Monday, July 7, 2014

Pastel Portraits

Woman in green with white pearl necklace (2014)
Soph Laugh
Oil pastel on paper
Private Collection

A few days ago I experimented with oil pastels for the first time. Never before had I considered working with pastels, but with them laid out on the table, I thought, "Why not?" and dove right in. 

I was amazed to discover how easy and versatile pastels flow out onto the paper. Not only do pastels blend easily, but oil pastels have that waxy feel of oil paints (except they do not dry out over time), which offers a smooth transition between layers. For artists who enjoy working with their hands (as opposed to a brush or instrument), pastels are a medium in which one's fingers can be utilized for blending. 

Self-Portrait (1789)
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (French, 1755-1842)
Pastel on paper, 19 5/8 x 15 3/4 in (5- x 40 cm)
Private Collection


A widespread interest in pastel portraits was sparked when the Venetian pastelist Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757), a guest of the influential collector and connoisseur Pierre Crozat, visited Paris. A surge of interest in Dutch and Flemish artworks was sought after by the aristocracy and wealthy financiers of 18th century Paris, who began decorating their opulent Parisian hôtels particuliers (urban private homes) with this popular medium. Pastels offered patrons a rare opportunity to commission their own portraits, which they used to fashionably decorate their luxurious homes. 

The ready availability of cast plate glass made it possible for these powdery compositions, which always require surface protection, to be executed on a larger scale, a feature that added to their growing prestige. Many viewers regard pastel portraits as aesthetically comparable to traditional oil paintings. Some viewers prefer the effect of "softness" that pastels offer, considering them more beautiful than their oil counterparts. 

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, as well as Rosalba Carriera, Maurice Quentin de la Tour (French, 1704-1788), Francis Cotes (English, 1726-1770) and John Russell (English, 1745-1806), were accepted into their respective country's academy or appointed as pastelists to royalty (as in the case of Le Brun), a testament to the high regard in which this medium was held.


Crayon-markers throughout Europe also contributed to the rise of the portrait market among both the elite and the less affluent. Portraits in these readymade crayons offered tangible advantages over oil - for both artist and sitter. Pastels required fewer sittings as there was no drying time (between layers); less paraphernalia was needed (mediums, brushes, etc.); the materials were easily portable and the costs were far less substantial. 

As more and more serious artists gravitated toward pastels, competition with oil painters in the academy and in the marketplace rose. The pervasive Enlightenment spirit that promoted the theoretical ideas of the century, as well as inventions and discoveries that contributed to the improvement of commerce and the artisanal trades, contributed to the popularity of pastels. In fact, French writer and philosopher Denis Diderot (1713-1784) presented illustrated versions of these crayons (as well as paper and fixatives) in the Encyclopédie during this period. 

While pastel portraits became a popular art form during the Rococo and Enlightenment eras, they soon slipped from public notice due to their association with the ancien régime, and later on in modern times due to their fragility, which discourages exhibition and travel. 

Jacques Dumont le Romain (1701-1781) Playing the Guitar (ca. 1742)
Maurice Quentin de la Tour (French, 1704-1788)
Pastel on paper, 25 1/2 x 21 3/4 in. (64.8 x 55.2 cm)
Private Collection


The lifelike quality, or "bloom," pastels conferred upon its subject was praised in the eighteenth century. This distinctive appearance results from the physical characteristics of the medium and how it reflects light. As with all powders, pastel reflects light from the facets of its finely divided particles and the air spaces between them. This effect evokes a sense of white light. Given that there is only a small amount of binder utilized, the powder is opaque, and light does not penetrate through pastel; instead, light is diffused or scattered (reflected) from the surface. This is the phenomenon that accounts for pastel's velvety, matte quality. Also, the absence of varnish, which discolors over time, accounts for the characteristic brilliance and purity of tone. 

These characteristics were prized by eighteenth-century connoisseurs and consumers who decorated their homes in a bright contemporary interior décor, as evidence by mirrors, ormolu mounts and ornaments, and gilt frames popular at the time. 

A Pair of Louis XVI Ormolu and Porphyry Busts of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI 
(Late 18th Century)


Because the surface of a pastel can be easily rubbed and damaged, protective substances were devised in the eighteenth century, some even claiming to offer a means of enabling these works to be cleaned or varnished. There was, as there is today, great debate as to their efficacy. Many artists complain that applying a resin to the surface of a pastel darkens the colors and causes them to yellow. In absence of a fixative, artists secure the powder to the support, using roughened paper and carefully layering the pastels as a defense against damage or ruin. 

Madame Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer (ca. 1750)
Jean Marc Nattier (French, 1685-1766)
Pastel on paper, two sheets joined, laid down on canvas, 31 3/4 x 25 1/4 in. (80.6 x 64.1 cm.)
Private Collection


After spending about four hours working on this oil pastel portrait of my son (Contemplative Boy), I began weighing my options. On one hand, I would like to apply a fixative to protect the portrait from damage; on the other hand, I do not wish to risk damaging the artwork. 

While I work out the details, here are some general recommendations with respect to working with pastels: 

  1. Leave a half-inch to 1-inch border on your pastel artwork. This leaves room for the artwork to be matted properly, it also allows the edges of the paper to be taped to a mount board without getting tape on the artwork. 
  2. When storing the pastel painting, use an acid-free artist tape to carefully tape the corners of the pastel painting to the center of a sheet of acid-free foam board (cut to size). Next, lay a sheet of glassine over the artwork. An acid-free artist tape can be used to secure the glassine to the foam board. 
  3. When shipping pastel portraits, use glassine (archival, museum-quality barrier paper) to protect the surface of your art; gassine does not attract loose pastel particles. 
  4. If shipping or storing pastels, place a second sheet of acid-free foam board on top of the pastel artwork. The artwork should resemble a "foam sandwich"(Note that recommended materials are acid-free.).


