PastelsFor an artist, I tend to be a fairly clean and especially neat person. I don't mind getting a little paint on my hands occasionally but I'm especially fond of acrylics for the simple reason that, even dry, they wash off with ease. In my studio, I can tolerate a little dirt and dust, but clutter, especially continual clutter, drives me up the wall. If I'm not actually using it, it gets put away. The same thing carries over into my choice of art media. Oils aren't bad; watercolours are okay; coloured pencils I love. But as I've written before, I could never be a ceramist, or worse than that, a pastelist. I don't like the feel of them; I don't like the dust; I don't like fixatives; and especially I don't like their volatility even after being consigned to paper. It was bad enough I had to handle them a little in teaching. Even then I seldom used them in the classroom except for large-scale work (murals on paper) when virtually no other medium was economical or practical with the age students I was teaching (the only thing I hated worse was tempera painting).
As art media go, pastels are a relatively new development. They date back only about four hundred years. Basically, they're simply dry paint. That is, they consist of virtually the same pigment as in oils except without the oil. They are dry pigment pressed into sticks and held intact using the non-greasy binder, methycellulose. And if they'd known their place in the overall artistic scheme of things, it wouldn't be so bad. They first came to use during the late 1500s as a means for artists to add colour to their charcoal sketches (okay, there's a medium I really hate). Artists such as Guido Reni, Jacopo Bassano, Federigo Barocci were notable for their use in this manner, and as such, pastels allowed these painters the convenience of making a "dry" run before putting the wet stuff on canvas. Fine.
Then came along a certain Venetian lady named Rosalba Carriera who decided they would allow her to do colour portraits much more quickly and for half the price her male counterparts were charging. Worse than that, she was quite good at it. Then she went to France and taught Pierre Chardin how to use them, who in turn taught Quentin de la Tour, and from that point on, Pandora was out of her box (uhh...so to speak). A whole host of artists such as Mengs, Nattier, Copley, Delacroix, Millet, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Redon, Vuillard, Bonnard, Glackens, Whistler, Hassam, and especially Degas and Cassatt fell under their dusty spell. And the art world has been left to cope with their fragile permanence ever since.
Though a Charleston lady by the name of Henrietta Johnson did pastel portraits in this country as early as 1708, we can largely blame (or credit) Mary Cassatt for being a major force in establishing pastels in the US as a major art medium. Several of her American friends were delighted with their spontaneous freshness as seen in her work, and even though they had to be framed under glass and handled with kid gloves, pastels from that time on (early 1900s) have had a place on gallery walls and in classroom studios all over the country. Given that fact, it might surprise you to know that the Pastel Society of America is less than thirty years old. Originally this form of dry painting allied itself with the American Watercolor Society and displayed with them annually at the National Academy of Design in New York. However, in the early 1970s, these two groups of very different artists came to loggerheads over the fact that the pastelists were winning far too many prizes in their annual competition. So, they got booted out.
It was probably just as well, for despite the fact that pastelists have long insisted upon referring to what they do as painting, pastels are really a very different art medium. William Merritt Chase had attempted to form a pastel society in this country as far back as 1882. The group lasted only six years. Since then there have been numerous other attempts to add organisational credibility to the medium, none of which lasted even that long. However, for the past 28 years the Pastel Society of America has been happily ensconced in the National Arts Club near Gramercy Park in New York. From there they have overseen the establishment of more than 30 local pastel society chapters across the country, established a Pastel Hall of Fame, held annual competitions, put out a newsletter (The Pastelagram), and now boast of seven nationally acclaimed instructors teaching pastel classes from their Gramercy Park school. Damn, looks like they're here to stay.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
20 March 2001