that believe there is no such thing as a “neutral color”. I am one of them. We believe that there is always a color dominance to any color mixture or even any "greyed-out" stick.
Here is why.....
I picked a “grey stick” to put across these different papers. Something amazing happens! The exact same stick appears to change color and value as it goes across the different surfaces. (as if color wasn’t hard enough). The color looks orange on black paper, darker yellow on the white, orange-y on the blue paper and green on the brown paper. It looks like a darker green on the lime-green paper. So the surrounding colors and values can even throw it into a different hue! Mind blown.
Ever pick up a stick and think it is green and then it looks pinkish on your painting? This weird law of nature is color relativity and why I don’t believe in formulas for painting skin tones or trees, or whatever. Every color is relative to it’s surroundings…….
In a color wheel, there are ideally 12 color hues or “families.” ( I know we all learned the 7 colors of the rainbow as a kid, but there are 12…). Grey is not one of them. Grey tends to represent the very “dirtied" versions of the twelve, but it doesn’t have it’s own color family. (Artists call this type of color low-chroma) In my workshop, when someone asks should they place “grey" into a painting, I say “Which grey? A purple-grey, a blue-grey, an orange-grey? And depending on where it is placed, or what colors are next to it, it may change color!
So the next time you look at a box of crayons and admire all the pretty colors, remember the little “grey” crayon. It might surprise you with its amazing hidden color!
Two years ago I won the very prestigious “Prix des Pastel” Masters Circle Best of Show award at the IAPS convention. (Trust me- no one was more shocked than me. ) I remember an artist coming up to me and saying congratulations, which was then followed by a statement of something like, “Boy you have really rocketed to fame recently.” but with almost an accusatory tone.
Really? “Rocketed" is not how I would describe my art journey.
In the past I have posted a few pics of my easel/setup in my studio. Recently, I was asked about the numbers on the top of my easel written in permanent Sharpie.
In 2009 I attended the portrait convention put together by the Portrait Society of America. They have the world’s best artists teach and show in one dazzling international exhibition that shows off the top ten best portraits in the world. I remember seeing those winners (there is nothing quite like seeing the originals up close) and having a thirst to be one of those top ten. I think the idea was not so much about the glory of that competition, but more about reaching ones' potential. That feeling inside that you can do it. That every painting, and every hour I spend painting, would have meaning on a broader scale. The nobility of the fight…blah, blah, blah….
So I went home and wrote a ten-year goal on my then, brand-new easel. 2019. There is something powerful about writing a number like that down in Sharpie to see every day while I work under it. (and trust me, it is work.)
I thought 10 years would be enough to become one of those “winners" and along the way pick up some “smaller" goals too. You know, "little things" like become a Master Pastelist with the Pastel Society of America. Get an article published in the Pastel Journal. Become a Master Circle Artist with IAPS (International Association of Pastel Societies. ) Exhibit abroad. Win a major international award. It’s funny, I have 2 years left and I have accomplished almost everything else on that 10-year goal list, but I am still too scared to enter that “top ten” Competition. I feel as though I am still not ready yet. Maybe I am realistic. Maybe I don’t want to give up hope. But some amazing things have happened along the way that I didn’t predict in shooting for something so big. I did get an article in the Pastel Journal, but also in France too! Twice! I teach a workshop that I am proud of. I mentor artists to become better, which makes me better.
I see artists online begging for votes for vanity shows- “Like me! Vote for me! so I can win!” I hear horror stories about artists throwing fits and abusing artists running big shows because they didn’t get accepted. I hear grumbles about not winning, about not being “accepted." Why?
I guess because we artists have "end-products." Our worth is somehow linked to admiration of what we create. My sister is an accountant. I am sure she is a “master" at what she does, and yet she doesn’t need others to admire how she balances books. I don’t need to vote for her. Why do we artists need that? Moreover, why do we feel the need to knock each other down if someone does succeed?
Goals are great. That little number has been a motivator for me. But it has been a long path. And it is a hard path. The only “rocketing" I have done is down into depression when I can't work. The hardest days are when I can’t work at all and "mom duties” take over- which is frequently. It is almost like a curse to those who have to have a meaning-filled day. This stuff is hard. Like putting on mascara with your mouth shut.