Contemplative Boy (2014)
Soph Laugh
Oil pastel on paper
Private Collection


While I have just recently begun painting portraits in oil, I am familiar with oil painting (abstract works). Compared to oil painting, pastels require far less time and fewer tools. While most pastels are executed on paper, Jean Étinne Liotard (Swiss, 1702-1789) used vellum for portraits of royal sitters. Vellum is relatively strong and coarse and thus well suited to withstand rubbing with pumice, a technique that artists used to produce a weak bond, or tooth, to hold the pastel portrait to the support. Today, papers with this "tooth" surface are readily available.

The pastels I created were blended with my fingers, though many pastelists use stumps - or tight spirals of paper or leather - to spread the pastel powder. Historically, portraits were executed with dry pastel, with the artist blending (stumping or "sweetening") the color into a smooth continuous mass without evidence of individual strokes. Sometimes a network of discrete strokes can be utilized which the eye optically blends.

While I have not yet experimented with blending with turpentine (applied with a brush), many artists recommend this technique for blending as opposed to using your fingertips, which can go almost instantly numb from utilizing them as a tool.



Girl with the sparkly eyes (2014)
Soph Laugh
Oil pastel on paper
Private Collection

The versatility of pastels makes them an attractive medium to consider. Not only do they offer a velvety effect, but they can be mixed with other mediums, such as oils or watercolors. In Rosalba Carriera's Young Woman with a Pearl Earring, the pastel tip was wetted and then applied thickly to create an impasted effect comparable to oil, as seen in the lace details of John Russell's Portrait of Mrs. Robert Shurlock and Her Daughter Ann.

Left: Young Woman with Pearl Earrings (ca. 1720)
Rosalba Carriera (Italian, 1673-1757)
Pastel on paper, 12 5/8 x 10 5/8 (32 x 27 cm)
Private Collection

Right: Mrs. Robert Shurlock and Her Daughter Ann (1801)
John Russell (English, 1745-1806)
Pastel on paper, laid down on canvas; 23 7/8 x 17 3/4 in. (60.6 x 45.1 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art


While I have not yet tried this technique, in the portrait of Lady Rushout with Her Three Elder Children, Daniel Gardner utilized a mixed-media technique: using pastel for the flesh tones and watercolor and broad thick strokes of gouache for the background and clothing. The overall effect is breathtaking. 

Lady Rushout with her Three Elder Children, Anne, Harriet, and John (ca. 1773-1775)
Daniel Gardner (English, 1750-1805)
Pastel and gouache on paper, laid down on canvas; 26 x 33 in. (66 x 83.8 cm)
Private Collection


All pastels must be protected from exposure to high levels of light or prolonged periods of illumination. Unlike oils, pastels' vulnerability to fading is increased because they are not protected by a varnish, nor are the powdery components surrounded by a resin. As with many artworks, pastels are at the greatest risk of color alteration from exposure to light. For this reason museums generally limit the display of pastels to no more than three months per year at five foot-candles. 


Girl with innocent face (2014)
Soph Laugh
Oil pastel on paper
Private Collection


In preparing my own pastels for display, I know to keep the following in mind: 

  • Pastels should always be framed and glazed (to best preserve them). 
  • Most acrylic sheeting is not satisfactory to glaze pastels because its static charge will attract pastel particles, a problem that is exacerbated when the plastic is rubbed. 
  • To protect my fragile artworks, shatterproof glass with an Ultraviolet (UV) barrier is my best choice. 
  • Pastels are occasionally glazed with AR acrylic sheeting, but conservation experts are uncertain of this material's long-range properties (such as deleterious off-gassing, which is common to many plastics as they age and deteriorate). Still, artists are mavericks in the sense that they are constantly experimenting with new materials and mediums. Thus, if you feel comfortable utilizing this sheeting, go right ahead. I wouldn't recommend utilizing it to preserve an eighteenth-century pastel portrait, but that's me. 
  • Original eighteenth-century glass does not have a UV barrier, they are protected from fading and color alteration by maintaining low light levels, covering the frame or closing curtains when not being viewed. 
  • Also, nearby windows can be coated with a UV film.  
  • To prevent dust from entering into the frame, a seal made of strips of paper can be applied to the back of a framed pastel. 


Of course, pastels are susceptible to biodeterioration such as mold because of the organic binders in the crayons, the adhesives used in the mounting structure, and their paper supports. Thus, 

  • Keep the room in a range of 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit and 48 to 52 percent relative humidity. High humidity can provoke staining; low levels can lead to desiccation of the support. 


One of the greatest hazards in transporting pastels is vibration. 
  • This can be reduced by cushioning crates with ethafoam, or, if the artwork is traveling a short distance, wrapping the composition in bubble wrap with the bubbles facing outward. 


Gustavus Hamilton (1710-1746), 2nd Viscount Boyne, in Masquerade Costume (ca. 1730-1)
Rosalba Carriera (Italian, 1673-1757)
Pastel on blue paper, laid down on canvas; 22 1/4 x 16 7/8 in. (56.5 x 42..9 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Understanding the intricate fragility of pastels enhances our appreciation for the distinctive brilliance and richness of color of the medium. This knowledge also enables those of us new to the medium of pastels the opportunity to preserve our artworks by taking care to initially prepare, store, transport, and present them in a way that they are protected for the viewing enjoyment of future audiences. 





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