But like Alainis Morissette says- …..
You live, you learn,
You love, you learn,
You cry, you learn,
You lose, you learn…...
And I have learned to lose. And I have learned it will probably take me another 10 years to even understand all that I need to know to apply to that top ten show. Will it prove then that I am a “good” artist? I realize now that it won’t. It will only be one more sticker added to the journey on this suitcase of my life. Being an artist is every day. It is breathing. It is air. And winning a show will not keep you alive.
Be kind to one another and just paint.
This past weekend I taught a workshop. And whether you are teaching one or attending one, I have found that there are 3 things that must be tackled head-on….
Number one. The easel. I love my French easel. I got it from an estate sale where another artist had loved it and broke it in first. But, really? Could this not be tougher to set up? There is no graceful way to unfold, unclip, slid, unscrew, tighten, snap, unlock, rescrew, adjust, twirl, stretch, clamp, measure and tighten again….and tighten again. All the while knowing that other artists are trying hard not to stare while secretly fearing tackling their own French easels.
But I summon up my courage, and in my head I yell in my best pirate voice, ”Avar, ye Kraken! I fear ye not!” then proceed to wrangle my easel into submission.
Number two. Stuff. George Carlin has the best comedic routine about lugging around all of our “stuff. “ And we pastellists have a way of collecting a lot of stuff! What to bring? What to bring? We can’t bring all our stuff – just what we think we will need- which is most of our stuff. I can’t give much advice here- I am just as indecisive as the next artist. Luckily, I have a travel box and so whatever pastels fit- goes. (and all of this stuff too….)
Number three. Fear. Yep. We artists that teach workshops have a good dose of that to overcome too. I remember a demo I did for an art group not that long ago. I was talking a lot (as I tend to do) and I remember looking at my painting at the mid-point and realizing that the face was off- the ear was way too far away from the correct position, and the shape of his head was, well, not good. I swear I broke out in a cold sweat and thought I was having my first hot flash. Scary! But I kept talking and kept chanting in my head, “never let them see you sweat, never let them see you sweat….” Not one of my best moments. I think I said something like “See? This portrait thing is hard!”
So, fear can be very strong in a workshop atmosphere. I have had artists ask me to put them in a corner where no one could look at their work while they were working, which I am happy to accommodate as best I can. I stopped doing “critiques” at the end of my workshop too. I know that is a typical thing, but I figure attendees have already gotten a lot of feedback from me by that point, so why put them on display? And no matter what you say, it can feel like THEY are on display, not just their work.
I was lucky enough to attend the very last workshop that master portrait artist Daniel Greene taught two summers ago. Talk about fear! He is the ultimate master painter, and known to be very honest in his feedback. Working in the barn, we would hear the footsteps coming for us and we trembled at our easels. But, a good dose of honesty is what is needed sometimes! Like bitter medicine.
Workshops are work. No doubt. A whole room of artists working to get better? Tackling their fears and equipment together?
Nothing better than that.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to walk across hot coals in my bare feet. Yep. There was a big blazing bonfire (actual pic seen here) that burned for hours and then when it burned down, we walked across the red coals.
Firewalking has been practiced for thousands of years by people from all parts of the world. The earliest known reference to it is an Indian story, from about 1200 B.C. Since then it has been observed as an organized event in many different cultures and religions. Some participate for religious reasons, some to prove their bravery. Some promote it as a way to prove "mind over matter”.
I did it because Mythbusters said I could.
Mythbusters was a great show that put “myths” to the test through science. I just happened to see their episode on firewalking about 6 months before this event. They proved the science behind it and proved it could be done safely. The key, they said, is to just keep moving, and to walk, not run. A brisk walk is supposed to work best, with each step taking half a second or less. Apparently, when one walks on fire, the foot absorbs relatively little heat from the top embers that are cooled, because they are poor conductors. The layer of cooled charcoal between the foot and the rest of the hot embers insulates your foot a bit from the coal’s heat.
So, if you run, there is a greater chance of being burned…..
The fire burned down and we could feel the heat stinging our faces. Some people went across the area that looked the “coolest” -the blackest areas. I thought, “if I am going to do this, I will do it right!” and walked across the reddest area I saw. I wasn’t burned. Although I have to say, I did get burned the second time because a coal stuck to my toes... but I had to do it again- for good measure.
I bring this up because it seems to me that this is what being an artist is like. If you stay still in the same place, you can get burned. Dwelling on a rejection from a show. Painting on an image long after it is time to move on. Reaching for the same colors again and again.
Running can get you into trouble too. Working too fast without thoughtful planning can trash a work.
Yes, an abstract class will be hard.
Yes, painting a portrait for the first time will be tough.
Yes, breaking those expensive sticks and slamming in side-strokes will be scary. But it could be exhilerating too…..
That first step can be scary, but just keep walking at an even pace and you will get to the other side. (Whatever that “other side” looks like for you. ) Promise!
And then go back and walk through the coals again. For good measure.
Chalk vs Pastel
New visitors to my home often check out my studio and quite frequently neighbors and such know I am an artist, but don’t realize that I work in pastel. Once they see my setup and various sticks laying around, I have quite often heard, “oh! you work in chalk….” In the back of my mind a grating noise builds which sounds something close to a metal rake being scraped down a blackboard. But, outwardly, I smile and say, “ Yes, something like that…..”
Blackboard and sidewalk chalk were originally made from a soft sedimentary rock which is a form of limestone. Chalk, composed principally of calcium carbonate formed underwater by slow compression of calcite shells (one site called it a "marine ooze”) of single-celled coccolithophores. These guys!
Chalk has been used for drawing since prehistoric times, when, according to archaeologists, it helped to create some of the earliest cave drawings. Chalk was first formed into sticks for the convenience of artists. The method was to grind natural chalk to a fine powder, then add water, clay as a binder, and various dry colors. The resultant putty was then rolled into cylinders and dried. Although impurities produce natural chalk in many colors, when artists made their own chalk they usually added pigments to render these colors more vivid. Carbon, for example, was used to enhance black, and ferric oxide created a more vivid red.
The small particles of chalk make it ideal for cleaning and polishing. Toothpaste commonly contains small amounts of chalk, which serves as a mild abrasive.
Yep, we are brushing our teeth with little, round, dead soccer balls!
Chalk did not become standard in schoolrooms until the nineteenth century, when class sizes began to increase and teachers needed a way of conveying information to many students at one time. Students also worked with individual chalkboards, complete with chalk sticks and a sponge or cloth to use as an eraser.
Pastels, however, are mainly made of pure pigment. Saturated even.
Pastels have been used by artists since the Renaissance, and gained popularity in the 18th century, when a number of artists made pastel their primary medium. Soft pastels are made from pure mineral pigments. The same pigments are used in oil paint, acrylics, and watercolor. Pastel is an art medium in the form of a stick, consisting of pure powdered pigment and binders such as gum arabic, gum tragacanth, or methyl cellulose. The binders are neutral hues so the color effect of pastels is closer to the natural dry pigments than that of any other process. Pastels will not yellow or crack over time like oils, and I wish I knew more about the exact making of them, but I do know that different brands of pastel have different recipes, and so sticks can act completely different- even in the exact same color. Maybe I will visit Terry Ludwig’s pastel manufacturing site someday for a tour and pick up some tips…..
Chalk is non-toxic. But pastels should not be around little kids. Artists also really need to take care with how much they inhale as well since some pigments like cadmiums and colbolt are toxic, although many manufacturers use synthetic replacements now. And for some reason, we pastellists take offense at our medium being called “chalks”. I guess it is something we need to get over? They truly are different from each other, but the Puffs tissue company will always have their tissues called “Kleenex" no matter what they do….
I remember going to see a show of oil paintings by Jamie Wyeth at the Brandywine. He wrote about working in the oil medium and said that he thought artists needed to absolutely love the medium that they worked in - the texture, the feel- and he loved oils so much that he could almost eat them. I don’t want to eat my pastels, but I sure do love the texture and feel of them!
So the next time someone is surprised by the medium you work in and say “ You work in chalk?” You can smile and say. “Yes, something like that…”
The Power of Pastel